Off the Shelf: Dragon Lady leaves lasting legacy

A look at the life of late science fiction author Anne McCaffrey and the Dragonriders series she left as her legacy.

The late Anne McCaffrey wrote her last book in her  Dragonriders series with her son, Todd McCaffrey.

The late Anne McCaffrey wrote her last book in her Dragonriders series with her son, Todd McCaffrey.

The world of science-fiction suffered a major loss late last year with the passing of author Anne McCaffrey, widely known as the Dragon Lady for her best-selling series of novels, Dragonriders of Pern.

McCaffrey, who had lived in Ireland since the 1970s, died at her home, Dragonhold – so named, she liked to say, because it had been paid for by dragons.  She was 85.

Although she had written many other books in different series, McCaffrey was indisputably best known for Dragonriders, written over four decades and comprising more than 20 novels.

The series, notable for combining elements of fantasy with pure science fiction, takes place on the planet Pern, which Earthlings have settled.  A utopian paradise at first, Pern has degenerated, after centuries of human habitation, into a tense feudal society.

The greatest threat to Pern is Thread, a type of deadly spore that rains down periodically.  To combat these Threadfalls, inhabitants have cultivated a species of large, airborne, friendly dragons, whose fiery breath can vanquish the Thread.

The series, which began in 1968 with Dragonflight, achieved the height of its popularity in 1978 with The White Dragon, the third entry in the series, and the only McCaffrey title (and the first science fiction novel) to break onto The New York Times bestseller list.

Over the years, however, her books sold millions of copies, and the world of Pern became so all-encompassing to those who entered it that it gave rise to a concordance, The Dragonlover’s Guide to Pern, by Jody Lynn Nye.

Over the last decade as her health faded, McCaffrey increasingly collaborated with her son Todd, who coauthored five Pern-based novels and wrote three others on his own. The 23rd novel, Dragon’s Time, was published in June with mother and son sharing the writing credit, while the 24th, Sky Dragons, is set for publication this year.

McCaffrey was born in Cambridge, Mass., on April 1, 1926 and began writing at the age of eight. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Slavonic languages and literature from Radcliffe, and trained as an actress and opera singer before turning full-time to writing.

McCaffrey’s honors include the two highest awards of her genre: a Hugo, which she won in 1968 for her novella Weyr Search, later incorporated into the Dragonriders series; and a Nebula, for the novella Dragonriders, also incorporated into the series.  She was the first woman to win both awards.

Bestselling fantasy author Steven Hunt wrote this recently about McCaffrey’s books and legacy:  “She was too modest to regard them as classics, but classics of the genre are what they became, outlandish planet-threatening mycorrhizoid spores and all. In a genre whose audience is often stereotyped as geeky males, in which its female authors often still feel it is a boys-only club when it comes to reviews of their work and airtime, McCaffrey was up there with Robert A Heinlein, Arthur C Clarke and Jack Williamson. She’ll be deeply missed.”

–– Maureen Curry is the chief librarian at the Vernon branch of the Okanagan Regional Library. Her book column, Off the Shelf, appears bi-weekly in The Morning Star.

Vernon Morning Star