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RIP Anne McCaffrey (1926-2011)

23 November, 2011

Not a lot to say. I wouldn’t call McCaffrey one of the greatest writers of all time, despite the awards. Lots of her books were much like the ones I grew up with: horse books. OK, I grew up with more than that, but there were books by Fairfax Downey, books by Marguerite Henry, books by Walter Farley. And there were books by Andre Norton, John Christopher, and Ursula LeGuin (although I never read the Earthsea books till I was at university — the first thing I read by LeGuin was The Left Hand of Darkness, which I read when I was 12, at about the time I read Stranger in a Strange Land). I went from Heinlein to Lewis and Cooper, Alexander and Walton’s version of the Mabinogion. McCaffrey and Marion Zimmer Bradley drew me back towards sf. They were horse books (ok, big horses that flew and belched fire) where the horses talked to their humans. Some — rather more than a few — of McCaffrey’s characters were women. They were Mary Sues that we didn’t have to write. There was a lot to dislike in her books — sometimes they were contrived, and often they trod the ‘bodice ripper in space’ line. But they were still books with heroes and heroines. Lots of heroines. Women who were smart and … i was going to say sexy, but one of the things I think it’s important to remember about McCaffrey’s heroines is that they are frequently damaged people. They are women who don’t fit, women who have never been allowed to think of themselves as physically attractive. They get by because they are survivors, and they have pretty low expectations of other people, because they’ve learnt they can only rely on themselves. They felt like me, except for the fantasy part where they got the really cool partners. But even then, as they did, they didn’t always handle it well. They had to accept being loved for who they were, for what they were. They had to survive aliens, Thread, the loss of loved ones… and that was the easy part.

McCaffrey wrote a lot about outsiders and Others. I’m not sure she ever wrote anything particularly profound, but she, like most decent sf writers, inspired questions about important things: race, class, social hierarchies, gender. I don’t think I ever felt challenged by her writing, but I think she probably had some little influence on how I think about things like colonialism, the Other, exceptionalism, the environment …and on my willingness to try to understand people’s motives, rather than to assume that people are just jerks.

So RIP Anne McCaffrey, and thank you.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 23 November, 2011 8:49 am

    I read about this just a few minutes before seeing your post. I read the young adult Pern series when I was… oh, eleven or twelve? And I was completely taken by the young female heroine. I hadn’t thought of the “outsider” angle, but now that you mention it, it makes complete sense, and I see why I identified so strongly.

    Not great literature? Quite true. But If we discount the heady work of Butler and LeGuin, there wasn’t a lot of that genre that featured female protagonists — and especially not those who were valued for their skills rather than their beauty. When I read these, I felt like McCaffery was writing for me, and (though I couldn’t have articulated it this way at the time) that there might be a place in the world for an awkward and kind of homely smart girl who never new what to say, how to dress, or how to fit in.

    When I tell my students how I became interested in medieval history, I tend to point to the historical fiction that I purloined from my mom’s library piles. But the more I think of it, the more I believe that it began with Dragonsinger.

    So: Thanks, Anne.

  2. J Liedl permalink
    23 November, 2011 10:57 pm

    For all that I have a boatload of objections to some of the ways in which she conceptualized society, for all that I didn’t appreciate her attitude towards fannish creativity, I loved McCaffrey’s world-building. “The Ship Who Sang”, the messed-up world of Killashandra Ree in the Crystal Singer stories and the fascinating quasi-feudal world of Pern are all worthy of revisiting.

    I might be pulling out the books this holiday season to remind me of all that I did love within her works.

  3. ScholasticaMama permalink
    26 November, 2011 1:48 am

    I read the entire DragonRider series the summer between 4th and 5th grade. As I grew, the series became my “go-to” whenever I was angsty (which happens often to well, all teenagers, right?) I read them less frequently as an adult, but did revisit them while nursing my daughter. At each stage, I found something new to see, although I liked her later writing much less than her earlier work. She wrote about being outcast when I was outcast, smart women when I was smart, sexuality when I found it, relationships when I finally got one. What I needed, I could find it with her. RIP indeed, and thank you for the post.

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