On Anne McCaffrey and the Dragonriders of Pern series
The McCaffrey Effect
Science fiction fans are a passionate group. They come together, either at conventions or online, for the love of a shared vision of the future. The books or movies they love are, for them, a momentary escape from mundane life. While most fans restrict their involvement to reading or viewing their favorites, some devote themselves more deeply, perhaps wearing costumes, learning invented languages, and forming hierarchies as depicted in their favorite stories. Few, though, have formed a community as cohesive, widespread, or ongoing as those who have read Anne McCaffrey, and particularly those who love the Dragonriders of Pern series. As not only devotees of Anne’s body of work but also creators therein,1 we have had the rare chance to experience this phenomenon firsthand, to sit down and get to know those who are deeply affected by it: Anne’s fans. We asked a number of longtime fans for the reasons they are so devoted to Anne’s work. They shared their thoughts and feelings about being part of the community that has grown up in the last few decades, which we’ve pulled together with our own, in hopes of sharing a sense of that community with you.
Welcome to Pern
One of the reasons for this phenomenon is the way Anne’s stories give the ordinary person a chance to become great. Most fiction focuses only on heroes with extraordinary talents. Among the legion of science fiction readers are scientists, computer programmers, test pilots and astronauts, environmentalists and biologists, yet the great majority are ordinary people–usually more intelligent than the average, but not the geniuses or heroes that are the usual protagonists of novels and movies. On Pern, however, there is a chance for the ordinary man or woman to step forward and be great–anyone can impress a dragon. To do so is also to acquire a lifelong companion who hears only your thoughts and is utterly devoted to you. In this simple relationship, Anne shows an understanding of two longings experienced by many readers: the desire to belong to someone (or something) who will give unconditional acceptance and the desire to be given power and responsibility (the care and riding of a dragon) that is at the same time manageable. Anne’s words express thrillingly what it feels like to form that relationship with a dragon, unshakable and unbreakable unto death.
Not only has the ordinary man or woman gained a devoted and powerful friend, but he or she then becomes a member of a support group that cares for dragons and risks their lives with them. We see unconditional acceptance by the community, as well, and they want to be a part of it. Science fiction fans in particular, by virtue of their intelligence and awareness of the isolation that often provokes, long for that inclusion. In Anne’s books, they see a special group to which they can belong. That is an attractive quality that draws those readers back again and again.
Few authors offer a viable social model for the common human being. Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders books appeal to a particularly devoted readership partly because of the way these books portray people living on Pern. Though their lives might be lived under harsh, even primitive conditions, the characters are able to survive, thrive, and create. The cultures are so rich in detail that it is possible to reconstruct a semblance of life in Hold, Hall, or Weyr–in ruling and administration, craft guilds, or dragon husbandry, respectively. Life on Pern is hard; characters are always fearing what may fall next from the skies. Yet, those characters live and love, sing, distill wine and spirits, and tell stories, gathering together in groups for mutual support and pleasure, enjoying the homey touches missing from more technology-oriented future sagas.
Like J. R. R. Tolkien in the Lord of the Rings saga, Anne scattered songs and poems throughout her books. Music and storytelling run a close second in fans’ hearts to the dragons themselves. From the beginning, the Harper Hall has been the favorite guild, and its longtime guild leader, Masterharper Robinton, a favorite character (especially Jody’s). All of these elements add texture, depth, and color that we drink in along with the adventures and romances. You might exist in the worlds created in some series; you could live on Pern.
Especially when they were first written, Anne’s literature also might have been the first that young women–and men, too–had found in which strong, interesting female protagonists have adventures of their own and are in charge of their own fate. That was a welcome change from most SF of the time, when female characters often seemed to be helpless and stupid, or were depicted as less-effective men with breasts. Not only that, but the cultures from which Anne’s characters spring are cooperative and interactive, values usually associated with women. Anne’s heroes and heroines do not seek solo glory. They know themselves to be part of a greater whole in which every person has his or her role. As Charlotte Moore, longtime track head of the Worlds of Anne McCaffrey at Dragon*Con (and author of another essay in this collection), said, “the consistent theme in all of [Anne’s] work is the importance of connecting to someone else–human or otherwise–as a means to find one’s self.”
