Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Remembering A Dragon Queen - RIP Anne McCaffrey

The SF world has lost one of its giants - or, rather, a Dragon Queen. News has come that author Anne McCaffrey has died after suffering a stroke.

McCaffrey, who was a Hugo and Nebula award winner (the first woman to take both prizes) and was named a science fiction grand master in 2005, was a prolific author. Probably the most famous of her works were her Dragonriders of Pern books.

I remember picking up Dragonflight as a teen and just loving it. After all, for a science fiction and fantasy geek, it's got pretty much everything: huge, fire-breathing dragons, an alien world with a lost human colony that's reverted (more or less) to a medieval culture, a menace from space, teleportation, time travel, and a story that jogged along at a good pace while letting you get to know the characters.

But the series is also fixed in my mind as an example of how, over time, a once-beloved story can turn into something I don't really want to make time for anymore. Maybe it was because I O-D'd on McCaffrey stuff. After racing through the original trilogy, I went out and bought every Pern book I could get my hands on and wolfed them down. Too much of a good thing, and certainly too much of a series that was inconsistently written.

But there's something else at work here. As the years went by and I matured, I started thinking about what I'd read in different ways, and I became more dissatisfied with what I was seeing in the Pern novels. It started to dawn on me that the relationship between the dragonriders and their mounts - a telepathic bond that makes them closer than they ever could be to another person, was kind of childish. It was like a young girl's - or younger teenaged girl's - fantasy of being able to talk with her dog or horse and running off and having adventures together, except substitute a 40-foot dragon for the dog or horse. Yeah, yeah, I know it's supposed to be an example of a new type of relationship that's unique to the situation created by a telepathic bond between two entities that care for each other and are basically around each other all the time, working and living together, one that's perhaps symbiotic. And yet there's something unsettling about a relationship between a human and a non-human taking precedence over the bond between two humans who are mated and apparently love each other. Beyond unsettling, it is somewhat immature, like a little girl saying "Boys are okay sometimes, but the most important person in the world to me is my pony!" That sense was always there, kind of lurking in the background, in Dragonflight and its two sequels, but it was later prequel, Moretta's Ride, that really made the point crystal clear for me. At the end, Moretta's dragon goes winging off with some other rider and they get themselves killed. Moretta and the other rider's dragon, in a fit of grief, ignore whatever loved ones and responsibilities are still around them and take flight and teleport into nothingness/death. Really? Not quite an adult approach to life. In the 20 or so years since I came to that realization about the worldview of the dragonriders, I've probably re-read the books twice. Both times were equally unsatisfying. I'm not saying I'll never read them again (the trilogy still has a place of honour on my bookshelf), but the symbolism has certainly soured me on the story.

But back to the author...

I remember seeing McCaffrey at ConAdian, the 52nd World Science Fiction Convention, in Winnipeg, back in '94. Didn't get a chance to speak with her, but I came away with a mixed impression of her from some of the con events she was at. On the one hand, I was disappointed after seeing her on a panel discussing psychic powers. Granted, I was disappointed with the session from start to finish - I'd gone in thinking it would be a discussion about the use of paranormal abilities in stories and some of the best and worst examples of such. Nope. What followed was about an hour of panelists - including McCaffrey - and members of the audience merrily babbling about their own psychic abilities and experiences in a ridiculous wannabe cheese-fest. On the other hand though, I remember her being thoroughly charming and funny when she was presenting at the con's Hugo Awards ceremony. Standing there holding that year's version of the award, the usual metal rocket mounted this time on a large, laser-carved wooden maple leaf on top of some kind of base, McCaffrey had all of us in the audience in stitches as she reminisced about many years before when she'd won her first Hugo and felt somewhat odd as a woman standing in front of a crowd holding a statue that was basically a phallic symbol. She went on to say she approved of the '94 version of the award because it had provided a large leaf for modesty.

I may be of two minds about some of her writing, but my hat is off to Anne McCaffrey for a long and inventive career and for being a trail-blazer for women in SF.

Anne McCaffrey was 85.

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