Anne McCaffrey

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In her (sanctioned, but not authorized) biography of Anne McCaffrey, Robin Roberts describes McCaffrey as a writer who “has affected not only innumerable readers, but also the genre.” (p.7) Roberts focuses on McCaffrey’s life, not on analysing her writing, but there are snippets of critical reading and summations of McCaffrey’s oeuvre that interested me. She writes:

original (1)“Literary critics know Anne McCaffrey as a member of a ground-breaking group of women science fiction writers who forever changed the field, humanizing it through their emphasis on women’s issues and plots.” (p.1)

“One of the twentieth century’s best-loved and most widely read writers, Anne has made immense contributions to fiction. In 1968, she was the first woman to win both the Hugo (an award bestowed annually at the World Science Fiction Convention) and the Nebula (awarded annually by the Science Fiction Writers of America), the genre’s most prestigious awards. In 1978, she became the first science fiction writer to have a book on the New York Times best-seller list. In 1999, the American Library Association recognized her work with the Margaret A. Edwards Award for Lifetime Literary Achievement. Anne has also collected the Ditmar Award (Australia), the Gandalf Award, and the Streza (the European Science Fiction Convention Award). In 2005, she was named a Grand Master by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, an honor bestowed only on twenty-two other writers, of whom just two are women. In 2006, she was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. Her books have been translated into fourteen languages and have sold more than twelve million copies. These distinctions and statistics are important because she was a leader in the feminist revolution in science fiction, and she also focused on female protagonists and women’s issues – child rearing, for example – at a time when strong women were largely absent from the genre. Sarah Lefanu, the author of one of the first books on women and science fiction, Feminism and Science Fiction, praises Anne’s contributions: “It is great to have Anne’s girls and women with their skills and strengths and emotions.” (pp.7-8)

“Anne became an award-winning writer who helped feminize the genre. Anne brought great emotional depth to her writing. While not as overtly political as Russ or Le Guin, Anne nevertheless challenged traditional ideas about women and science and women as heroes. Her novels’ strong emotional appeal can be traced to Anne’s own preoccupations and concerns as a member of a generation who came of age during World War II. Disappointed by the opportunities available to her as a highly educated and intelligent young woman, she gravitated to science fiction for the alternatives it offered to an unsatisfactory real world. But she found limited roles for women in the pulp magazines she read, and she consciously wrote her first novel, Restoree, “as a tongue-in-cheek protest, utilizing as many of the standard ‘thud and blunder’ cliches as possible with one new twist – the heroine was the viewpoint character and she is always Johanna on the spot.”” (p.8)

“Like that of other women science fiction writers, Anne’s work champions strong female characters, and she positions women in worlds where they have greater opportunities than in the real world. As literary critic Jane Donawerth notes, these women, including Anne, moved the figure of woman as alien in science fiction “from margin to center.”” (pp.7-8)

original (1)“Taking women’s stereotypical association with the natural world, Anne and a number of other women science fiction writers inverted this association, making it into something positive, a strength for their female characters. Anne’s dragons, for example, are genetically engineered, telepathic creatures that bond with their humans. The dragons enable humans to live on Pern, providing an alternative to machine transportation and a way for the colonists to fight a life-threatening spore. In making dragons, that had heretofore been featured primarily as evil beasts, into attractive companions, Anne reshaped our cultural image of them. Significantly, she did so in a structure in which queen dragons were the species’ leaders. Bonding with female humans, the dragons enable women on Pern to assume positions of leadership; and, as Jane Donawerth explains, “the dragons offer an alternative model for relationship,” one that is more positive than traditional masculine domination of women.” (p.9)

“A number of women science fiction writers use strong female protagonists whose position as outsiders enables them to connect not only with other beings, but also with other humans.” (p.9)

original“Her first novel, Restoree, was a space gothic romance, a new hybrid that few reviewers recognized. Anne wrote the novel because, she said, “After seven years of voracious reading in the field, I’d had it up to the eyeteeth with vapid women.” Anne’s willingness to write about love, sex, and emotion became her fiction’s identifying characteristic. As she later explained, “Emotional content and personal involvement are expected in stories by me. In fact, I have had stories returned to me by editors because they lacked these elements.” Anne sees these elements as essential to the transformation of the genre during her writing career: “With the injection of emotional involvement, a sexual jolt to the Romance and Glamour, science fiction rose out of pulp and into literature.”” (p.10)

“Dismissed as “diaper copy” in the 1960s, the fiction that Anne and other writers published brought feminine values such as mothering into science fiction. …But Anne’s work moves beyond conventional gender roles (there are very few diapers in her fictions) to deal with the emotional needs of girls and women.” (p.11)

“Anne repeatedly depicts outcast characters who radically change their circumstances by discovering they have a special skill.” (p.11)

Roberts refers to “the isolation and sense of being an outsider that shapes so much of her fiction.” (p.3)

“…one of the hallmarks of her novels is her ability to evoke in the reader the intense longings of adolescence. These longings are often satisfied by love by and for animals. Anne transformed this affection for animals into fictional creatures who have egalitarian relationships with humans: for example, the Dragonriders of Pern benefit from their dragons’ unconditional love and acceptance and telepathic communication.” (p.5)

Also, perhaps incidentally, but interestingly too, McCaffrey was someone who “…[put] you at ease. A friend and collaborator, Elizabeth Moon, recollected her first impression of Anne: “A blazing fire in a big fireplace. Gracious, warm, kindly – and the loveliest smile and laugh. I felt like I found another aunt. Oh, and that upright elegant look, too.”” (Moon, quoted p.4)

Ref: Robin Roberts (2007) Anne McCaffrey: A Life with Dragons. Jackson, MS, USA: University of Mississippi.

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