In the Smart Pop Classics series, we share greatest hits from our throwback essay collections. In “Anne McCaffrey, Believer in Us” from Dragonwriter: A Tribute to Anne McCaffrey and Pern, David Brin discusses how beloved science fiction writer Anne McCaffrey redefined the notion of dragons, science, and the fictional feudal era that placed Pern in a league of its own. Dive into the unique and unabashedly brilliant mechanisms that made Pern and its dragons legendary symbols for forward progress, innovation, and hope for coming generations.
Let me tell you about a colleague and friend, a wonderfully vivid writer who entertained millions, who also helped distill for me the essence of my profession. It happened one day when we were both being interviewed by a reporter who referred to the famous McCaffrey Dragonriders of Pern books as fantasy novels.
Oh, how Anne bristled! With clenched restraint, she corrected the reporter: “I don’t write fantasy. I am a science fiction author.”
Now, a great many people have tried to define the difference between fantasy and SF, two cousin genres that share the same section in most bookstores and the same professional organizations, yet always appear to be in a state of tension. Some try to explain the distinction as a matter of past versus future; or settings that shift from medieval, mystical realms to far, far interstellar space; or the various gimmicks and tools (e.g., swords versus spaceships) that empower characters to make epic journeys or take on impossible odds. One can argue that there is a vast moral distinction between magic and science—for example, in the way that mages almost invariably deal in secret knowledge that they share only grudgingly with normal folk. That happens in science too, but those scientists are called villainous or “mad.”
And sure, one can easily see how some folks make simple, lazy assumptions about the central epic tale created by Anne McCaffrey. Hey, if it’s got dragons, well then, it must belong in the same category as Tolkien, right?
Anne dealt with that part of it swiftly. “My dragons were genetically engineered. Scientists designed them to help colonists save themselves from a terrible environmental threat.
Hmm, well, okay. Only you’ve got to sympathize, at first, with folks who make the fantasy assumption by glancing at her covers or skimming some random scenes. It’s not just the dragons, you see. Most of Anne’s tales are filled with colorful characters who don’t just face challenges and danger; they also have skills, jobs, and crafts that are linked to a feudal-like setting. They farm and weave and make things like candles and ink and tapestries and epic oral poems. There are great stone castle holds, with much talk of herbal lore and fathom-deep traditions. Her pages are rich with duels and nobles and bards and songs and brave knights of the sort that are standard fare in your typical fantasy novel If you’re going to judge by superficialities, like the furniture, then it’s easy to see why some people make assumptions.
But Anne was insistent. There is a deeper difference, and it goes to the heart of what makes her tales science fiction, after all. The characters in her Pern epic start out dwelling in a feudal setting, all right. But unlike the endlessly repeated trope protagonists in all those Tolkien-clone universes, most of them don’t want to! Moreover, they don’t intend to—not for any longer than they must.
In the course of Anne McCaffrey’s fictional universe—as the stories unfold—people discover relics of an older time and learn that things weren’t always this way—with peasant-serfs tied to the rocky land, wracked by filth, pestilence, and arbitrary rule by hereditary lords, with gender and class roles stiffly predefined and strictly enforced, with people staring in occasional wonder at the great dragonriders who protect them from raining death.
“Sure, their condition is eased by a myriad of lovely traditions and crafts, reflecting the makeshift creativity of brave folk, by improvising—making the best of things across centuries of darkness. As a fallback position, feudalism can be a preferable stopgap to keep from tumbling all the way down to caveman or tribal existence . . . or extinction. Despite all of its wretched aspects, including deep and inherent injustice, feudalism has another side; its horrors can be moderated and softened, even livened by the ingenuity and pride of clever, brave folk. And McCaffrey’s Pernese characters—in one deeply moving tale after another—brilliantly illustrate both sides.
Only, during the span of many novels, they come to discover a core truth: that things could be better. That once upon a time they were better. That their civilization fell, long ago, from a height so great that people once voyaged between stars, cured disease, led unconstrained lives, pondered secrets of the universe . . . and even made dragons.
Moreover—and here is what distinguishes the characters of an Anne McCaffrey novel from those who live in similar situations penned by other authors—as soon as they realize how much they’ve lost, they start wanting to get all of those things back.
By the third Dragonriders novel, where they find cryptic remnants from the interstellar times—and as more relics and clues are uncovered in later books—Anne’s characters know that there’s a different way. People don’t have to live in grimy ignorance and violence, even lightened by clever medieval arts. It will be a long climb back, but they itch to get their hands on flush toilets, movable type, computers, and democracy. And one thing is certain—they are going to quit being feudal, just as soon as they can.
Perhaps when they become starfarers once again, they will remember fondly the lore that stitched them together during the long Dark Age. They may keep singing the songs, and even doff their hats to the scion of a lordly family or the current dragonmaster . . . so long as they have helped bring the renaissance and truly merit honor. Oh, but if those high and mighty ones get in the way? Try to obstruct?
I pity the fools.
Oh, sure. Feudalism tugs at something deep within us. Those images of lords and secretive mages and so on resonate in our hearts because we’re all descended from the harems of guys who managed to pull off that trick of grabbing for themselves a pinnacle of inherited power. Why else would we, the heirs of enlightenment heroes, like Franklin and Lincoln and Edison, who finally ended the 6,000-year feudal hell, run off to fantasy flicks filled with bickering kings and elves and wizards and masters of arcane arts? We all have magic crystals on our tables that let us peer at distant lands, sift through all the world’s knowledge, and converse with folk all around the globe. But how much more romantic to imagine that only a dozen demigods and mages had palantírs, instead of five billion peasant citizens!
No, there is clearly something deeply appealing about those old ways, the symbols and terrors and pastoral pleasures and songs. Anne McCaffrey certainly made good use of those resonating themes, and more power to her!
But Anne’s notion of the time flow of wisdom was always aimed forward, rooted in a love and gratitude and belief in progress, in our ability to raise better generations, in a hope that more wondrous days will come.
She was a science fiction author—one of the best. And I’m proud to say she was my friend.
DAVID BRIN is a scientist, tech speaker/consultant, and author. His new novel about our survival in the near future is Existence. A film by Kevin Costner was based on The Postman. His sixteen novels, including New York Times bestsellers and Hugo Award winners, have been translated into more than twenty languages. Earth foreshadowed global warming, cyberwarfare, and the World Wide Web. David appears frequently on shows such as Nova, The Universe, and Life After People, speaking about science and future trends. His non-fiction book The Transparent Society: Will Technology Make Us Choose Between Freedom and Privacy? won the Freedom of Speech Award of the American Library Association.
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