Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Todd McCaffrey’s Dragonholder

dragonholderI wanted to read Todd McCaffrey’s memoir of Anne McCaffrey because I was captivated by her novels when I was a teenager. But the last time I reread one, I was a little disappointed. They’re not schlock, but I do find her fantasy novels about dragons and dragonriding just a bit unsatisfactory now, some thirty years after I first fell into them. Some parts of the novels are, of course, still excellent. The concept – of humans descended from spacefarers who bond with the telepathic dragons on the planet Pern, whose civilisation degenerates into a medievalised society that can barely remember its science-based origins or its desperate need for dragons until an ancient terror returns  – is magnificent. I just got bored of the situations she wrote about, because there is only so much a dragon and its rider can do without anything to fight: precisely the difficulty McCaffrey predicted for her society. When she wrote about the period of rediscovering their past and the ways to fight their ancient enemy, the stories were thrilling and packed with urgent action. But once that episode had passed, she had to resort to telling stories of Pern’s original settlers, and then their story in space, retrofitting her created world because there was no way forward.

Anne McCaffrey painted by Linda Eichner

Anne McCaffrey painted by Linda Eichner

Her science fiction has worn so much better. Her first novel, Restoree (1967) is still outstanding for its brilliant take on alien abduction by answering the question ‘what for?’. Her connected short stories (To Ride Pegasus, 1973, and Pegasus in Flight, 1990) about the discovery of telepathy and intergalactic traffic control are also based on human problems and needs, but the social and pseudo-scientific support structures are more interesting than in the dragonriding novels, with room to grow into the future and outward in space. And then there are her wonderful novels about brainships and their pilots – many of them co-written –  all arising from her 1960s story ‘The Ship Who Sang’, which is probably McCaffrey’s most important contribution to science fiction: for feminism, for disability awareness, and for literature. I’m having a private McCaffrey festival today because I’ve also posted a blog about The Ship Who Sang on my own site. We should also recall that McCaffrey was a marvellous and generous collaborative writer. The first novel she wrote with Elizabeth Moon – Sassinak (1990) – showed the world that Moon was blindingly better than anyone McCaffrey had written with before.

McCaffrey’s second son, Todd McCaffrey, is also an author in his own right, and since McCaffrey’s death in 2011, seems to have become the careful and dutiful guardian of his mother’s literary estate and legacy. Dragonholder is his idiosyncratic memoir of her life up to 1998, subtitled ‘The Life and Dreams (So Far) of Anne McCaffrey’. It first appeared in 1999, again in 2011 just before her death, and in 2014 as an ebook. It is not detailed, in that there are no precise dates or lists of book titles, but the narrative slopes from story to story that give a rough outline to her life, some bits more carefully coloured in than others. It’s lopsided and incomplete, and as a memoir it’s really only of interest to the McCaffrey completist and total devotee. However, as a history of its times and culture, this book is an unexpected goldmine for the science fiction reader who is curious about the growth of the SF community in the 1960s and 1970s. Dragonholder is written from Anne McCaffrey’s perspective, a woman writing in a very male field, who had the personality and gumption to endure what was clearly a difficult marriage, and the demands of three children, while producing hugely successful novels and short stories. Her writing was acclaimed, and proved itself to have literary merit: she was the first woman writer to win a Hugo award for science fiction, and was awarded a Nebula award by Isaac Asimov for her first dragon novel in 1969 (she and her children made the first Nebula awards out of glue and sparkles on a transparent Lucite disk). Asimov is a very large presence in the SF community stories in Dragonholder, as are the publishing Ballantines.

Dragonholder‘s account of Anne’s life in Ireland has less to tell us about the SF community than her earlier years in east coast America, but it has more links with how McCaffrey’s later fiction grew out of her life and the people she met and lived with. There are some fanciful misconceptions from Todd McCaffrey – his firm statement that the British and the Irish think serving hot toast is a faux pas has me completely stumped. But it’s fun: entertaining, quite often very interesting, and a very pleasant trot through Anne McCaffrey’s terrifically productive career as a very much-loved novelist.

Todd McCaffrey, Dragonholder (1999) (Open Road Integrated Media 2014), ISBN 978-1-4976-8945-9

Kate blogs about the books, music and things that enthuse her here, and has left a cache of three years of podcasts at Why I Really Like This Book.

About Kate

Blogger, lecturer, podcaster, writer, critic, reviewer, researcher (in no particular order) in and on British literary history. Preferred occupation while listening to podcasts: cooking or knitting. Preferred soundtrack while reading: the sound of silence.

5 comments on “Todd McCaffrey’s Dragonholder

  1. Pingback: Flying with the brain ships in Anne McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Sang | Kate Macdonald

  2. dianabirchall
    March 2, 2015

    I have to tell you that as a story analyst who had to read a slew of these dragon books recently, they were an important factor in pushing me to decide to retire soon. I found these books more completely unreadable than almost anything I’ve read in a forty-year career. It was book 2 that got me..little more than a compilation of dragons and their riders with interchangeable names, and maddeningly slogging droning dull non-action. I could not believe that these were ever popular, but I daresay I must have read the worst of the lot. It put me off ever wanting to hear the word “dragon” again. I take your word for it that some volumes of the series were exciting. Not the ones I read! I have to read what I’m given, and can get through most anything, but these dragons defeated me. A different perspective, for sure!

  3. Kate
    March 2, 2015

    I do agree, some of her later dragon novels are routine rubbish: I could not finish them. But some of the early ones are very good indeed. Dragonflight, the first one, leads the pack because it has an outstandingly original and well-handled plot, but Dragonsinger is a close second for storytelling and impact. Book 2 (Dragonquest) is muddled but the plot is good. Non-action, as I said above, was her biggest problem: once Thread wasn’t around, the characters were purposeless.

  4. Kate
    March 2, 2015

    A seemingly irresistible urge to Mary Sue her characters was her biggest problem, IMHO. (I loved the Dragonsong trilogy much more than the dragon books, myself, as a child – possibly because with the music training arc, it didn’t have the same tendency to stagnate.) All of her female protagonists end up being THE most perfect, loved by THE most high-status male option – it’s depressing.

    The original short stories that The Ship Who Sang and Crystal Singer are based on are really good, with hard-hitting, tragic endings. Once she got to novelizing, though, she apparently could never bear to really hurt or change her characters in any lasting way. Nothing truly bad ever happens to them. That’s why I can’t read those books any more.

  5. Kate
    March 2, 2015

    Yes, I got bored with the perfect sunny fruit-eating lifestyles of the ruling classes, which is also possibly why the Dragonsinger books work better, they’re about the underdogs and those who have to work for a living. I think she did portray mental / emotional suffering, with the dragonriders who have lost their dragons. Not as well as Philip Pullman did it, but it’s a good attempt at balance.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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