I had no reason to think about this until today; no reason to remember it until i heard the news that legendary fantasist Anne McCaffrey had died Monday at the age of 85. What i’ve remembered is that the Dragonriders of Pern was the first real fantasy and speculative fiction i ever read.
I’d read SF before then, including Theodore Sturgeon and Robert A. Heinlein, but the worlds of those books were simply our world with a twist. I’d read fantasy before, starting with The Hobbit and C.S. Lewis in third grade, but those were nominally kids’ books. Tales. Fables. Amazing fables, to be sure, but the worlds that Lewis and Tolkien had crafted were worlds i likewise recognized, because they were familiar from the same archetypes that had long ago splintered off to create Snow White and The Black Cauldron. But it was only a year after Sturgeon and Lewis and Tolkien that at the age of 10, i saw a copy of Dragonflight at my local drugstore and felt myself sucked into the cover of that circa-1974 paperback edition.
Reading McCaffrey at age ten is not a thing i would necessarily recommend. I remember struggling at the outset to read Dragonflight. I remember feeling like i was missing about half of what was going on, particularly the politics, the sense of history, and oh, yeah, the hot dragon/human group-sex-at-a-distance motif. But even as i worked my through Dragonflight, a thing happened at the tender age of ten that set the bar for my love of fantasy for the rest of my life. The more things that i didn’t understand, the more determined i became to dig deep enough into Pern that i could make them real.
And so i did. And over the space of three-hundred-odd pages, i felt Pern come alive in my mind. I learned the ways of the Weyrs and their people. I felt the history of McCaffrey’s world slowly set its ageless impressions into me. I felt the trepidation of a people who craved peace so much that they forgot their deadliest enemies. I let the thread scare the ever-loving crap out me in the best mindless-fantasy-creature tradition. (I had seen the Steve McQueen version of The Blob shortly beforehand, which probably helped.) For the space of the summer it took me to read Dragonflight, I walked in Pern in a way that i had never walked in Narnia. I felt Pern like i wouldn’t feel Middle Earth until Lord of the Rings a half-dozen years later. I knew Pern like i’ve since come to know a hundred different F&SF realms, from Ringworld to the Sprawl, from Greyhawk to Westeros, in all the years since.
I haven’t read an Anne McCaffrey book in a long while now. As with the works of Frank Herbert and his overly loquacious offspring, the Pern books eventually ran on just a little too long for my taste, though i have no quibble with their quality or the love that McCaffrey clearly brought to bear on her continued exploration of her world. But even so, more than thirty years after Dragonflight called to me one afternoon from a drugstore bookshelf, this is the legacy that Anne McCaffrey has left me with — the idea that the best fantasy and speculative fiction is that which allows a reader to step into a real, living world, no matter how far that world’s most basic dramatic foundations are pushed by the imagination. Anne McCaffrey taught me some of my first lessons of character story, of the value of real dilemma and human emotion in fantasy, of the rules of storytelling that let us use our fantasy worlds to hold a mirror up to the fear and the pain and the pathos of the real world.
I replaced that longlost copy of Dragonflight today, and i’m sorry that didn’t happen sooner. I’m sorry it takes so long to remember these things.