I was nine years old when my frenemy Claudia (precociously elegant with her hair in a glossy pageboy) read aloud to me: “Lessa woke, cold.” Dragonflight was my first contraband, and F’lar one of my first crushes. In a corner of the high school playground, determinedly ignored by the kids with friends, I was comforted by my flight of fire lizards, or hurtling through space as an embodied ship. When my text adventures in CPM/BASIC actually executed, it was like the black crystal picking up and amplifying my voice. I was young enough to extract maximum escapist value from McCaffrey’s worlds before her writing started to pall.
I hadn’t thought of her in years when I chuckled over Liz’s fierce and righteous takedown of gender (and race and disability) politics on Pern. McCaffrey was a product of her time, no question, and not the worst by any means. Ursula Le Guin works strenuously to re-examine and correct her older work, and with mixed success, but that’s part of what makes Ursula Le Guin so very full of awesome. We can’t expect it of every writer. Now, as we mourn McCaffrey, we have to find some way to honor both the worlds she gave us and the ground we’ve covered since.
Our foremothers fail in myriad ways, and we will doubtless look like hypocritical assholes to future generations too. Re-examining assumptions is good and important work (and might help us avoid our own worst excesses.) But without foremothers like McCaffrey – and the other writers of sexy, problematic contraband, like Marion Zimmer Bradley and Jean Auel – we wouldn’t even be having this conversation.
Thank you, dragon lady, for teaching us to sing.