Saturday, 4 October 2014

The Blog Fantastic 028: Dragonwriter: A Tribute to Anne McCaffrey and Pern review

I’ve been a fan of Anne McCaffrey since my early teens. For a few years after high school I fell out of touch with her and her writing because I discovered comics full force and that consumed my free time for a while. I’ve actually had the pleasure of rediscovering her Dragonriders of Pern series when I started writing The Blog Fantastic project here on the blog. Even though I’d discovered things about her writing that I don’t like, I’ve really enjoyed immersing myself in the world of Pern all over again. It’s been one of my favourite science fiction and fantasy settings since I read Dragonsdawn. It’s not just the setting or dragons or other interesting science ideas that make her writing interesting to me and hundreds of thousands of other readers. McCaffrey has a knack for weaving interesting and meaningful themes in her work and populating her stories with engaging characters. There are characters in Dragonriders of Pern that I like as characters but dislike as people because she writes them so well.

Anne McCaffrey passed away on November 21, 2011 at the age of 85. That was during the time when I had read one of her novels in at least three years but I was saddened by the loss of one of my youth’s favourite writers. I’m usually not one to feel overly saddened when a celebrity (author, actor, director, etc.) dies. I usually feel sad and sorry for their family but this one, like few have before, hit me where it hurt. That’s one of the reasons I picked up Dragonwriter. I wanted to read something that wasn’t by McCaffrey but about her. I know there are at least two biographies out there but something strictly biographical wasn’t exactly what I had in mind. I wanted something that would discuss her as much as it would also deal with the importance of her writing. I didn’t know that’s what I wanted at the time but after reading Dragonwriter, I realise that I had an itch for that exact book but I doubt I would ever have been able to say so in so many words or in any great detail.

My feelings and my reaction to this book are all over the place. There is a lot of good stuff and a bit of bad but mostly it feels very genuine as the people who contributed clearly cared a great deal about McCaffrey and her work. Instead of blabbering on for pages, I’ll try and keep this short but I need to impose some obvious structure to this review. Below are quick summaries of the articles and tributes collected in Dragonwriter and some of my thoughts on the ones I enjoyed the most.

Anne McCaffrey, Believer in Us by David Brin
McCaffrey was a science fiction writer, no a fantasy writer (more on this later). One of her great themes found in the Dragonriders of Pern series is humanity's conscious effort to better itself. By always looking toward the future, we progress and that's what fuels most of the characters in Pern

Why Are You Reading This Stupid Shirt? By Share Lee and Steve Miller
This article is anecdotal in nature (the first of many). Lee and Miller tell the story of their friendship with Anne which revolves around convention visits and correspondence. We get to see McCaffrey as a fan and as a supporter of other science fiction authors. Lee and Miller aren't specifically celebrating McCaffrey's professional achievements, though there is certainly some elements of that, they focus on the personally and professionally results of their friendship with McCaffrey. 

Star Power by John Goodwin
A short article about McCaffrey's continued involvement in supporting budding science fiction authors, specifically with the L. Ron Hubbard the Writers of the Future program. This is the second article where mention is made of McCaffrey's crazy scooter driving skills in her later years. It's a hilarious mental image.

How the Dragonlady Saved My Life by David Gerrold
A long-time friend of the family, David Gerrold tells the story of how McCaffrey provided him with emotional sanctuary in a time where he needed it most. The experience taught him how to roll win the punches and keep moving forward.

Bookends by Robert Neilson
Neilson recounts moments in his life when he got to see firsthand just how professional, fun and, more importantly, generous McCaffrey could be. Family and friends meant a great deal to her and she always made the effort to help other when they needed it.

Lessons from Lessa by Elizabeth Moon
Moon is the second contributor to argue that Pern is science fiction. One of her arguments is Lessa. She was a unique female character archetype that, at the time of Pern’s first story didn’t exist and is still an interesting character today. Interesting, fully fleshed out female characters didn’t exist in other genres. Especially not in fantasy where they were often sideline characters or objects of desire. I enjoyed the snippets where she mentions the ways in which McCaffrey resembled some of her characters.

