South Park Self

naught to life but fragile dragons' wings

I started reading pulp fantasy, as opposed to children's fantasy novels, at university. The role-playing crowd introduced me to people like Feist and Eddings, who I happily grafted onto the solid groundwork of a childhood spent reading Tolkien and Susan Cooper and E. Nesbit and Earthsea, and my grandfather's considerable, if rather random, collection of Golden Age sf.

Anne McCaffrey I stumbled on all by myself. I was perennially broke in undergrad, owing to non-wealthy parents and the horrible exchange rate between Zim and South Africa, and insufficient gumption for it to have occurred to me to go out and find a part-time job. I used to haunt second hand book stores, a habit picked up from schooldays. There was a little junk shop in Mowbray, just the Tugwell side of Shoprite, that had a single shelf of books. One Friday afternoon I wandered past there and found something called Dragonsong. There was also the sequel, Dragonsinger: Harper of Pern, but I was being too cautious with money to buy them both. I took Dragonsong back to my res room and devoured it whole that evening, in a state of suspended enchantment that I suspect was shared by a lot of you who are female and met McCaffrey in your teens. The wish-fulfilment elements of the fire lizards, the fascination of the setting, the whole musical element, Menolly's growth out of her marginalised life - I desired more, passionately.

I couldn't go back and buy the sequel because I left for the airport to go back home to Zim for the vac really early on Saturday morning. The desperate need for more of the same world led me to overcome the mouse-like introversion of my first year, and actually voluntarily speak to the girl in the res room next door, who was likewise a Zimbabwean. She was leaving a few days later. I gave her money for the book, and asked her to buy it for me and bring it up to Zim, which she cheerfully agreed to do.

I remember this all astonishingly vividly, given that it happened over twenty years ago. Her house wasn't far from ours in Harare, up on a hill; I remember finding my way there one evening, and having a perfunctory chat with the girl, whose name I can't remember; I have a vivid mental image of her rummaging around in her not-yet-unpacked suitcase to find the book for me. I must have hit her for it the instant she got back. The whole episode is outlined in my memory by the tense, thrumming expectation of actually getting my hands on that book, of continuing the immersion I'd started a few weeks before and from which I'd been horribly excluded. I don't even remember reading Dragonsinger for the first time, but boy howdy, do I remember desiring it.

A lot of Pern is, objectively speaking, fairly grotty: its world-building is prone to holes, McCaffrey's storytelling suffers at time from pacing issues, her prose is occasionally awkward, and she tends to recycle plots. A lot of the dragon/human interaction is frankly the stuff of adolescent fantasy, and the sexual politics are downright dodgy at times. Notwithstanding all of this, it's a world that for a lot of fantasy geeks has profoundly shaped our experience of the genre. The Elizabeth Bear take on animal-influenced sex may point to the huge problems with McCaffrey's over-romanticised version, but Pern's dragons perfectly encapsulate the profound human desire at the heart of a hell of a lot of fantasy, which is for an ideal of communication and connection with non-human creatures. The novels explore, transform and enable, at base, the traditional adolescent female love of horses, with all that that relationship allows in the way of validation and power. Pern's semi-medieval, semi-sf environments cunningly use elements of both discourses to both challenge and empower their protagonists, who tend to be real people, individual and compelling even when, like Lessa, they're not entirely likeable, and whose construction represents huge leaps for the representation of female characters at the time the novels were written. I subject my fantasy/sf collection to periodic weeding, lest the bookshelf crisis become critical, but there's still a row of Pern novels there, and every now and then I re-read them, because they're comfortable friends and still hold the resonance of their meaning to a much younger me.

Anne McCaffrey's recent death is thus a huge sadness. I can't always say that her books have unqualified literary value, but their unqualified significance to me, and to people like me, is never in doubt. She was an icon in the field. I'm sorry she's gone.
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Interestingly, although I could have penned your first paragraph about myself, I was first introduced to Pern (and Anne McCaffrey) by my ex husband, shortly after I had left university. While I was never as engrossed in the books as you describe being (and, oh joy, finding authors and series which grip us like that! I miss it) I did read as many of them as I could, and was sad to see she had died. RIP to a fantasy great.
I think you need to be particularly young to have quite that experience of immersion and identification. I was a very immature 19. You're right, there's stuff that I love now, and dive wholeheartedly into with enormous pleasure (Bujold!), but I suspect McCaffery filled, far less problematically, a similar niche to the one the Twilight novels fill for adolescents today.
I also first encountered Anne McCaffrey via the Dragonsong trilogy, but luckily for me, I found her in Rondebosch library. Eventually I bought all the Pern ones; the book stall at Rondebosch market was a great source of cheap imports for some years.
I am jealous. Zim libraries didn't do contemporary fantasy, and all too few of the classics. I suppose I ended up with a solid grounding in children's fantasy and Golden/Silver Age sf.
I love Anne McCaffrey's books. I struggle to say what is good about them and can enumerate clearly what is bad about them, but I love them all the same. My shelves of Anne McCaffrey are rivalled for volume only by my shelves of Terry Pratchett. I think my favourites are the more recent "Freedom" books (Freedom's Landing, etc.). I'll miss her.
I'd forgotten what a huge McCaffrey fan you are - particularly sad news for you. Her death has made me re-read the Dragonsinger ones, and now I'm embarked on the Crystal Singer series. Something I can ennumerate that's good about her writing: her thoroughly dislikeable characters (Killashandra: arrogant, impetuous, oblivious) are also perfectly realistic. You can see people being like that, and it does interesting things to their lives.