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The Passing of Anne McCaffrey

November 23, 2011

I heard the news yesterday.  One of the elder craftsmen and great figureheads of the SF&F genre, Anne McCaffrey, passed away on Monday.

If I’m totally honest to you, dear reader, I’ve never read any of the Pern books, nor anything else written by Anne McCaffrey.  But her influence on the genre is still felt, and I know her passing will be a sad one for the legions of fans she has earned in her lifetime’s worth of work. 

It’s a strange thing to admit that I’ve never read any Pern books, given my unapologetic obsession with all things draconic.  My particular obsession takes the form of an interest in dragons of myth and fantastic literature, whereas in time McCaffrey’s dragons were revealed to be science fictional in nature.  See… I may not have read those books, but I’m at least familiar with some of the core tenets of her world.  As I said, her influence on the genre is felt, even by one such as I who has not read her work.

My understanding of McCaffrey’s influence is that she was an early pioneer of bending genre expectations and tropes between fantasy and science fiction.  Technically speaking, her Pern series is sience fiction: starring as it does the descendents of space-faring humans who’ve colonized a world and genetically re-engineered one of its species to more closely resemble mythological dragons, or something to that effect.  (Most of my knowledge of the specifics comes not from reading the Pern books, as I said, but from reading about them.)  But many people have read and continue to read Pern as fantasy, despite the latter revelations about the history of Pern, and her writing apparently was such that you could happily read it either way.  For a long time I think she was fairly unique in this sort of genre-bending, but I suspect that we’re beginning to see and will see still more such genre mash-ups as time goes by: both fantasies that are really sci-fi and science fictions that are really fantasies and many other such combinations which are spawning whole new genres.

Another big influence, I suspect, was her portrayal of dragons.  The concept of dragons who telepathically bond with a given rider is something that’s been explored in other fantasy stories – notably Eragon and the other books of Christopher Paolini’s series – but which was first pioneered, to my knowledge, in McCaffrey’s Pern books.  Her take on dragons will continue to be a source of inspiration for generations of fantasy fans and authors to come.  I know even my own takes on this most venerable of fantasy species has been touched by McCaffrey.  That’s how the genre works: a grand master lays down some innovative ideas in a celebrated work, and new writers take those ideas and turn them into other new ideas through a process of iteration and mutation, through homage and parody and carbon-copying and any of a number of other ways, until those ideas are so threaded in the history of the genre that it’s inseperable.

Anyway, I can say without reservation that though I myself never read her books, yet I know her presence in the genre will be missed.  May she find herself flying with dragons in that great beyond.

Have you read any of Anne McCaffrey’s books?  If you’re a writer, have you felt her influence on the genre?

More about Anne McCaffrey’s passing here and here.

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. November 23, 2011 12:36 pm

    The Pern books were some of the first fantasy/sci-fi novels I ever read. At the time I wasn’t really concerned with ‘genre’ definitions, and didn’t really care if it was sci-fi or fantasy LOL The images of the dragons always stayed with me though – not just fire breathing evil dragons, but a society that lived in peaceful coexistence with humans. It’s been a long time since then so I can’t recall exactly, but I’m sure they did shape some of my expectations for SF/F

    • November 23, 2011 12:45 pm

      That’s another influence I was going to mention, but forgot: I’m not 100% sure, but I think before Anne McCaffrey it was rare to portray dragons as anything but fire-breathing, evil, princess-eating, treasure-hording lizards. Anne was one of the first, if not the first, to make riding with a dragon into a noble thing.

  2. November 23, 2011 12:52 pm

    Too bad.

    Odd coincidence,too , since it was the Pern books I was thinking of when I just commented about dragons in that other post. I read the first three or four, as did my ex, who is more of a fantasy fan than I am. We really liked them.

    McCaffrey was definitely one of the first to mix fantasy and sci fi that way. Zelazny did, too, but that was more mythology mixed with sci fi.

    Oh, and her influence? Go see Avatar. :-)

    • November 23, 2011 1:02 pm

      I have seen Avatar. But I didn’t even think about how McCaffrey might’ve influenced that until you just mentioned it.

      • November 23, 2011 8:28 pm

        I didn’t think about it until that moment either — it’s been decades since I read any of the Pern books — but the minute I thought about it, it was obvious. The bond between rider and mount, that it’s a bond for life, the telepathic link. It seems likely that it was some sort of influence.

      • November 28, 2011 12:22 pm

        Certainly it seems likely – but I imagine that the influence is just as likely indirect, as filtered through secondary or tertiary sources that have riffed on the same theme, tracing a proverbial family lineage back to Anne McCaffrey.

  3. November 23, 2011 2:30 pm

    *GASPS* Stephen, go out and read the Dragon Riders of Pern series NOW!

    So sad to hear that news. She has most definitely been influential in the fantasy genre and I agree with Anthony – read the Pern series then watch Avatar.

    • November 28, 2011 12:17 pm

      At some point I’ll have to pick up a few of the books in the series… the question being whether I’ll be able to find the time anytime soon (and at my reading speed right now, the answer will be not anytime soon at all).

  4. November 25, 2011 10:38 pm

    Hmm…I’d never heard of her until today. :(

    Guess I’ll have to check her out one of these days, heh.

    • November 28, 2011 12:30 pm

      Likewise (on the “check her out one of these days” part, that is); but I’m surprised you’ve never heard of her. She’s a pretty big name in speculative fiction – although I guess she’s pretty far removed form the *punk arena you are mostly working in.

  5. jkh permalink
    November 26, 2011 3:52 pm

    I met her once, ages ago, when she was still doing book signings at small bookstores. I was past the worst of a super-crud but I still had laryngitis. As I brought my book to her, I assured her I wasn’t contagious, and she said in her motherly voice, “You should be using Zinc tablets, and are you taking Vitt-amin A?” At the moment her snow-white hair was striped blue and green for some event the night before…Altogether a delightful lady. And she referred to her work as “Speculative Fiction.” I like that classification.

    • November 28, 2011 12:44 pm

      Sounds like a lucky encounter for you! I use the phrase “speculative fiction” quite a bit as well. In a general sense I classify all my work as “speculative fiction” – because it’s a good catch-all that is appropriately descriptive of what it entails. But I also use more specific genre classifications as well, when they are appropriate. I’m not really a genre purist, and I like a good variety of flavors in my speculative fiction.

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