I’ve been a reader my whole life and being of a certain age (44), I grew up with the books of authors that are now considered “classic”. I met Kurt Vonnegut twice (ate dinner with him once). I had about 30 seconds with Isaac Asimov. I attended a lecture by Joseph Heller. I’ve seen Stephen King any number of times, though I don’t care for his novels (I like his short stories from the old days) so I’ve never kept track. I met Anne McCaffrey twice, both times at book conventions. She liked to laugh. On Monday, she passed away, so it only seems right to talk about her impact on my life.
The best stories are forged in adversity and sacrifice.
One of the dirty little secrets of storytelling is that getting to the end isn’t the point. It’s the journey that captures the imagination. A character can be completely mundane, but have a compelling life (consider Forrest Gump, for example). What sets McCaffrey’s characters apart is that, despite how much she loved them, they never became Mary Sues. Lessa is an excellent example of this. She’s short-tempered, rash and quick to judge. She’s also sterile from all her time between and her origin story is nothing short of Shakespearean. Menolly remains passive throughout her entire life and chooses to never have anything to do with her family. She also chooses a husband for all the wrong reasons. Robinton is a workaholic. They all make mistakes and experience genuine loss.
One of the strengths of the Pern series is that the world makes sense. Sure, the science gets a little wonky toward the end, but the way the society works is logical and consistent. There are all sorts of little details, like how the different crafts mint their own money (they’re actually carved wooden disks) and there’s a Morse code network of drums. Harpers wear blue. Rank and station matter (remember when Piemur expects a beating because he badmouthed a nobleman in private?). It’s these sorts of things that transform a world into a vibrant place.
It’s okay to tackle the hard issues, as long as you do so respectfully
When I first read the Harper Hall trilogy, I didn’t understand why McCaffrey handled sexism the way she did. I grew up in a feminist household and the very idea that women should be second class citizens was alien to me. I also didn’t get Menolly’s response to having been abused. Why didn’t she want to go back and rub their noses in her success? It wasn’t until later that I realized that she had studiously avoided sermonizing any of the social concepts in the book, not because she was unsophisticated, but because she had enough faith in the reader to let them come to their own conclusions. It isn’t until very late in the Pern series that she does anything but chronicle the choices of people in a difficult situation.
Learning to Let Go
One of the hardest things to teach gamers (and authors) is that it’s okay to move on once you’ve exhausted the possibilities of a character. It’s human nature to hold on to your investments. The problem is, there comes a point where all you’re doing is going through the motions. Christopher Rowley’s Basil Broketail series demonstrates this flaw. The last two books are completely unnecessary, but he wasn’t ready to say goodbye. McCaffrey doesn’t do that. Once someone’s story is told, the spotlight moves elsewhere.
Goodbye, Anne, and thank you.