Reading about these compelling relationships, we readers crave to be part of something like that as well. It seems natural for fans to begin to emulate the communities they read about. The first Weyrgroups began to arise in the 1980s from a core of fans who loved the books and wanted to touch that sense of community within themselves. But a community, or any organization, takes its cues from the people at the top, or in this case, one person: Anne McCaffrey herself.
Meet the Weyrwoman
For many fans, it was not just Anne’s work that attracted them and earned their loyalty, but her personality as well. Back in the 1970s or ’80s, the followings or readerships of other authors such as J. R. R. Tolkien may have been more vast, but they did not have the benefit of the author participating directly in their activities. Anne enjoyed interacting with her fans. She was friendly and open with people, never making them feel as if they were wasting her time (not to say that she suffered fools or self-aggrandizers). She always listened patiently to nervous young fans who stood in line to get her autograph, focusing on them and making them feel that what they had to say was important. That isn’t so extraordinary in the science fiction/fantasy field, which boasts a goodly share of nice people who write books, but Anne went beyond the usual. In the days before the internet, when social media was primitive and computers were slow and difficult to manage, Anne answered all her letters herself and participated in online discussions. Unlike many writers, she was an extrovert who was comfortable reaching out to others. Her assertive personality broke down the reserve of many a shy fan, winning their lifelong devotion. Because she was inclusive and fearless by nature, she formed friendships with her readers. She dined with them, visited with them when she traveled, and invited them to drop in on her at her home in Ireland. She made them feel comfortable in her company and in that of her other fans.
Having the privilege of knowing Anne McCaffrey over the years, it is easy to see how Anne’s personality was an inspiration for her fandom. Her inherent faith in people and their goodness came through in the plots and characters. She honestly believed in people, giving them the benefit of a doubt, and often her trust, until proven wrong. Anne also cared, cared deeply, for many people. She often opened her home to someone in need. A few of those she took in literally continued to live as part of the Dragonhold household for months or years. As a part of her general faith in people, Anne was amazingly nonjudgmental. Whatever your faith, or lack thereof, your beliefs, orientation, or personal quirks, you were welcome in her world.
This same worldview can be seen in her books as well. Many years before gay men and women found acceptance in larger society, Anne made them an integral part of weyr life.2 In no way do Pernese discriminate against others because their skin is a different color or because of their sexual orientation. For those readers who belong to often-targeted minority groups, Anne’s books provide literature in which, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. hoped for the greater society, people are judged by the content of their character. Her characters don’t always act perfectly; they’re very human. But in general, everyone strives together for the common good.
Anne never preached or even asked you to agree with her views, but she lived them. In her books she brought to life characters that shared her tolerance, optimism, and kindness. Because she was sincere about being inclusive, fans who did not feel welcome in other groups often found their way to hers.
ANNA LEE SMITH:
“And the books taught important values that I didn’t see, or feel, being taught anymore: honor, integrity, morals, acceptance, openness, courage . . . Not just the Pern novels, but all of them. They were the common thread through all of her books. She imbued her characters with these characteristics and that’s what drew me to them all.”
“Anne’s stories are rife with the promise of redemption for outcasts and the misunderstood. They’re about hope, perseverance, trust, and friendship . . . Anne McCaffrey fans want to believe the world is fundamentally a good place, that people can mean well and do the right thing.”
Impressing Your Dragon
Like the characters they so admire, McCaffrey devotees tend to be willing to share and cooperate for a greater good. SF fans in general are intelligent and curious, but not as often are they as open to others as Anne fans. It’s difficult to say whether the less well-socialized among them have not yet found Anne’s books, or if they have but didn’t like them because they did not find a voice that speaks to them. Yet, those readers who do find their way into the fan group find that sought-after inclusion they do not find in their other lives. Once included, it behooves them to learn to be inclusive as well. This last-named is sometimes a stretch; it requires trust, something that has been beaten or teased out of many SF fans in their more mundane existence. But to extend that trust among Anne fans is to be rewarded with the joy of having someone to share your passions.
Anne’s fans are a diverse group. They come from every walk of life: children and adults, professors and shelf stockers. It’s not uncommon to see college students having passionate discussions (and arguments) with doctors, lawyers, computer programmers, dog-walkers, stay-at-home parents, test pilots and astronauts, environmentalists and biologists, real estate agents, and copywriters. What they have in common is a love of a good story, well told, with compelling characters that behave under extraordinary pressure in a way that the readers admire and hope that, under similar circumstances, they too would respond.