Flying in New Directions by Robin Roberts
This is a very interesting essay on McCaffrey's literary impact on the field of science fiction. Unsurprisingly, a lot of this is rooted in her being a female novelist and dealing with many feminist themes. That's not all though, in addition to using these themes in her work, McCaffrey's books were popular and sold very well. That invariably contributed to the influence of her writing on generations of writers. I particularly enjoyed how Roberts made the association between traditionally female arts, poetry, song and weaving them in her stories in ways that made them important to the books in questions. Pern’s survival depended on the use of traditionally female arts.  

That’s not all, by writing about women and their bonds with dragons, McCaffrey was able to address a wide range of women's issues: relationship, sexuality, social influence and power, etc.

Roberts, like many articles so far, also mentions McCaffrey's generosity but in a different context. McCaffrey co-authored several books with up-and-coming female novelists who often later developed into critically acclaimed authors. Some of those authors who've benefitted from McCaffrey's generosity, friendship and guidance have contributed to this book: Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, Elizabeth Moon, Lois McMaster Bujold, Mercedes Lackey, and Elizabeth Ann Scarborough. 

Modeling the Writer’s Life by Lois McMaster Bujold
Bujold writes about her career and how it was modelled, subconsciously or not, after McCaffrey's. It might seem obvious for an aspiring writer to have done so considering she grew up reading McCaffrey's body of work but it's an engaging insight into writers and their literary influences. McCaffrey also influenced some of Bujold's life decisions. In short, this essay is about the effects of modelling yourself after another person and to make sure you model yourself after the best kind people there are: like McCaffrey who was a worthy example to follow both as a professional writer and matriarch of a loving and supporting family. 

All the Weyrs of Pern by Wen Spencer
Fan fiction (or fan fiction) can be a hot topic for some people. Some professional writers have stated their disapproval of fanfic, arguing that it's bad practice for budding writers and it's also a breach of copyright. I'm of the opinion that it can be a great teaching tool for aspiring writers, especially genre writers because it allows you to focus on the structure of a story without having to worry about world building. Like anything else, relying solely on that kind of writing can likely also stilt a writer’s growth. Spencer deals with this idea in her essay. It's interesting to learn about her development as a writer, guided by her understanding of McCaffrey's Pern novels and the opinion and support of friends. For all of the criticisms you can make of fanfic, it's clear that it can have a beneficial impact on genre writers. Spender exemplifies that and her story is interesting on more than one level. 

The McCaffrey Effect by Jody Lynn Nye and Bill Fawcett
A retrospective of organized Pern fandom. The writers of the article make the link between Pern and McCaffrey's fans and what exactly it was about her work that inspired people to reach out with similarly minded people and create a space (real and, later on, vitural) for themselves to share in their common interests. 

The Ships that Were by Mercedes Lackey
Yet another article of a writer who has collaborated with McCaffrey and learned a valuable lesson (or several) in the process. Lackey presents an interpretation of McCaffrey's worldview and how she used that to good effect in her The Ship Who Sang stories. I’ve never any of them but it’s described as a dystopian setting that was different due to McCaffrey's approach to intentionally avoid wallowing in the self-pitying stories of dystopian fiction. In other words, dystopia with a positive twist. Lackey also integrates the real-world origins of this dystopian future in the social realities of the daily lives of disabled individual as it was during the 60s and 90s (the time the stories were written).  Unlike many science fiction writers who focused on the technological, McCaffrey focused on the social and projected that to the future to form a dystopian setting for her stories.

The Dragonlady’s Songs by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough
It was just a matter of time until I reached an article that would focus on music and its importance to both McCaffrey and her work. Scarborough discussed at length on the meaning of music for McCaffrey's novels and she also compares the sources of inspiration for the author. There are also some insightful comparisons between the real world teaching ballads and those found in the Dragonriders of Pern.

Religion on Pern? By Richard J. Woods
Writes about McCaffrey's connection to religion and the role it played in her fiction and her personal life. Honestly, it’s not something I’ve ever associated with Pern but after reading this thoughtful tribute, it’s going to be impossible to disassociate the two. I wouldn’t describe McCaffrey as a particularly subtle or nuanced writer but Woods has convinced me that she can be very nuanced when dealing with certain subjects. I’ll be paying attention to this the next time I read one of her novels.

