Why I liked but didn’t love Anne McCaffrey – an obituary

I just read that Anne McCaffrey has died, 85 years of age.

This made me stop and think of those of her many (around 100, it would seem) novels I’ve read. I’ve of course hit the Pern books, first with the Danish translations of the “Harpers Hall” mini-series (Dragosong, Dragonsinger and Dragondrums), later with some of the books about dragonriders, including the first book, Dragonflight, and later on a number of the others – it’s been more than ten years since I read the last Pern book, as far as I can remember, and I can’t remember exactly which ones it was.

I’ve also read some of her books that are more obviously sci-fi: The ship that sang, about a girl with birth defects who is stuck in a tank and destined to end her days as the brains of a spaceship. Think HAL, but there’s an actual human brain in the middle of the circuits. The Crystal Singer books, about a woman who goes to harvest some special crystals on a special planet. The crystals are crucial to  interstellar communications and transport, and are thus very valuable. Finally, I read The Rowan, about a girl who turns out to be one of the strongest psychics in the known universe, and thus asked to take care of transporting goods to and from her solar system.

It seems I’ve only dipped my toe in the ocean that is Anne McCaffrey’s opus. I’ve enjoyed reading her books -but I also enjoyed the DaVinci code, the same way I also enjoy eating greasy McDonald’s food, so that’s not necessarily a criteria for reading, and certainly not for recommending, a book.

I also feel like she is a woman who wanted something with her books. The Pern books particularly are full of lessons about the codependence of humans upon each other, one group needing the other, and each individual having a worth in themselves and a need for others. Similarly in The ship who sang, in which, firstly, the ship is actually a disabled person, and where, even though

she’s a genuine spaceship, she still needs something – a Brawn to her Brain, someone who can walk around inside of her and take care of fiddly bits that require hands.

But at the same time, I have a few troubles with her – like the fact that she regularly states as a natural thing that her protagonist is bound by a lifelong debt to some company. Like Cillashandra from the Crystal Singer series, who racked up a massive dept from training and initial outfitting, and who then accumulates more debt every time she needs a new service from the company.

But there’s something else – something I find far more worrying and which leaves a far worse taste in my mouth: the way all of her heroines seem to end up in very, VERY conservative patterns. Basically, with two possible exceptions that I can think of, the heroines I’ve encountered in her books all end up playing second fiddle to a man. Often a younger man, but certainly a man they’ve somehow helped create, and then they realize that they are much better off being his adoring and supporting number 2. Like [spoilers galore] Killashandra, who finds a pretty young boy in book two, who comes to join her at the crystal planet in book three and end up leader of the guild. Or the Rowan, who is the strongest telepath they have, and who then discover a wild talent on a far away, forgotten planet, who is even stronger and who end up on top of the telepath hierarchy with her as number 2. Or Lessa, who risks her life traveling through time so that she can be a housewife and her husband can be a real, dragon flying, hero.

In short, I think Anne McCafrey has done a lot for sci-fi, and she has written many great books. I’d just wish they didn’t leave me with such a bad taste in my mouth.


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