A sense of humor is almost a necessity to appreciate Anne’s literature. She had a marvelous understanding of the natural ups and downs of life and of those moments that bring a twinkle to the eye. She often used levity to balance against the utter seriousness of life on Pern. Her audience appreciates that. As many of her fans are serving or retired military, they understand the dragonriders’ foxhole humor. A moment of lightness helps to relieve the pressure of a terrifying situation. Anne’s fans love a funny story and share a capacity for finding humor even during difficult times.
“That was the thing about Anne Fans. They tended to be fans of everything else too, and the ones I’ve gathered up (who are among my best friends now) are all kind, generous, funny, geeky, and caring. Something about Anne’s work seems to draw people like that in. Her books strike a chord with my sort of people.”
“I often find myself comparing the behaviour and character [of] the interactions amongst Anne’s fans, with that of the other major group of fans and enthusiasts I interact with. Compared to the (at best) rowdy, loud, and aggressive Xbox LIVE gaming community, Fans of Anne McCaffrey are paragons of virtue and honour (but few would dare cross us).”
We reached out for input to those who have been longtime fans and devoted members of the community. Those to whom we sent our questionnaire not only answered, but passed it along to others. Not only did they share the experience with one another (as good Pern people would), but their proactivity meant that we got to hear from people we might not have known about but whose input we also valued. It was the sort of win-win situation of which Anne would have approved.
Among the questions we asked were: Have you noticed traits in common among your fellow Anne fans? What are they? The answers were amazingly similar and also universally positive.
HANS VAN DEN BOOM:
“Love of fantasy/sf in particular and reading in general are almost a given, A willingness to get into the matter like you usually only see with fans of the great epic fantasy series, like Tolkien’s and such, maybe, As for the rest, you got them all, lovable and stupidly irritating. Shy and outspoken. Come to think of it, the diversity of the fans (especially on the forum boards I was and am admin/moderator for) is what strikes me time and again. From all over the world, rich and poor, male and female, with low and high education, the diversity is enormous and despite that, online it seems one family, and on the occasions that I met them in a group in real life, that actually stayed through, which is amazing if you think on it.”
“We believe!!! find see Anne’s creations in real life all the time.”
“We all (Anne’s fans) tend to believe imagination is good for the soul, I think. That while no world is perfect, there is beauty and creative thinking, and that the majority of humankind isn’t just in it for themselves.”
Widening the Search
As early as 1978, fans in the United States began to hold unofficial Gathers, named after Anne’s term for a fair or fete, modeled after the medieval festivals. In her books, her characters attend Gathers on special occasions. The real-world Gathers resembled medieval fairs, where they ate food mentioned in the books and sang the songs Anne had written. As Anne was a musician herself, her poems and songs were easy to set to music. In Europe, fifty or so fans met in Blackpool, England, for the first British Gathers. The fans who attended completely occupied two small bed-and-breakfast establishments and indulged in improvised song, discussion, and good humor over a weekend. They wrote lyrics devoted to “McCaffreydom” to popular tunes, such as Jerusalem and Rule Britannia; they had sing-alongs with microphones, solo performances, and plenty of dancing. The discussions were just as stimulating and intense and sometimes very funny.
“For several years after X-Con in 1978 [where the Alms first met Anne–ed.], Marilyn and I hosted a New Year’s party, which we called the Turn’s End Gather, with a theme of Pern, and Anne’s writing, and science fiction, and anything else that caught the attention of the attendees at the time. One year, our friend Todd Voros, one of the original members from Milwaukee and Anne’s X-Con, in his persona of F’lox, brown Quelith’s rider, came up with an idea to raise marks for the weyr and allow the weyrlings to become entrepreneurs; unstated was his idea to make a profit for himself from their activities. Personally, I thought he was trying to institute Junior Achievement on Pern, but my character of L’renz, Ista’s weyrleader, did not have the cultural referent for that idea. In any case, F’lox’s idea was to produce fire lizard pooper scoopers to sell to all of the people who obtained fire lizards after F’nor and Menolly found them. When he presented the idea to the Gather, the unanimous and simultaneous reaction, literally, everyone saying the same thing at the same time, was, ‘No, no, F’lox, everyone knows that fire lizards go between.’”
