A Tribute To Anne McCaffrey, Accidental Romance Author

Word came over the Twitter today that beloved author Anne McCaffrey has died at 85. She was one of my absolute favorites growing up, and what's more I'm currently in the middle of the biggest Dragonriders of Pern-reading binge in the history of dragons. Or binges. It's always dangerous to revisit things you loved as a kid—there is the chance they will have gone stale or turned fragile, and then you can never quite recapture that soothing golden glow. But then there are the things that turn out to be even better now that you've grown up and gotten around more than you did when you were, say, twelve. And then you feel smart for having such good taste as a kid.

With that in mind, let's talk about the first book in the Pern series: Dragonflight.

It is my contention that Dragonflight is a classic example of romance as well as sci-fi/fantasy.

There are going to be a lot of pieces talking about Anne McCaffrey's imagination and worldbuilding skill from an sff perspective. This post is going to talk specifically about how this first book in the Pern series was a pioneering romance as well as being a ridiculously brave mix of fantasy and sci-fi.*

Spoilers ahoy.

{Ed. note: For the twelve of you who don't already know this, the events on Pern starts off looking like your basic faux-medieval fantasy, only to be revealed as a deliberately anachronistic colony planet founded by future Earthlings who make dragons using alien genetic techniques. While fighting off vicious devouring space spores with fire and acid. It is Teh Shiznit.}

The book begins with Lessa. This book came out at a time when romance heroines mostly followed the Harlequin or Heyer models: Dragonflight was published four years before The Flame and the Flower, to give you some perspective. Lessa is something entirely different. For one thing, she's an unqualified bitch—guarded, ambitious, and rebellious. She's spent ten years living secretly as a drudge, working to undermine the man who slaughtered her family and planning her return to glory. She is talented, intelligent, and more than a little unscrupulous—and after she takes a bath, her hair goes all frizzy and full of static, which she finds irritating.

No wonder I loved her.

Our hero, F'lar, initially sees Lessa only as a tool for his own agenda to save Pern from a looming threat nobody but him really believes in. As time passes, the two of them come to appreciate one another's intelligence and strength. They begin to trust one another. They have some dragon-induced, mind-blowing sex. And then Lessa discovers time-travel.

No, for real! Kickass bitchy heroine discovers time travel!

And then she figures out how to use time travel to save the planet, but it involves a five-hundred-year jump. And F'lar tells her not to go because her dragon is the only egg-laying queen Pern has left and they need dragons. And Lessa goes anyways—and F'lar falls totally to pieces. Followed swiftly by the reader, because when she comes back—thus saving the planet and proving that she was right all along—he goes running up and grabs her and is sobbing with relief and it's not because the planet's been saved or anything to do with dragons. It's because he thought she was dead and now she's back. She is more important to him than saving the planet.

And the first time I read this book, some quiet part of my brain sat up and went: THIS.

This was what I wanted: a strong woman and a strong man slowly coming to care for one another beyond the bounds of reason. A book where the lady got to save the planet instead of being rescued b the hero. (Throughout the book, Lessa gets thoroughly pissed when people tell her she can't do things because being female is an obstacle—whether it's her own femininity or her dragon's.) Less and F'lar are not perfect people; it'd be fair to say they're both downright annoying at times. But they're perfect for each other.

And all the classic romance beats are there: the initial annoyance with each other, the grudging respect, the attraction that refuses to be stifled even when they're at odds, the eventual affection and trust, and that devastating reunion at the end of the book. This is a romance written in 1968 that avoids the worst excesses of romance during that time: the useless angst, the spineless heroine, and the rapist hero—though we could have an in-depth conversation about how consent works when dragon hormones are involved, and believe me, people have.

And yet, the paradox—this is a strong romance from an author who would have dismissed the label (and has apparently done so in places I cannot find citations for). I can't really blame her. Romance gets a bad rap, especially in the sff part of the world. All I can say is that when I discovered Dragonflight, I recognized it as being kin to Patricia Wrede's Enchanted Forest Chronicles and Julie Garwood's The Bride. I took it to heart personally as a romance, and find it hard to let the label go.

So today, per this week's holiday, today I am thankful for Anne McCaffrey and the Pern series—for Lessa and Menolly especially—for showing young me the kind of capable, intelligent, forthright romance heroines I've loved ever since. Even if she wasn't writing romance at the time.