The Ship Who Sang — Anne McCaffrey

Cover of The Ship Who Sang

The Ship Who Sang
Anne McCaffrey
205 pages
published in 1969

Some writers you can only appreciate if you discover them in the golden age of science fiction — twelve — because at that age you’re less likely to notice the two dimensional characters, slipshod plotting or obnoxious politics you would’ve noticed as a more experienced reader. McCaffrey is such a writer for me. I loved her books when I was twelve and reading them from the local library, but trying my hand at some of her later works ended in disappointment. There’s also the danger of rereading cherished childhood classics and finding that in hindsight, they’re not so great after all. With McCaffrey’s early Dragonriders novels I already took that gamble and got lucky, now I’ve reread perhaps her best known novel outside that series and see if The Ship Who Sang was as much of a tearjerker as I remembered.

Sentiment is an underrated emotion in science fiction, something we’re a bit embarrassed about, but which plays a greater role than you’d expect in such a “rational” genre. Quite a few classics thrive on it — “Helen O’Loy”, “Green Hills of Earth”, “Faithful to Thee, Terra, in Our Fashion” all spring to mind — and as I remembered The Ship Who Sang, it positively wallowed in it, in this story of a severely disabled girl whose only hope for any sort of life was to become the “brain” of a spaceship, who then found love in the arms of her “brawn” partner only to lose him to cruel, cruel fate. The perfect sort of story for a sensitive twelve year old, but would it hold its appeal?

Sadly, no

The problems start literally from the first paragraph:

She was born a thing and as such would be condemned if she failed to pass the encephalograph test required of all newborn babies. There was always the possibility that though the limbs were twisted, the mind was not, that though the ears would hear only dimly, the eyes see vaguely, the mind behind them was receptive and alert.
The electro-encephalogram was entirely favorable, unexpectedly so, and the news was brought to the waiting, grieving parents. There was the final, harsh decision: to give their child euthanasia or permit it to become an encapsulated ‘brain’, a guiding mechanism in any one of a number of curious professions. As such, their offspring would suffer no pain, live a comfortable existence in a metal shell for several centuries, performing unusual service to Central Worlds.

That’s a fairly dodgy attitude even in a novel written at a time and in a country that had no problems with involuntary sterilisation of undesirable people and nonconsentual medical experiments, let alone now we’ve sort of managed to accept disabled people as human. To have a writer approvingly talk about euthanasia for mentally disabled babies, or lifelong servitude for those merely severely physically disabled, if their parents allow it, is a reminder of how social darwinist (or downright fascist) science fiction could be and sometimes still is.

It left a nasty taste in my mouth, though for the rest of the novel this background is never referred to again and Helva, the protagonist, is perfectly happy being a Brain. What reinforces that feeling is the way the Brains are forced into servitude to pay off the huge debts they occurred from being kept alive the way they are, which they have to work off in service to Central Worlds. What’s more, anything that Helva needs as a ship to fulfil the missions she’s sent on she needs to pay for herself, including any damage done to her in the mission. It does feel a lot like slavery, even if she does get paid for these missions as well. All of this is completely ignored in the stories that make up this novel, just part of the background, a device to get Helva to go on dangerous missions to pay off her debts.

I didn’t remember any of this from the last time I read The Ship Who Sang, decades ago; what I remembered was the romantic story at the heart of it, as Helva comes of age and gets her first partner, the “brawn” who will handle all those physical tasks on planet she can’t do herself. It’s during the party for the eight candidates that Helva gets her name as “the ship who sings”, as she reveals her ability to do just that and turns out to have a perfect voice that can do anything the best “normal” singers can do. That’s when she first meets Jennan, the only one to consistently talk to where her physical presence was located in the heart of her ship-shell, the one she immediately falls in love with and who actually dies less than ten pages later. The rest of the novel is about Helva dealing with her loss and grief, ultimately finding new love in the strangest of places.

