With the death of Anne McCaffrey, the many worlds of science fiction have lost an enduring talent who wrote inspiring stories of loyalty and determination populated with dragonriders, telepaths and humans who strapped on spaceships to meet their destinies. All too easily dismissed as a fantasy writer, or worse, a romance novelist who populated her novels with dragons instead of ponies, her body of work shows her to have been much more than that.
As the Pern saga unfolded, she revealed herself not only as a true science fiction writer, a reputation solidified in her extended body of work, but the creator of carefully planned and extended worlds. Later novels in the sequence introduced other “hard” SF elements, such as the artificial intelligence AIVAS in Renegades of Pern which confirms that Pern is in fact a colony world, and the “historic” novel Dragonsdawn that tells the story of the founding of the world and the creation of the dragons, genetically engineered from the native fire lizards. Even the fire breath of the dragons is rationalised as highly volatile gas which is produced by the reaction of ingested firestone, a phosphine bearing rock, with the acid in the dragons’ second stomach.
The consistent universe of her stories not only extends through space, with many linked via the common background of the Federated Sentient Planets, but also through time. In All the Weyrs of Pern, published in 1991, the dragonriders undertake a plan to eliminate the threat of the Red Star forever by altering the orbit of that rogue planet, but it becomes apparent that not only is their plan feasible, but that they have already executed the first two stages of the operation 1800 and 600 years in the past. In her own feat of time travel, McCaffrey had written these two “long intervals” into the backstory of the first Pern novel, Dragonflight, in 1968.
From her very first novel, 1967’s Restoree, her writing encouraged women to join what had up until then been largely a boy’s only club, and she went on to become a prolific and unique voice in science fiction. But it was not only downtrodden women, such as Lessa, survivor of the massacre of Ruatha Hold who went on to ride the queen dragon Ramoth, or Menolly, outcast child of a fishing village who became an apprentice at the Harper Hall of Benden Weyr, she championed.
McCaffrey publicly stated that of all her stories, her favourite was that of Helva, The Ship Who Sang. Born severely disabled, Helva was given a new body – a spaceship, and in the company of her partner, she travelled the stars, engaging in adventures, and she was not alone. Three decades after the first story was published, the universe was revisited with further Brainship and Brawn stories, The Ship Who Searched, The City Who Fought, and others.
It was in this period that McCaffrey, in her midsixties, began partnering herself with a variety of collaborators, Margaret Ball, Mercedes Lackey, Jody Lynn Nye among them, easing the burden of her workload and offering them a leg-up to a wider audience. In later years, her major collaborator on the Pern saga was her son Todd, who had long been a companion of his mother’s in the world of science fiction, accompanying her on her frequent convention attendances and in meetings with editors and publishers.
The Ship Who Sang
McCaffrey herself was a frustrated opera singer, and channelled those desires into the Harper Hall tales of Pern, the voice of Helva, but most specifically in the character of Killashandra who featured in another series set in that same universe, the Crystal Singer tales.
Among those who have been moved by the work of Anne McCaffrey was writer and producer Ronald D Moore, who was in the final stages of preparation on a televised version of the Dragonriders of Pern when he and the network parted company over their vision of the show that was at odds with the original concept. It was reported in 2011, not for the first time, that a film version of Dragonflight was in preparation, but no further development has been confirmed, nor of how faithful it would be.
Winner of both the Hugo and Nebula award, she was rightly named a Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers of America in 2005, and while her style might seem dated, even quaint, to modern readers, her characters, settings and the strength of her stories are timeless, and her voice will continue to be enjoyed by generations to come.
Anne Inez McCaffrey 1 April 1926 – 21 November 2011