Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Gone Away, Gone Ahead

In 1968 a novella was published by a young woman. The quality of the story was recognized at the time - it won the inaugural Hugo award for a novella, making its author the first woman to win a Hugo. A year later, she wrote a novel in the same world.

The significance may not have been.

In western tradition, the dragon was a classic monster. Associated with Satan, he would pillage and destroy, often backing down only when the beleaguered people offered a young virgin (preferably of high rank) as a sacrifice.

Tolkein used Smaug as the 'Big Bad' of the Hobbit - a cunningly evil beast who valued only treasure and money. In 1952, C.S. Lewis turned a bratty kid into a dragon as a punishment for greed. Plain and simple, though, is that the image most of us in the west now have of dragons?

The novella was Weyr Search.

The novel was Dragonflight.

The young woman was to become SFWA Grand Master Anne McCaffrey, one of only three women to hold the title thus far.

In Dragonflight, she subverted the myth of the young woman sacrificed to the dragon by having a virgin, of high rank, but trapped in the kitchens as little more than a slave, carried away by the dragons. Instead of being eaten, however, she was elevated to a position of great power. On her Pern, the best thing that could happen to a young woman was to be carried away by the dragons...although the sacrifice still happened, for the process of bonding a dragon was (at least in the ninth pass) dangerous and potentially fatal.

But she also created an entire new kind of dragon. Her dragons were neither the monsters of the west, symbols of worldly greed, nor the benevolent but powerful nature spirits that the peoples of Asia and the Far East call dragons. They were elegant, gentle companions to mankind, loyal beyond death to their chosen (and highly privileged) riders.

She created, in fact, the trope of the dragonrider - seen in The Dragonlance Chronicles, Eragon, Temeraire and numerous less well-known series (I highly recommend Mercedes Lackey's Joust for a very different look at the modern dragon).

Even George R. R. Martin uses the dragonrider trope in A Song Of Ice And Fire, albeit in a harsher, darker sense that fits his unique style.

On top of that, she created a world that people want to live in. Back in the early days of the internet, MUDs hit their heyday. Less popular were the code-light and roleplay-oriented MUSHes and MUSEs. However, one MUSH was so popular that busy nights sometimes crashed the somewhat primitive servers of the day. One guess what the theme was.

Although text-based roleplay is less popular now, 'All The Weyrs of Pern' currently lists 32 Pern bulletin board games and 42 games that are based on Pern with significant alterations - not all of them are active, but it shows that there is still a strong demand for 'living on Pern'. At least two full-length fanfiction novels have been written. One of them, Dragonchoice, is considered by some fans to be better than anything Anne wrote.

Anne McCaffrey also made a place in her world for gay the 1960s. Although she had some strange ideas about human sexuality (she apparently genuinely believed one homosexual experience as a 'bottom' would make a man gay for life), she was one of the first to open the door to gay characters.

Her writing had many flaws. The aforementioned lack of understanding of sexuality was one of them. She was also not a scientist, and it often showed in her work. Some of her books would have benefitted strongly from an editor with a degree in biology. At heart, too, she was a romance writer, who also wrote several category romances. Her books tend towards strong romance plots, sometimes at the cost of characterization.

Yet, how many people can say they created a major trope of modern science fiction and fantasy writing?

Also worth mentioning is 'The Ship Who Sang', where she gave a unique place to the profoundly disabled. Or her Tower series, in which she created a world in which telepaths and telekinetics gave humanity the stars. I also have a weakness for the Crystal Singer trilogy - beautiful, tragic and profoundly romantic in all senses.

Sometimes, I found her writing pedestrian, but her ideas. Her ideas flew as high as a queen dragon in her mating flight.

On Monday, November 21, at the age of 85, Anne McCaffrey suffered a stroke at her home in Ireland.

Random House confirmed yesterday that the Grand Master had indeed gone Between for the last time.

Fly high, Anne. You will be missed.