Today is the one-month anniversary of Anne McCaffrey’s death. I can’t imagine what her family has been going through in the aftermath of losing their mother/grandmother, but I know for myself, hearing the news that my favorite story-teller of all time would no longer be around to share her wit and wisdom any more marked a significant and sad day for me. Ironically, I found out about it in the midst of the NaNoWriMo whirl, and discovered that she too had written her first book at 40–and therefore gave me hope and a little perspective that maybe another career could start off slowly for me at this late date.
I remember reading her books starting in about 8th grade; she was a working author who could be reliably counted on to have a new book out every year. And she had a back catalog that allowed me to live long stretches in Pern even while waiting for her newest books to be released.
Her ability to build strong female characters set her apart from otherwise good and enjoyable male authors like Heinlein, Asprin, and Asimov who regularly frustrated me as a young woman looking for characters to emulate and admire. And the aspirational worlds she built in Pern, and later with the Federated Sentient Planets, became clear beacons for what a utopian life might look like in the future: meritocracies where the basic social needs of food and shelter were met on a consistent basis.
I’ve frequently said over the years that when I am asked to “go to your happy place”, that place is Pern: A world where a special class of animals are granted psi powers and live in close working partnerships with their humans, and there is little danger of killing the planet based on man-made disasters. I re-read the several series she wrote in that world on a regular basis, including stand-alone “histories” like Nerilka’s Story and Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern (which never fails to leave me weepy-eyed). The fact that McCaffrey was able to build a complete story arc–from colonization to “present”–over the course of hundreds of Pern years, that remained consistent and believable is a true achievement, and an object lesson for any author on the levels of detail available when world-building. And discovering dolphins “enhanced with mentasynth” at the “present” end of the story spectrum after two decades of enjoying Pern was just the icing on the cake for me.
So, here it is, a month later, and I’m still mourning the fact that I never made the effort to attend one of her readings or get a book signed or otherwise let her know how much I valued her contributions to the literary world. Watching Menolly grow up and become valued for her musical, communication, and empathetic skills, and Lessa overcome the horror inflicted on her family, to say nothing of Nerilka’s pragmatic realism, or even Killashandra‘s evolution to overcome supreme self-centeredness, on top of Damia‘s evolution from a hyper-intelligent and willful child to an extraordinarily deep and successful parent… these were all pictures of what it meant to be a strong woman that helped form who I’ve become today. So this is my tribute to the wonder Anne McCaffrey’s work has continued to inspire in me: I wish I had gotten the chance to know her in real life, but she left a proxy of such amazing female characters I’m confident she will be well-remembered and well-loved long into the future.
May she rest in peace. (1 April 1926 – 21 November 2011)