It was with great sadness that I read today of Anne McCaffrey’s death.
I remember the very moment that I discovered Anne McCaffrey’s work. I was standing in my aunt and uncle’s dining room after some family gathering, almost on the way out of the door, when my uncle picked a book off his shelf and offered it to me, suggesting that it might be something I’d enjoy. It was Anne McCaffrey’s The White Dragon. I can’t remember the year, but it would have had to be after 1979, when I was 8, and given the already well-thumbed nature of the book, I suspect it might have been a couple of years later.
I was hooked. McCaffrey’s writing was amazing. The story flowed so beautifully, I really couldn’t put it down. I’d always been one for reading books under the bedcovers with a torch and with McCaffrey’s books I had found a writer whose work spoke to me in a way that other writers didn’t and kept me reading long into the night (and much to the consternation of my mother).
I often joke that I moved straight from Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys to Asimov and EE Doc Smith and Heinlein, but that’s not far off reality. I never throw books away and have very, very few from that age that are traditional children’s or YA books. In fact, most of the YA books in my collection are ones I’ve bought as an adult (e.g. Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising series). I didn’t get pocket money to speak of, so my reading was pretty much constrained by whatever my Dad had about. So, Night of the Trilobites it was, then.
But, as good as all that was, I can’t really say that I identified with many of the characters I found in those books. In fact, these days, I’m hard pushed to remember any female characters that I could genuinely admire at all. I mean, Friday is a great book, but it’s hard to identify with an artificial, genetically engineered woman who works as a combat courier.
McCaffrey, on the other hand, had strong female characters at the centre of many of her books that were believable, admirable, and the kind of people that I could aspire to be. They weren’t Mary Sues either. Lessa, one of McCaffrey’s key female protagonists from the Pern series, is smart, sassy, brave, but also arrogant, stubborn and grumpy.
Many of McCaffrey’s female characters came from positions of disadvantage: The Rowan was an orphan; Helva, the Ship who Sang, was severely disabled; Menolly was socially outcast from her community; Killashandra was a singer with a flawed voice. As a bit of a loner myself, these were characters whose troubles I could identify with, yet their successes were hard won and their struggles never trite or contrived. These were women I could look up to, who were successful on their own terms and who saw men as equals. These were women I wanted to be.
I remember several years ago reading somewhere, in some sort of ‘dictionary of science fiction’, that some critics looked down on McCaffrey’s work, seeing it as some kind of sop to girlie teenage romanticism, and feeling angry without really realising why (other than that they had slated one of my favourite authors). Now, running Ada Lovelace Day, I know exactly why McCaffrey’s work was sometimes belittled and why it made me so angry: McCaffrey wrote strong, smart women in a genre that was horrendously male-dominated and, sadly, some men find the only way to cope with strong women is to undermine them and, in this case, that meant derogating McCaffrey and her characters.
McCaffrey’s contribution to science fiction and literature was tremendous. As Tor said, she was “the first woman to win a Hugo Award for fiction, the first woman to win a Nebula Award, and the first author to hit the New York Times bestseller list with an SF title (The White Dragon).”
But for me, and I suspect for many others, she was also the first author to speak so directly to my experiences growing up as a girl on the edges of community. She was the first science fiction author I read who I truly believed would have understood, completely and implicitly, what it was like to be me. It was her writing, more than anyone’s, that shaped my view of what the world could be and, more importantly, what I could be. It was Anne McCaffrey who told me that I could be myself, could be outcast and still be successful.
I’m much less of the social outcast now than I was growing up, but I wouldn’t have grown up to be the woman I am without Anne McCaffrey’s fictional role models to light my way. All those long nights, reading her books under the covers, gave me strength and inspiration that no one else at the time seemed able to provide.