Thursday, November 24, 2011

Reading Notes: RIP Anne McCaffrey

Anne McCaffrey died two days ago. I imagine many (maybe even most) people have some idea who she is - a beloved, prolific and renowned science fiction / fantasy author, one of the true greats of the genre in terms of sales, spread and the affection of fans.

I first read Anne McCaffrey's Pern series, starting with Dragonflight, as a 12 year old. I used to have frequent sleepovers at the house of my best friend at my new high school (and still one of my best friends today; she's my daughters' godmother, in fact). Her house was, I will be honest, a lot cooler than mine - they had a big TV, a pool, they lived walking distance from the shops and a video store, and there was always bacon & eggs for breakfast (an unheard-of luxury at our house).

Her parents were also very relaxed and both were huge readers of all kinds of fiction, but particularly science fiction. My mother likes to read, but her tastes ran even then to Christian devotional texts and cozy crime fiction (in fact, the love that I retain for a well-written cozy or puzzle mystery comes from my Mum, and we still swap new books in this genre, and occasionally indulge ourselves with tea, chocolate and a Poirot movie :-)

My friend K's parents, though, had all sorts of adult books lying about that they were happy for me, voracious reader that I was, to pick up and flick through, and then borrow. That was how I first made the acquaintance of Anne McCaffrey.

I'd discovered most of the greats in middle-grade sci fi / fantasy independently by then - I'd done Tolkien, Lewis and Susan Cooper, I'd covered The Wizard of Earthsea, Madeleine L'Engle and Diana Wynne Jones. (One day I'll post about the vast imaginative world that they supplied me as I moved through an oftentimes lonely childhood).

Those books were part of my mental landscape, but when I started reading Dragonflight, the richness and strangeness of this adult story was something different again. I was sucked in, completely and utterly besotted, within 5 pages, and I didn't stop until I'd read all seven of the first Pern books, then-available: Dragonflight, Dragonquest, Dragonsong, Dragonsinger: Harper of Pern, Dragondrums, Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern, and The White Dragon.

Later, I'd go on to read most of McCaffrey's major series - the Ship Who Sang books, the Crystal Singer books, and the Talents books. I enjoyed all of them (and own most of them), being particularly fond of To Ride Pegasus, her 1973 exploration of a society where psionic talents are manifest and struggling to be recognised, and The Crystal Singer (mostly because I love the central character, Killashandra).

McCaffrey's non-Pern works, though, sit for me within a broader landscape of other science ficton and fantasy authors that I've come to know and love since those wide-eyed 12 year old days - Isaac Asimov, Ursula LeGuin's adult works, Frederick Pohl, Robert Heinlen, Connie Willis, CJ Cherryh, Nancy Kress, and so many others. It is to Pern that my first heart belongs, even today.

I embraced some of the later Pern books - especially 1988's Dragsonsdawn, which came out during my year 10 exams and is singlehandedly responsible for my bare C in Maths - and 1991's All the Weyrs of Pern, which I read, rapt, tucked up in the little fiction library in the Union building at Monash, a first-year student with no idea about how to navigate university life, but thrilled and relieved to sink into Pern again for a little while.

But when I think back on how I became an adult reader, and how I developed a lifelong commitment to both science fiction / fantasy and also good plotting and good storytelling, it's those first Pern books, that very first glimpse of Dragonflight, in fact, that stays with me.

Thank you, Anne McCaffrey. Your enormous talent gave me many a gift, and to millions of others too. Rest gently now you've gone between, and know that I will always treasure the fact that it was your words that led me into the readers' world that is one of my greatest delights in my life.

This post is part of NaBloPoMo. 24 down, 6 to go!


  1. I hadn't heard she had died. I too read the Crystal Singer series when I was in high school, discovered it in the school library and like you, fell in love with Killashandra! she certainly gave a lot to the literary world and her works will live on for a long time now!

  2. I didn't know either. I came to the Pern and Crystal Singer books a little later but loved them too.