December 19, 2011 § 1 Comment
Anne McCaffrey was a prolific science-fiction and fantasy writer who made a path not only for women writers but also for credible female characters in a hitherto male-dominated genre. She is best known for her Dragonriders of Pern series of more than 20 novels and was often referred to as “the Dragonlady” because she was for so long associated with the telepathic dragons in her books.
She also wrote four times as many non-Pern novels in a career that spanned more than 50 years. She loved to work, and until her death, despite poor health, she still wrote and contributed regularly to her website.
Anne Inez McCaffrey was born in 1926 in Cambridge, Massachussetts, the second of three children of George Herbert McCaffrey, a colonel in the US Army, and Anne Dorothy McElroy. After attending a girls’ boarding school in Virginia and high school in New Jersey, she gained a degree from Radcliffe College in Slavonic languages and literature.
In 1950 she married Horace Wright Johnson, who shared her interest in music, and in opera and ballet. They had three children. McCaffrey worked for short spells in a music shop, a cosmetics company and as an advertising copywriter, and then trained as an opera singer and actress. But it was her writing career that came to the fore when she was in her thirties. As she said in one interview: “I started writing just to make a little extra income, and it took off.”
She saw the publication of a few short stories in the 1950s, but the first coup was her first novel, Restoree, in 1967. The story was an ironic take on male-dominated science-fiction literature; it particularly irked her that in a typical science-fiction story the females would merely gather in a corner screaming while their boyfriends fought off the aliens. The book centred on a young woman, Sara, who was abducted by aliens from Central Park, given a new super-body and taken to a new, technologically superior world. The themes and writing style set the tone for McCaffrey’s later output and Weyr Search, first of the Pern stories, in 1968, won her the prestigious science-fiction Hugo award. McCaffrey was the first woman to receive it.
Another story of that period, The Ship Who Sang (1969), McCaffrey later picked out as her favourite. Here she explored notions of physical disability, gender and technological utopias: in this story Helva is a cyborg, half girl and half spaceship, and, like other “brainships”, works for the government.
McCaffrey was always concerned with depicting characters and their relationships to others and to the world in a progressive, down-to-earth and humane way: paraplegic children become space aviators with help from their friends, girls are empowered and gutsy. Her books offered messages of hope.
At around the same time, McCaffrey started writing what was to become her signature work: the Dragonriders of Pern series. The first book was published in 1967, and 21 further novels and related short stories followed, some much later written by her son Todd. The planet Pern has been colonised by people from Earth, but has lost its technological edge and reverted to a medieval society. However, before the fall of the advanced society, the original colonists created a race of genetically engineered dragons controlled by Dragonriders, often young women or children, who communicate with them telepathically. The Dragonriders and their steeds protect Pern from the enemy “Thread”, a deadly spore from a nearby planet.
Other titles in the series include Dragonflight, Dragonquest and The White Dragon. Dragonrider won the Nebula award in 1969. Again, this was the first time that the prize was won by a woman.
The Pern stories were initially published as hard science fiction inAnalog magazine, but when issued in paperback they were marketed as fantasy. McCaffrey insisted she was a science-fiction writer; critics who labelled her as a fantasy writer, she said, were “cutting her short”. Written in an easy, unpretentious style, her work appealed to boys, girls and adults too as they touched on themes of politics, the environment and domestic roles in society. Her female characters were compassionate but strong, and she recognised that when the television series Star Trek rocketed in popularity, female viewers satisfied a new craving for science-fiction literature by turning to her work because it had themes and heroines that they could relate to.
McCaffrey’s personal life underwent several changes in the late 1960s, just as her literary career was taking off. She divorced her husband in 1970 and migrated to Ireland with her two younger children. Her oldest child stayed with his father in the US.
She would remain in Co Wicklow, Ireland, in a house called Dragonhold-Underhill (so called, she said, because she had to dig out a hill on her farm to build it), for the rest of her life. She continued writing and publishing steadily, and saw her work gain popularity in the 1970s, most notably with The White Dragon in 1978. This novel appeared in The New York Times bestseller list for that year.
McCaffrey set great store by her ability to relate to her readers on an emotional level. She credited this approach to her training as an actor. She told Locus magazine in 2004: “I have always used emotion as a writing tool. That goes back to me being on stage. The thing is, emotion — if it’s visibly felt by the author — will go through all the processes it takes to publish a story and still hit the reader right in the gut. But you have to really mean it.”
Her writing, while garnering appreciation from her fans, did not always appeal to everyone. An American journalist, writing in theThe New York Times Book Review in 1989, wrote of her: “Few are better at mixing elements of high fantasy and hard science in a narrative that disarms scepticism by its open embrace of the joys of wish fulfillment,” but faulted her “awkward similes” and “formulaic descriptions”. But there is no denying the commercial success of Dragonriders of Pern around the world and the inspiration the books have had on young and old readers.
An enthusiastic online communicator, McCaffrey embraced the internet. She was always friendly, honest and direct with her fans, and there were long queues for her signature at book signings. One fan remembered seeing a Japanese girl who, on meeting her favourite author, burst into tears. McCaffrey got up, made her way around the table and hugged her.
“Writing has been so much a part of my life that I’m really quite annoyed that I can’t do as much as I used to,” she said in her late seventies, recognising that she needed someone with more energy than she had to help to finish a book. Her son Todd has collaborated with her over the past two decades — Dragon’s Time, which they wrote together, was published this year, and she lent her name increasingly to other authors who worked with her on book sequences, including Mercedes Lackey, who became a prolific author in her own right.
In 2005 McCaffrey became a Grand Master of Science Fiction and was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame the year after. Her former husband predeceased her in 2009. She is survived by her three children.
Anne McCaffrey, science fiction writer, was born on April 1, 1926. She died on November 21, 2011, aged 85