Because this is a fixup novel however, with each story in it originally having been published as a standalone, the characterisation of Helva is rather two dimensional and that deep love and deeper grief doesn’t look so impressive anymore as it did at age twelve. The sentiment is there, but much of it has dissipated after the first two stories, McCaffrey preferring to tell perfectly good sf puzzle adventure stories for the rest of the book. These are decent enough on their own, but I missed the emotion in them I remembered.

In its place was something more nasty, a deep ingrained sexism that again I completely missed the first time around. Helva is consistently shown to be “not like other girls”, one of the boys, while other women are either victims or harpies, largely illogical and emotional, with things like logic and emotions explicitly shown in gendered terms. It’s all very Heinleinian, with McCaffrey having the same sort of this is how the world works and anybody who thinks otherwise is a fool tone in her writing her. It’s very offputting and offensive once you notice it.

Without the sexism, without the dodgy background McCaffrey gave the novel, what remains is a great idea executed through decent if not worldbeating stories. It’s typical of the science fiction of this generation that most of the interesting stuff is discarded so quickly, largely due to the length restrictions it had to labour under. This after all is a novel of barely 200 pages, which tells half a dozen of stories during it. That leaves little room for anything but plotting.

A bit of a disappointment then, another book I’d with hindsight should’ve left to memory.

Dragonsong — Anne McCaffrey

Cover of Dragonsong

Anne McCaffrey
192 pages
published in 1976

Dragonsong is the first novel in the Harper Hall trilogy of novels that Ann McCaffrey wrote in 1976-1978 as a continuation of the original Pern novels, cite>Dragonflight and Dragonquest, weaving in and out of the main series. The heroine of the series, Menolly, would also show up in the later Dragonriders books, e.g in The White Dragon as a supporting character, occassionally hinting at her adventures in her own series. I hadn’t actually read this particular subseries before, as I never came across them until recently. All I knew was that the Harper Hall books had been consciously written for a young adult audience, unlike the original Pern books.

And reading Dragonsong that impression turned out to be right. This is as close to the platonic ideal of a certain kind of adolescent power fantasy as I’ve ever read. It’s even better than Harry Potter in this regard. You have the young heroine, on the verge of becoming an adult, with a special talent that’s not only unappreciated by her family, but actively suppressed and forbidden from practising it. She of course runs away from home, only to find people who do appreciate her and to find out she’s capable of more than not just her family, but she herself thought she was capable of. That’s the daydream of almost every misunderstood teenager at one point or another.

Menolly is the youngest daughter of the masterfisher Yanus, Sea Holder of Half-Circle Seahold, who is a dour, rigidly conservative man and who rules his hold and family in the same manner. In this he does not differ much from most of his subjects, all focused on the hard task of fishing in Pern’s oceans. Menolly is different, encouraged in her musical talents by the Hold’s resident harper, Petiron, as she works as his assistant in teaching the children of the Hold proper music and songs. Petiron was an old man and over the years Menolly took over more and more of his tasks, but after his death is forbidden by her father to practise her music anymore, especially not where the new harper can hear her.

One of the ways in which Menolly instead flees her miserable existence at the Hold is to undertake all the long, dreary foraging tasks that take her outside for most of the day, away from her family, none of whom are all that sympathetic to her plight. On one of those outings she discovers a group of fire-lizards flying over a cove, where a steep cliff leads down to a sandy beach. These are the creatures that the original Pern colonists genetically engineered to create dragons from, but of course the Pernese don’t know this yet. For Menolly, they’re magical enough on their own.