Annie and Horses by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro
A brief tribute to McCaffrey and her love of horses, a love which Yarbro shared. There isn't much more to it but it's nice to have that facet of McCaffrey non-writing related life mentioned in this collection.

Picturing Pern by Michael Whelan
Whelan shares some comps, detailed sketches of cover ideas, for some of his Pern paintings. He also provides some insight as to the mutual beneficial impact he and McCaffrey had on each other early in their respective careers. Dragonwriter gave Whelan the opportunity to illustrate yet another cover related to McCaffrey’s work.

Red Star Rising by Alec Johnson
Johnson, McCaffrey's eldest son, recounts how his mother's support and encouragement has shaped his life. He also shares how her most famous work, the Pern series acted as an introduction to social and environmental activism, something in which is still a big part of his life today.

Changes Without Notice by Angelina Adams
This is an emotionally devastating essay. It brought me near to tears while also putting me in awe at the power of the written word. Adams also writes about the strength she gained from continued friendship with other fans of McCaffrey’s body of work. To say anymore would take away from Adam’s heartfelt and sincere tribute to McCaffrey’s and Pern’s positive and reinvigorating impact on her life.

The Twithead with the Dragon Tattoo by Charlotte Moore
I believe Moore is the youngest contributor to this collection and I think it's great that she was included. For a moment I thought there wasn't going to be a point-of-view from some of McCaffrey's younger fans but there is and I'm thankful for that. Like most other writers who preceded her in this book (that is, if you reading then in order - I haven't quite done that) her life has partially been a result of McCaffrey's influence, through her writing and during chance encounters (virtual and in the physical world). It's also a funny companion piece (in more than one way) to Adams's essay which precedes it. Moore’s tribute also stands out from the rest for being rather hilarious.

The Masterharper Is Gone by Janis Ian
This tribute is reminding me just how many facets people have in their life. They are multiple different people to other people. To Ian, McCaffrey was an older friend and a fellow artist. Their particular bond meant that their friendship was different than the others described in this book. Likewise McCaffrey impact on Ian is also different as it the impact of her death on Ian. What surprised me most about this essay is that it clearly states that the strong, positive, encouraging, kind and downright wonderful woman described in this book also had darker times in her past years. Nothing out of the ordinary mind you (at least not that I could tell from Ian's writing) but self-doubt can be a difficult thing to live with and it helps to have a friend who understands that and offers genuine and honest advice.

Universal Mum by Georgeanne Kennedy
This story ties all of the other ones together. McCaffrey as the Universal Mum. Yup, that works. McCaffrey was many things to many people but those two words someone encompass all of it. 

Todd McCaffrey, Anne McCaffrey’s son and collaborator on several Pern novels contributed the Introduction and the Afterword of Dragonwriter. He also introduced all of the other articles and tributes. Like any anthology or work that has multiple contributors, Dragonwriter has its peaks and valleys. That’s ok though because it’s a very positive book and the contributions that I didn’t enjoy as much were still interesting to read. It’s rather breathtaking to realize just how much McCaffrey has an impact on people around as a person, not just as a writer. I chuckled a bit at all of the mentions in this book that Pern is science fiction, not fantasy. It seems that McCaffrey had an aversion to having her most famous series mislabelled. I’m culpable of that myself as I’ve reviewed a few Pern novels under the banner of my Blog Fantastic project. To me, they're a combination of both genres but if I really had to choose I would invariably say they're science fiction. It’s just convenient for me to list them as fantasy as it gives me an excuse (and some additional incentive) to write about her novels at Shared Universe Reviews. A similar thing can be said of Dragonwriter and McCaffrey’s novels. It doesn’t matter why you read them or what you label them. It’s clear that McCaffrey was and is still an important writer of science fiction and any excuse to take the time to acknowledge that and discuss the impact and influence of her work on several generations of writers and fans is a good excuse. If you’ve ever been interested in McCaffrey of The Dragonriders of Pern, I encourage you to pick up a copy of this book as you’re sure to enjoy this wonderful tribute.

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