I just learned that the last of the three authors who influenced me most as a child has died. Rest in peace Anne McCaffrey.
My three writer role models were Roger Zelazny, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and McCaffrey. Oh, of course I also read Tolkien, and Madeleine L’Engle, and Frank Herbert. But Zelazny, Bradley, and McCaffrey were my “big three.” I never took to Heinlein or Asimov (though I liked his YA nonfiction a lot), Robert Silverberg left no impression, Piers Anthony likewise–in one eye and out the other. I liked Frederick Pohl’s columns in Writer’s Digest, but his books didn’t stick with me. But Zelazny, Bradley, and McCaffrey I read over and over, multiple books, multiple times, actively trying to learn from them.
I was a writer from very early on. (My mother has lovingly preserved “books” I wrote when I was four, before I knew of the concept of correct spelling.) I always wanted to write science fiction and fantasy. I think I was drawn to it most because of the way the genre speaks to outsider status. I knew from very young I wasn’t like other kids even though I didn’t then comprehend all the reasons (cultural, social, sexual, et cetera…) so even if I didn’t exactly see myself in a sf/fantasy book, I could still imagine a place for myself there.
I never met any of my three role models, even though I have met many of my subsequent favorites, and I have worked professionally with many of their peers. Zelazny passed first of the trio, in 1995. At that time my pro career was just really taking off. I had finished my masters degree in writing in 1994, and I had a couple dozen short story sales under my belt, Circlet Press was doing solid business, and I had just bought a house with the intent to focus on writing and publishing full time.
Hearing of his death was a blow, because of all the writers whose books I’d read and re-read, his were the ones that raised the most questions. What was going on here? Why was that there? My impression of Zelazny was that he was more like a jazz musician than a composer. He pulled you along into a virtuosic solo that clearly had a deep structure underlying it but flashes of brilliant improvisation driving it. When the solo, or book, was over, you remembered its brilliance and the enjoyment of the moment but without necessarily ever reaching the point of understanding what was going on. I wanted to write like that. For the first 15 years of my career, though, I really didn’t. In recent years, I’m starting to improv more and more. And the resolutions of my novels keep getting better and better. I just keep having faith that everything is going to work out.
Of course not every solo is as brilliant as every other, and Zelazny had his stinkers and mediocre books, too. Much of the second Amber series leaves me scratching my head. He seemed to be noodling, on autopilot, meandering. But jazz solos are often like that, only to bring it all together in one heart-stopping final run through of the chord progression. Zelazny never had a chance to write that final wrap-up that would have tied together the Corwin and Merlin series, though many fans and scholars have tried to divine where it would have gone. It is music we can only imagine in our dreams.
Next to pass was Marion Zimmer Bradley, in 1999, but which time my career was well-established, but the book industry was in crises. Bradley’s Darkover books were influential on me for two main reasons. One, even to a 12-year-old who hadn’t yet formed any kind of a queer consciousness, those books were steeped in stealth queerness. Books like “Hawkmistress” in which a girl protagonist masquerades as a boy, and the homosocial-cum-homoerotic underpinnings of the Heritage of Hastur, even though the stuff was fairly well couched and buried I felt its presence. It drove me to read more, as if one day I might come to the book where she actually spelled out these adult mysteries. What I didn’t know until much much later, after I’d become a GLBT sexuality activist myself, was that MZB herself wrote for The Mattachine Society newsletters (Google it) and was a member of the Daughters of Bilitis. She wrote some explicitly gay and lesbian pulp novels, like “The Catch Trap,” about two gay trapeze artists, and “I Am A Lesbian.”
Bradley herself was not simply categorized, having had two marriages to men. I appreciate for obvious reasons a role model who couldn’t be easily labeled, though when I was a teenager I knew none of that about her.
The other thing that influenced me greatly in her work was not just the queer-positive underpinnings, but the way she developed the Darkover universe. That she could tell so many different stories within that one universe, moving through different eras and drawing us into the lives of very different characters, intrigued me greatly. Character was something I felt was lacking in a lot of the sf books I got out of the library. I was also fascinated by the fact that the Darkover books straddled that line of science fiction/fantasy. It was another planet, so it was “science fiction” but some of the stories were set in a feudal pre-technology past, so it was “fantasy.” Right? Fortunately for readers, the bookstores then, as now, lumped sf and fantasy on one shelf.
Which brings us to Anne McCaffrey. Her Dragonrider books opened my mind in much the same way as Bradley’s. Here was another series that seemed to be both science fiction and fantasy at the same time. Faraway planet, but with dragons, some kind of space colony, but a feudal society. Here also was a dollop of stealth queerness–just one passing mention that green and blue dragonriders might take the natural step when their dragons did their thing was plenty for me. And here was another writer who found ways to tell multiple stories apart from just one main saga. The Harper Hall books gave me a completely different look at the Dragonrider universe from the “Lessa” books. It was another piece of evidence to me that there is never just One True Story, but that writing is always a game of negotiation and choice, exploring the territory and sometimes getting sidetracked, and sometimes needing multiple tries before defining the biggest mountain and how to get over it.
She also wrote one of the first erotic science fiction stories I ever read, in her short story collection “Get Off The Unicorn” (which I swear I only just now realized is a terrible/wonderful double entendre) and which she wrote frankly about in the author commentary in the book. I suppose you could say a seed was planted.
McCaffrey also opened my mind–and closed it again–to the genre of romance. The Lessa and F’lar relationship is classically romantic, and I enjoyed it. But the book that convinced me I had to part ways with “romance” was Killashandra, the sequel to Crystal Singer. Crystal Singer had a headstrong female protagonist with a love interest, but it also had a plot that, in my teenage editorial opinion, “made sense.” The sequel, Killashandra, was the first book I read that had a plot that only made emotional sense, but didn’t make logical sense. The love story, which followed a fairly straightforward formula in which the heroine and her love interest have a falling out, are separated, and then get back together in the end, dominated the entire book. I might have been all right with that except that the machinations that were necessary to separate the two and then get them back together strained credulity.
I complained about this to a friend at the time, who told me these things were normal in romance novels. That was when I decided never to read a romance novel, which is just the sort of naive conclusion a teenage reader would come to. (Looking at the copyright page of the book it would appear I read it shortly before going off to college, or possibly in my one summer at home after freshman year.)
I know a bit better now, of course, about how genre informs a reader’s expectations and allows a writer to improvise. I might as well have listened to one piece of classical music, decided violins and cymbal crashes were smarmy, and never listened to music again. It took me until I began writing my own romance novels and fantasy novels that incorporated romance plot lines to appreciate the value of that emotional kick and the reason why a novelist might reach so far into incredulity. McCaffrey took the chance that someone like me might slip off the dragon’s back as it took the reader on a thrill ride. I still try not to strain my readers’ credulity but it was a valuable lesson to consider. She wasn’t afraid to “go there.”
I’m saddened to hear of her passing, but at the same time I’m quite ready to celebrate the incredible body of work she leaves us with, over 100 books (I haven’t come close to reading them all), with writing spanning six decades. Which is why she is still a role model to me now, decades after my teenage aspirations have been realized. Rest in peace, Anne, in that great beyond where all your fantasies are fulfilled.