Meanwhile at home her situation worses and after an illness caused by an infection when she cut herself gutting fish, she decides to run away early one morning. Unfortunately that’s the day that Thread is due to fall. Thread is the reason the dragons were created in the first place, alien spores drifting in from one of Pern’s neighbour planets when its orbits are close enough. Caught out in the open during Threadfall is a good way to get killed. For Menolly there’s no other option than to head to the cave in the cove where the firelizards are living. She arrives there at the same point as the queen’s eggs are hatching and she frantically tries to feed the newly hatched fire-lizards to stop them from flying out into Threadfall. She manages to save nine of them, all of whom imprint and bond with her…

In the wider world meanwhile, the harpers from Harper Hall are busily searching for the mysterious apprentice Petiron was raving about, not realising “he” is a girl. Things come to a head when Menolly is out during a second Threadfall and is rescued by a dragonrider and taken to one of the dragonriders’ Weyrs, at Benden. There she finally realises there is a future for her outside the seahold and that there are other options open to her than either living miserably at home or all alone in a fire-lizard cave…

So yeah, this really is a story in which everything is set up to drive home how special Menolly is. The people who oppress her are all dull, miserable, loathsome if not actively evil, while all the cool people — dragonriders, masterbards, fire-lizards — all recognise her talents immediately. In the hands of a lesser writer, even a J. K. Rowling, this would’ve been tedious, but McCaffrey is good enough to overcome this. This is nowhere near as good a novel as the original two Dragonriders ones, but I would’ve eaten this up when I was twelve.

Dragonquest — Anne McCaffrey

Cover of Dragonquest

Anne McCaffrey
303 pages
published in 1968

Rereading Dragonflight/Dragonquest I realised something: Anne McCaffrey’s influence on modern fantasy is highly underrated. The Dragonriders of Pern after all was a bestselling series long before a Robert Jordan, J. K. Rowling or Stephenie Meyer had even started writing, functioning as a gateway drug into fantasy and science fiction for a lot of young teenagers the way e.g. the Potter books do now. Yet she is rarely mentioned when we’re talking about the evolution of fantasy, with the potted histories of the genre usually starting with Tolkien, lightly touching on an Eddings or Brooks before getting to the fantasy boom of the nineties and beyond with Jordan, Goodkind, Rowling, Martin et all. Is it just because when the Pern books were first published fantasy was still science fiction’s poor cousin and they were therefore sold as sf?

Certainly the streamlining of genre history often has the side effect of erasing all the awkward, not quite fitting parts of it, in favour of a more teleological approach and too often these awkward fits are female pioneers like McCaffrey. More so than Tolkien she helped shape what modern epic fantasy looks like. The loner, young adult hero or heroine, in telepathic contact with his or her dragon, saviour of the world though looking extremely unlikely to be so at first, all taking place in a largely medivaloid world, that’s all McCaffrey. But there are differences with modern fantasy as well: her dragons were made by science, not magic.

What’s more, her world did not stay medievaloid for long. I didn’t remember it happening so soon, but already here, in the second book in the series, the Pernese start exploring their planet and heritage, rediscovering some of the technology and science their ancestors had to abandon because of Threadfall. This is also a common trope in epic fantasy, but McCaffrey goes further: her characters do not just rediscover, they also research and discover.

Unlike the first book in the series, Dragonquest from the start was written as a single novel, rather than a fixup of shorter stories, but is still somewhat episodic in nature. Most of the plot is driven by the conflict between the old timers, the dragon riders brought back by Lessa in the previous novel, who can’t get used to a more democratic minded Pern where dragon riders no longer get the automatic respect and deference they are used to.

If there’s one flaw McCaffrey had, it was inventing believable villains for her stories, with the more obnoxious old timers never quite convincing and almost completely ineffectual. She just never could really concieve of why anybody would want to harm her heroes…

McCaffrey’s writing is like a warm bath, comfortable and easy to slip into. She was never the greatest stylist in science fiction, but is still a cut above the workman like prose of e.g. an Asimov or Clarke. She’s the sort of writer you do want to read at twelve.

