Tuesday, November 22, 2011

On Anne McCaffrey and Genre Borderlines

I was deeply saddened today to hear of the passing of Anne McCaffrey. I first discovered her work because, as a child, I had a propensity to pick up from the library or bookstore any book I found featuring the keyword "dragon" in the title. ("Magic" was also a strong indicator that I would like a book.) The first one I ever read was actually Dragonsinger, and I think it was the combination of the word "dragon" and the enticing illustration of a girl surrounded by miniature dragons that first drew me in.

Perhaps because I had dragons and fantasy on my mind, for many years I figured that McCaffrey's world was one of fantasy. It bore some key similarities - low technology living and societal structure being two examples - to prototypical fantasy worlds. However, because I loved the books so much, I continued to read on and on, and as those of you who have done the same will know, I eventually discovered that Pern was not a fantasy world after all. It was a science fictional world. In fact, it wasn't until this year that I realized Dragonflight had first been published in Analog!

Over the years I've spent getting to know the science fiction and fantasy-writing community as an author, I've realized that the borderlines between genres are both highly contested and relatively fluid. They follow the pattern of most categories that we identify: that is, there are some works that are considered prototypically one or the other, but in fact each genre is characterized by a number of features. The number of features possessed by any given work can vary, but only a very few are strong "genre-breakers," and even these - like dragons - can be fit into a different scheme if we pay close attention to the features that surround them.

When we read, we draw conclusions based on either the presence of a thing, or its absence (like, say, electricity). The easiest world models to grasp are the ones that fit with our existing expectations of the world, where the presence of one aspect of our technological life, or our social life, will automatically imply the rest. Those world models are the prototypes, that fall smack in the center of what we imagine fantasy or science fiction to be. The ones I've always admired most, however, are the ones where our expectations are defeated in one way or another. Books where every aspect of the world fits seamlessly with the rest, but in a configuration that does not conform to our expectations.

This was the kind of world I imagined when I first set out to create Varin. And while I take Ursula LeGuin's worlds as models I want to emulate, I think that the stamp of Anne McCaffrey on my fundamental concepts is unmistakable. Both Pern and Varin are worlds where technology has gone into decline (though Varin's technology level hasn't fallen nearly as far as Pern's). Both are worlds where certain phenomena appear to be magical, since though they are central to the people's lives, they aren't deeply understood. Both are worlds where societal structure has taken on an archaic feel for locally important reasons. And both, as a result, have one foot in fantasy and the other in science fiction.

I am grateful to Anne McCaffrey for what her books have taught me - personally as well as in my writing. I can only hope that what I create will live up to the example she has shown. And I hope also that all of us will take inspiration from her vision, which crossed over genre borderlines and created an enduring world that felt alive, and at the same time was constantly surprising.


  1. Dragonsinger was my first MCCaffrey read as well. A beautiful tribute to an amazing author.

  2. Oh yes, that is so true, although I never put it in those words before.

    I adored Dragonsinger as a teen.

    Good bye Anne McCaffrey.

  3. Raelyn and Nicole, thanks for your comments.

  4. Wow. I read some of her books. She gave me great inspiration.

  5. My connection to Anne McCaffrey is similar as she is one of the first spec fic authors I ever read. However, I read her as science fiction, and refused to read any fantasy for the longest while. She and MZB began my love of sociological SF, which in an odd way brought me to you as well :).