Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Borne aloft on dragons' wings

Sad to say, Anne McCaffrey died today. At least, it might be sad - everybody's got to go, and she was 85. But her passing is another reminder of my misspent teenage years. Misspent, that is, in reading everything I could get my hands on. Without any quality control, I just consumed everything I could. Fantasy infuriated my parents: their devotion to Catholicism was apparently a different matter entirely and not up for critical discussion. I guess a period of indiscriminate reading is a form of training: learning tastes, identifying elements to which we respond emotionally, learning what writing works and what doesn't.

Anne McCaffrey's novels were a staple of my teens. The Dragonrider series was set in a colonised planet on which de-technologised (it's a word now, OK?) humans existed in a kind of symbiosis with dragons: unlike our own cultural landscape, Pern's dragons are the good guys and the humans often weak, flawed and small-minded. There was also some kind of cyclical catastrophe involving a nearby planet, the details of which both escape me and evoke a familiar feeling of tedium. McCaffrey's death is a reminder of how much I've changed. At the time, everything she wrote meant a lot to me, and for that I'm grateful. Her work provided comfort, expanded my imaginative and emotional range, offered alternatives to my humdrum daily life. But like Tolkien's work, I find them unreadable now. I tried recently: the characterisation is paper-thin (ho ho), the dialogue unbearably stilted and the plots weak and repetitive. But I don't resent those years reading such work. I learned from them, and I used those books in ways that 'high' literature might not have suited. We have complex relationships with culture. What's supposedly 'good for you' might not be what you need or are ready for. We tell our students that meaning is created by the reader, not by the author: anyone can derive something good from something bad. Obviously Jeffrey Archer and Dan Brown are glaring exception, but it's generally true.

More specifically related to McCaffrey, her work represented an interesting strand in contemporary literature. Like all science fiction and fantasy, it was only superficially about imaginary planets. In reality, what she explored was the pressures facing us in the here and now. By depicting the struggles of a complex, anti-exploitative but primitive society, one which retained a spirituality and environmental consciousness which some claim we've lost, she posited alternative, more harmonious ways to live, often with a vaguely Celtic tinge. I'm more of a fan of hard-left political speculative fiction of the Ken McLeods et al, or the eco-feminism of Tepper, but there's a space for the hippy utopianism of McCaffrey and Spinrad - and decent female authors are still too rare in SF and fantasy.

I've got reservations about McCaffrey's work, but without her, our imaginations would be poorer. At least, mine would be.

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