Dragonflight — Anne McCaffrey

Cover of Dragonflight

Anne McCaffrey
303 pages
published in 1968

Because I’ve been running my booklog since 2001 I know it’s at least a decade or more since I’d last cracked open an Anne McCaffrey novel, yet once upon a time her The Dragonriders of Pern series was very important to me. Like so much science fiction and fantasy I discovered the Pern books through the local library, first reading them in Dutch, then continuing in English after I discovered the later books were only available that way. Over the years I devoured everything of McCaffrey I could lay my hands on, but I got less and less enjoyment out of her later novels, until I stopped reading them all together. Which is why I hadn’t read her in more than a decade and why it took her death to get me to reread the Pern novels. Which is a shame, as rereading them now makes clear how good McCaffrey at her best really was.

And Dragonflight was the best story she ever wrote. The two novellas that form the first twothirds of it, “Weyr Search” and “Dragonflight were rewarded with a Hugo and a Nebula Award respectively and are worth it. I had remembered Dragonflight as a fairly light novel, but it actually starts out quite dark, with Lessa, its heroine being the sole survivor of a coup against her family, plotting revenge as a kitchen drudge against the evil lord Fax who had taken over her hold. She’s not a nice person at all at the start of the story, completely focused on getting her own back and on making the hold as miserable as possible. But she also has a secret, a bond with the watch wher, a telepathic reptile like animal used as a watchdog. Little does she know that this is a hint to a much greater destiny for her…

Meanwhile F’Lar, a wingleader at Benden Weyr, where the last remaining dragonriders of Pern live. Once upon a time there were six Weyrs, to defend Pern from the dangers of Threadfall, spores drifting in from Pern’s sister planet the Red Star, but the last threadfall was hundreds of Turns ago, five of the Weyrs have been abandoned and the Holds, where the bulk of population lives have forgotten their obligations to the Weyrs, while the Weyr itself has forgotten its duty to Pern and nobody longer believes in Thread. Nobody but F’lar that is, and his brother F’Nor, who still keep the old traditions in honour. And now F’lar is visiting Ruantha Hold, Lessa’s Hold, looking for candidates for Impression, for young girls to bond with newly born dragons as the next generation of dragonriders. Three guesses who becomes one of the candidates…

But this is just the start of Lessa’s and F’lar’s adventures. There’s still the menace of Threadfall to overcome, the resistance of the Holds to the Weyr and the continuing problem of how one small Weyr of dragonriders can protect the entire planet when it needed six much bigger Weyrs in the past, with much more experienced and better prepared riders… Both Lessa and F’lar have their roles to play in resolving this, but Dragonflight is largely Lessa’s story.

Dragonflight was written in 1968/69, long before the fantasy boom of the seventies, when fantasy was still very much an offshoot of science fiction. A lot of the tropes and cliches of epic fantasy can be seen in embryonic form here and I suspect Ann McCaffrey’s dragons have had just as much influence on the shaping of genre fantasy as Tolkien’s hobbits have, even if it’s less recognised. But Dragonflight isn’t quite fantasy, even if it has firebreathing flying dragons, a medievaloid society and a fight against unreasoning evil at the heart of its story.

Because the dragons are genetically engineered from the fire lizard indigenous to Pern, the unreasoning evil is just an alien lifeform doing what it must do to survive and spread itself, while the medievaloid society is the descendant of colonists from Earth who had to abandon most of their high technology because Pern wasn’t suited for it combined with the pressures of Threadfall, which explains why there are Holds but no cities: Thread can’t burn stone so people live in caves and other rocky places. What’s more, these explanations for the dragons et all aren’t there just as handwaving: scientific curiosity plays a huge part in the plot of Dragonflight and its sequels as the Pernians rediscover the world they’re living on. That’s part of the appeal of The Dragonriders of Pern for me, that process of discovery, though it would get a bit silly in the later novels.

Another part of what made Dragonflight and the other dragon novels so popular and important for so many people for such a long time is Anne McCaffrey’s ability as a writer to suck you into the story, what Jo Walton called readability when discussing John Wyndham: “the ability to write a sentence that makes you want to keep reading the next sentence and so on and on”. McCaffrey had that in spades, where no sooner have you finished the first novel, you want to start the next one.

Which is just what I did.