As in other fandoms, readers who were part of the established fan groups became so deeply involved in Anne’s characters and story lines that they wanted more stories, perhaps in the mainstream timeline, or perhaps along a side channel, where Anne’s plots had not gone. After some thought, Anne gave permission. She didn’t offer a blank check, however; she established ground rules for where the stories could and could not go.
Being able to write Pern fanfiction gave the readers a feeling of pride in ownership that they were not able to obtain in most other series; other authors discouraged it, sometimes out of caution over copyrights, and sometimes because they had been burned by disrespectful fans. Anne trusted her fans to respect her wishes and copyrights, and for the greatest part, they have honored that trust. Having a stake in their favorite world made them even more enthusiastic participants than ever. Individual fan groups arose all over the world. Most of them were named for weyrs, either canonical or original (Ista, Kadanzer, Theran, StarRise, etc.). A few were purely social groups, where fans could get together to talk about their favorite author and her books, but most were founded around writing their own Pern-based fan fiction. Marilyn Alm, who with her husband Harry Alm founded the Ista Weyr group, obtained permission to begin the Canth/Wirenth timeline in 1978, the first official fanfic offshoot from Anne’s main timeline.
“. . . one of the questions I had for Anne was, ‘Oh, why, oh why did Wirenth have to die? Why couldn’t Canth have flown her?’ Anne’s reply was, ‘Well, at the time I was writing Dragonquest, I couldn’t figure out how to have Canth fly Wirenth and have Kylara get hers, and it was more important to have Kylara get hers.’ We said, ‘Hmm,’ and went back to our room and consulted all five of the Pern books then published. And came back to her with questions. Our questions involved several ‘What ifs?’ and ‘Is this feasible on Pern as you see it?’and then we gave her our scenario. Anne looked very thoughtful, and then said, ‘D@mn. It would have worked.’”
Anne herself never read any of the fan-written stories for two reasons. She never wanted to find herself accidentally incorporating someone else’s plot or alternate timeline into “canonical” Pern. Nor did she want the fan writers to feel pressured that the real Weyrwoman was looking over their shoulders. It was another extension of trust. As a result, the fan base policed itself. As new members joined in and penned their own stories, they were informed as to the rules. Instead of feeling as if they were under an onerous authority, the fans felt as though they were part of the universe.
Jody’s book The Dragonlover’s Guide to Pern came into being because it occurred to us that by that time (1988), Anne had created so much background material on Pern that a good gazetteer was possible. When Bill put out feelers among the fans for whether or not we should do it, the response was overwhelming: “Yes! Now!” We knew that it would be a grand tool for the fan writers, as well as a lovely, illustrated introduction for new readers to get to know Anne’s brilliant and complex world. Doing ten days of interviews in Ireland with Anne for the Dragonlover’s Guide to Pern, it soon became apparent to us that even parts of Anne’s world that had not been thought out in detail when she wrote them to make the story work were often subconsciously consistent. Based upon their reading of Anne’s internal timelines, Harry Alm and Eric Webb codified the Threadfall charts, doing mathematically what Anne had done more or less instinctively, and discovered that she was working from an accurate mental model. (When Mayfair did the Dragonriders of Pern role-play game, they used a University of Chicago math grad to analyze the Threadfall data, and it held up perfectly.) Marilyn Alm brought in mapmaker Niels Erickson to draw the charts that Anne later used in Dragonsdawn.
Anne encouraged fan involvement in her research and always announced who had given her facts and figures. Her easy confidence in her work allowed her to consider other people’s ideas as readily as her own. If someone proposed a notion that she liked as well or better than one of hers, she adopted it (with fair warning!) for the official canon. (Some of Jody’s innovations in the two Crossroads books became part of Pernese history–and she couldn’t be prouder.) That open spirit inspired her fans as much as her work did.
When websites and bulletin boards became easier to access and use around the turn of the millennium, Anne’s son Alec created one of the internet’s first online communities, the Kitchen Table website and Kitchen Table Live chat group, in 2000. Anne frequently invited fans to visit her at her home in Ireland; even drop-ins could count on a friendly greeting and a cup of tea at Anne’s kitchen table. The Kitchen Table website was an online extension of that. Three fans, Hans van den Boom, Cheryl Miller, and Anneli Conroy, were invited to become site hosts, to welcome and mediate between participants. The boards covered conversations about each of Anne’s books in turn. People talked about their favorite characters and scenes.
