The very first thought I had when the wonderful dragons in James Cameron’s Avatar appeared on-screen was that Cameron must do a Pern movie.
Because his dragons were Anne McCaffrey’s dragons made real.
I’ve been in love with McCaffrey’s dragons and the denizens of Pern since I was twelve years old and my hardcover copy of the Dragonriders of Pern trilogy arrived in my very first shipment from the Science Fiction Book Club.
The news today that McCaffrey had passed away filled me with sadness. Her stories of flying, heroism, fire and music left an indelible impression on me, much the same as her fictional dragonriders Impressed their newly hatched dragonets.
Eventually, I read my copy of the trilogy so much that I broke the binding and had to replace it with an inferior paperback edition. Along with the three books that comprise the trilogy–Dragonflight, Dragonquest and The White Dragon–I also read the books of the Harper Hall trilogy–Dragonsong, Dragonsinger and Dragondrums–to pieces. At one point, I could decide whether I wanted to be Menolly, the companion to nine fire-lizards and the star pupil of Masterharper Robinton or a queen dragon rider. I finally settled on rider because the appeal of flying was too strong.
That was the appeal of McCaffrey’s two trilogies. One could make you feel as if you were in the air, flying, saving the planet from destruction, and the other made you feel as if you had the gift of magic and composing as much as Menolly and the other harpers.
I wasn’t the only one. It’s fair to say that McCaffrey was the one who kick-started the dragon phase of science fiction.
As someone who aspired to be a science fiction/fantasy writer even at that young age, McCaffrey’s success with these books gave me hope that I could succeed the same way when I grew up. This was back in the late 1970s, when girls were still considered an anomaly among science fiction readers and women still sometimes used initials or male pen names to hide their real selves. (James Tiptree Jr., anyone?)
So not only were the books tremendously influential on me but McCaffrey was a role model as well. I wish I’d had a chance to tell her in person what her work meant to me.
I discovered in later years that her stories were much picked over by SF/F critics for feminist or anti-feminist messages and for her portrayal of gay relationships between the dragonriders. To me, McCaffrey seemed ahead of her time as she presented, even to a young teenager, the idea of positive gay relationships, though it was subtle. The criticism of the women in the books and their reaction to sex were a little harder to ignore, especially given the sequence in which one of my favorite dragonriders, F’nor, seems to force himself on his lady love, Brekke. I think that scene has been picked over more than any other in the trilogy.
In the end, however, I can’t see the dragon books as anything other than progressive for their time. Lessa was the first strong female character I ever encountered in science fiction that not only saved herself, she ended up saving the entire planet. The fact that she was allowed to be ill-tempered and imperious only made her better in my eyes.
And The White Dragon, the story of Jaxom, an orphan with a dragon that nobody seems to want or value, is one of the best coming-of-age stories I’ve ever read. Some of the dragon books she wrote later, particularly Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern and Dragonsdawn, were good but they didn’t quite measure up to the original trilogy.
She also dealt with galactic science fiction universes in her Crystal Singer and Tower and Hive books, among others. Her wikipedia entry has the full list of her published works. My favorite among her other books are To Ride Pegasus and The Rowan, both dealing with unusual people with psychic abilities.
And I cannot close this tribute without mentioning that for the last year and a half, A Diversity of Dragons, a coffee table book of illustrations by John Howe of McCaffrey’s dragons with text by McCaffrey, has served as my informal laptop desk. I look it over once a week and I’m always impressed by how beautiful the dragons appear.
If there’s a heaven for writers, one hopes that McCaffrey’s has dragons.