Anne McCaffrey, science fiction author

i know I’m going to start fanbois (both genders) mumbling furiously about that headline, but I think it’s true: Anne McCaffrey is a science fiction author and a rattling good one, too. She’s a science fiction author because all her series end up involving space flight and computers, about as stereotypical a pair of plot tropes as it’s possible to find in science fiction. She’s good (I think) because she managed to write such different series as Pern and Crystal Singer, such different books as Dinosaur Planet and The Ship who Sang. Not the only author to do so, mind, but having done so makes her an author to at least know about.

McCaffrey’s perhaps best known for her “Pern” books; the original two trilogies1 are Dragonflight, Dragonquest, andThe White Dragon for older readers2, and Dragonsong, Dragonsinger, and Dragondrums, for somewhat younger ones3. The brief description for the linkphobic who haven’t read the books: Pern is a planet threatened by “Thread”4, a (to the inhabitants of the planet) mystifying substance raining from the sky on a regular basis. Readers know that “Thread” is actually a spore from a neighboring planet in the system, which can cross the interplanetary void only when its planet approaches Pern, once every two hundred years on average.) As the series begins, the only creatures capable of destroying Thread are the mighty flame breathing telepathic ‘dragons’, each partnered telepathically with a human.

The first trilogy, the Dragonrider books, is co. The first book begins after a four hundred year gap between bouts of Threadfall during which the humans have largely discounted Threadfall as mere rumor and fairy tale. Our Heroine, Lessa, travels back to a point in time prior to the abandonment of the majority of the dragonriders’ communities, and brings them forward to Rescue The Planet5, and the subsequent two books cover the aftermath of dealing with what are, after all, people from four hundred years in the past, in addition to discovering more about the lost history of the planet.

The Harper Hall trilogy is a bit simpler: the primary protagonist, Menolly, is a gifted musician but in this world Girls. Do. Not. Have. Careers. (sound familiar?) Menolly cannot live without music and flees what she believes to be the only option, her oppressive conservative family only to find another option, musical training in the Harper Hall, although even there she must face shadows of the prejudice her family held. Great stuff for girls struggling to find their place in the world. McCaffrey continued with the Pern series for many more books written over the subsequent decades but the basic style of the later books is very different from the first three.

Having grown up and moved on to more complex mature books, I rather prefer the Crystal Singer books, Crystal Singer, Killashandra and Crystal Line. These show up McCaffrey’s own musical training a bit more than even the Harper Hall books: the protagonist, Killashandra, has trained for years as a singer but finds out only upon her graduation that she is unsuitable for the prima donna Diva Roles in opera that she had set her heart upon so many years before. She discovers what appears to be an ideal replacement: Crystal Singer, which promises the potential of unimaginable wealth, requiring only perfect pitch. The catch? The planet on which crystal is found, Ballybran, is under Federated restriction because it hosts a spore which invades any human landing on the planet, sometimes conferring biologic “bionic person” qualities but all too often taking something away in the process, hearing or sight or… Killashandra does go to Ballybran anyway, obviously, or there wouldn’t be a trilogy. Nearly thirty years after the first book’s publication, I can see a few plot holes in the trilogy, starting with “wouldn’t someone have told her during the course of her education that her voice is structurally unsuitable for solo work?”. They’re still fun to read, just as long as you don’t think too hard about them as with the Pern books.

If traditional/stereotypical gender roles bother you, don’t read the Pern books, especially not the earliest ones. Women are in the main relegated to secondary roles, cooks, cleaners, childbearing, and so on. There’s wifebeating. There’s rape. Would I want to live in that world? Nope. Misogynistic? Possibly, depending on your definition of same. I’m not entirely sure. Even the first two, Dragonflight and Dragonquest, make it quite clear that women are not uniformly accepting of or happy with this setup. Even Dragonflight has a determined intelligent strong willed heroine, who achieves great heroic deeds despite her entire society telling her that what she did is impossible (and that women should stay at home and tend their families). How many other similar characters are there in books written in the ’50s and ’60s? (No, stop looking at Left Hand of Darkness; that was about perception of gender, not gender roles.) I’d argue that the books would be misogynistic if McCaffrey were setting this society up as an ideal to which we might aspire. I don’t think she is; the Pern books, even the earliest ones, strike me as describing a society deteriorated from a previous peak due to loss of information and technology.

1the first trilogies are markedly different from subsequent books…
2Originally, I suspect that they were intended for a more adult audience–there are some strong sexual scenes–but given how literature’s changed in the intervening forty years, I wouldn’t shy away from suggesting them to mature teenagers (as opposed to older teens!)
3o tempore, o mores: these three are about right for the 10-14 age range these days.
4spores cast off by a partner planet when it approaches close enough
5very space opera melodramatic stuff, I know. I didn’t say they were sophisticated.


2 thoughts on “Anne McCaffrey, science fiction author

  1. I think what has always bothered me about the Dragonrider series, but the fact that F’lar rapes Lessa more than once after the mating flight and it’s presented as being perfectly normal behavior between weyrleaders, really bothers me. F’nor’s little scene with Brekke in the second book is not only presented as being all right, but the best thing F’nor could possibly have done for Brekke. The theme of women falling in love with their rapists shows up over and over in her books and short stories. It’s bad enough in the Pern books, where at least there is the thin excuse that dragons’ mating emotions are impossible to resist, but in other contexts it’s really inexcusable.

    It’s true that she is a heck of a good story-teller (I particularly like “The Fairy Godmother,” and the Dragonsinger books are simply excellent), but her quality is uneven, particularly in her more recent works. There are big plot holes in many of the later works, and often a lot of maundering about things she clearly finds either cool or amusing but which are irrelevant to the rest of the book. Sometimes there is a big build-up to something, and then she presents a quick solution that is 1) boring, and 2) unrelated to the build-up, rendering the whole build-up irrelevant. She could also use someone to edit her books for continuity, and some fact-checking here and there would be nice.

  2. We’ve talked about the “rape is an acceptable part of relationship” issue before; oddly, that specific instance of misogyny (in the sense of mistreatment of women) doesn’t bother me in and of itself. It’s the treatment of women as a whole in those early Pern books that bothers me. It isn’t just that rape is considered a normal part of men’s treatment of women but rather that women are so subordinate to men, and gender roles are so strictly defined that there is no room in the society for people who do not fit the norm. For example, in the Dragonsinger books, everyone assumes that Petiron’s apprentice is a boy, not to mention Menolly’s father beating her to the point of scarring her back, and her mother didn’t treat the knife wound on her daughter’s hand, despite knowing it was not a serious one, to render her incapable of playing a musical instrument. I will give McCaffrey credit for changing that in later books, however; I think she does listen to her fans.

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