News of Anne McCaffrey's death from a stroke rocketed through my online communities last night. Twitter, Facebook and blogs filled up with tributes and reminiscences. The online memorials seemed very fitting for a writer who inspired some of the very first online fiction discussions — and whose influence on genre fandom (and literature) is incalculable.
Her books — particularly the iconic Dragonriders of Pern series, which began with the 1968 publication of Dragonflight — contained any number of extraordinary revelations. Even if the books don't stand up to modern feminist scrutiny, in the '60s, they were revolutionary. Women can be protagonists—real protagonists, who really do things! Women who are pregnant can keep right on working and being active! Fantasy and science fiction can coexist in one book! Genre fiction written by a woman can win Hugo and Nebula awards and be a New York Times bestseller! And most seductive of all was the idea, the ideal, of the telepathic animal companion, the one who knows you better than any human could.
The awakening and escapism the books provided were absolutely vital to McCaffrey's readers. By night they could dream of having dragons of their own. By day they could take courage from McCaffrey's example and the examples of her heroines. Before there was a Katniss Everdeen — or even a Hermione Granger — there were Menolly and Killashandra Ree. Many fans grew up to write fantasy and science fiction, paving the way for the next generations of female readers and writers.
I first heard of McCaffrey and the Pern novels on Usenet, sometime around 1994. Through a friend, I had found first a chat room and then a Usenet newsgroup for fans of Spider Robinson's Callahan's Place books; these digital forums were havens for role-players who longed to visit that Long Island pub where aliens, telepaths, and time travelers mingled with plain ol' folks. Each of us created an identity or three, and interacted in character or not as it suited us.
I recall being baffled that a number of the characters I encountered in alt.callahans had fire lizards riding on their shoulders. I wondered what a fire lizard was, and why everyone got so excited about a new one hatching and what was so important about the color scheme. It wasn't until years later that I picked up one of the Pern books and clued in. McCaffrey's world of dragons, magic and interstellar exploration had been so compelling that my online friends had simply imported it into Spider Robinson's fictional bar. Apparently any fandom is better with fire lizards.
McCaffrey raised her own brood of dragon hatchlings, and a few years ago her son Todd began working with her on Pern novels. Their final collaboration is due to be published next year by Random House. Perhaps Todd will keep it going, à la Brian Herbert (who continued his father Frank Herbert's Dune series); perhaps he will let it stand as a testament to his mother's vision and determination. Even if Pern's heyday is past, McCaffrey's legacy lives on.