Anne McCaffrey died yesterday, and though I haven’t read a book of hers in years, I remember thinking about her just the other week, thinking how amazing it was that she was still going, thinking how without her, my whole teenage years might have been very different.
The very first SF-Fantasy-ish book I remember reading was Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle In Time,” followed by Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series. But both those books were given to me by adults, my father’s cousin and my mother, respectively. And they were both set in our world.
I was in fifth grade going through our school’s library. I’d brought in some books for a trade-in program they had, and I was allowed to pick one to take home. I saw this slender volume with a pretty girl surrounded by little dragons on the cover, and picked up “Dragonsong.”
I chose it myself. I still have that book, with its $1.95 cover price. It was a story on another world, with a young heroine and these magical creatures called “fire lizards” who became her faithful companions. It was a pretty classical YA book with the Cinderella themes McCaffrey loved: young woman in oppressive surroundings, terrible trauma, escape and redemption through her own strength of will.
My first real science fiction book
I devoured it, and the sequel, and moved on to “Dragonflight” and “Dragonquest.” “The White Dragon” came out soon after that, melding her more mature series with the YA themes I’d loved in “Dragonsong” and its sequel, and I thought it was the most amazing book. She didn’t shy away from adult situations (in the Dragonflight-quest-White Dragon series; the Harper Hall books remained a YA-proper PG). She made characters with flaws, and terrible things happened to them sometimes. Her characters changed; they became old and bitter, or they suffered from past mistakes. They also found redemption and love, satisfaction and triumph. And she loved animals. The dragons were wonderful characters in their own right: just human enough and just alien enough to be fascinating, to give that sense of closeness with the “other.” Not hard to see now why that would appeal to me, but her stories were the first to show me how that appeal could be given voice.
My closest friend all through high school shared these books with me. We cast the “Dragonflight” movie with other friends over and over again. We traded McCaffrey’s other works, and other science fiction books. I discovered Norton, Eddings, Niven, Asimov, Brust, Anthony; some have stayed with me and some have not, but that was how I spent seventh grade through the end of high school: reading. I wrote to her as part of a high school project to tell a favorite author what you liked about their books, and got a postcard back. She promised me that I would be on the list to get a fire lizard (I’m still waiting). I got other friends into the books; one of them tried to do an English paper that was supposed to be on a “Classic” book on the strength that “Dragonquest” was labeled a “SF Classic” by Del Rey.
In college, I fell away from McCaffrey somewhat. “Moreta” and then “Nerilka’s Story” proved a litle disappointing. I found other authors I liked better: Julian May, Susan Cooper, Stephen Donaldson (only the first series). I discovered Stephen King and Robert Heinlein. But when Anne McCaffrey came to BaltiCon, I jumped at the chance to go meet her. Nothing much happened; she signed a book for me (“The Mark of Merlin,” a very non-SF book with a German Shepherd dog featured prominently; it was and is rare and I was proud to have tracked it down–this was before the Internet, too), thanked me for reading, and that was that. But she was energetic, enthusiastic, and so, so nice: an exemplar of what an author should be in public.
I haven’t read her books in years and years, but I still keep them with me. I remember them fondly as the first time I was immersed in another world, one of the first books that I hated finishing because it meant I had to leave the world. It’s her books I think of whenever someone tells me I inspired that feeling in them, and I feel awed and humbled even to have that little connection.
From the eleven-year-old me in fifth grade, from the high school junior and the college student, from the reader and writer I am today: So long, Anne, and thanks for all the dragons.