Anne herself participated in the chats. The fans appreciated the gift of her time and attention. She was playful with her fans, allowing herself to be a little silly, perhaps a bit ridiculous, and inviting others to be the same. Anneli Conroy mentioned an instance when Anne visited the Kitchen Table Live not as herself, but pretending to be a cat. (That’s why the good humor in her literature finds such resonance among its readers. It’s not pasted on–it’s true.)
The hosts kept the discourse civil, so the KTL, as it came to be known, was a safe place to have those discussions (and arguments) in the round that were otherwise impossible except at conventions, Gathers, or meetings–especially impossible considering that the participants logged in from all around the world. Hans, Cheryl, and Anneli hailed from, respectively, the Netherlands, the United States, and Great Britain. Constant communication fostered further trust and friendship among the participants. Deep friendships formed among the fans.
“My life has been immeasurably improved by finding Anne’s literature and meeting other fans of her work. I have made friends among other Pern fans whose longstanding friendships are precious to me. I regard them as a second family, and a couple of them I regard as sisters of my soul. I have learned and shared wisdom with them, shared tears and joys with them. If Anne McCaffrey were still alive today, I’d tell her that I could never thank her enough for providing a common ground for me to meet such exemplary, brilliant, and fun people.”
“Because of my love of Anne’s stories, I went looking for other people who enjoyed her books like I did and I found the *Meeting of Minds* fan forum and the Kitchen Table forum. The result of finding those two Anne McCaffrey fan forums, I also found not only wonderful friends . . . but also got to finally meet Anne herself. I drew the members of MoM, and then Anne herself. After seeing one portrait of her, she wrote to me asking if she could have it . . . I have made the most wonderful friends in the world, and have had the privilege of meeting the wonderful woman herself . . . and knowing I was able to give her back a small amount of the joy she had given to me over so many, many years.”
“In the early days of the Kitchen Table, one man traveled the world staying with friends from the bulletin board. It was the kind of link that meant that a stranger can spend two nights on your sofa without your having to worry–‘hey, he’s an Anne fan.’”
Nothing is perfect. Even Camelot had its rough spots. At one point, the KTL shut down, but the hosts opened up two new websites, A Meeting of Minds (hosted by Cheryl Miller) and Anne McCaffrey Fans (hosted by Hans van den Boom). At first the fans separated between the two, but over time Anne’s influence and the general friendly feeling among the group eventually brought about a d©tente.
Though the new sites were run entirely by fans, they have also reached out to writers who for one reason or another had become associated with Anne. We have been asked several times to stop in for scheduled chats, but also have been made very welcome should we log on any time we happen to be free. A Meeting of Minds also has provided Jody with a thread of her own to post in. The same courtesy has been extended to other writers associated with Anne, such as Elizabeth Moon, who co-wrote two of the Planet Pirates novels with Anne, Sassinak and Generation Warriors.
And what do the fans themselves get out of the equation? The name of Cheryl Miller’s website describes it well: a meeting of minds. Like-minded readers are able to meet, either in person or on the web, others who feel the way they do about the work of their favorite writer.
Flying Between Hold, Hall, and Weyr
Conventions and ordinary mail fostered the first of the devoted fan communities. Then they were supplemented, though not superseded, by electronic forums. As CompuServe and Oracle gave way to reliable email and the internet, communication became easier. Online role-playing grew more widespread. Fan-fiction moved from paper zines to electronic sharing. The community has diffused, but whenever it meets, it seems to be as strong as ever. This closeness is seen most readily at Dragon*Con, held every Labor Day weekend in Atlanta, Georgia. (In spite of its title, Dragon*Con was not named for Anne’s work, though she was its first and favorite guest of honor.) Other fandoms have their associations, such as the Star Wars-inspired Storm-troopers, who like to hang out in large groups at conventions, but rarely have organized interaction outside of a fan event. Dragon*Con has a shared programming track devoted to the worlds that Anne created, most especially Pern. Fans return year after year, even after Anne’s passing, to celebrate what she has created and what they all share. Thanks to Facebook, Twitter, and all the other online media, the community never has to be out of touch.
No official celebration had been planned for the fortieth anniversary of Pern in 2003, but her admirers banded together under Hans van den Boom to produce 40 Years of Pern, a book of essays by fans and fellow writers alike, including Bill and Jody. When Anne attended Eurocon in Copenhagen that year, as Anneli Conroy put it, twelve to fourteen fans from five different countries “kidnapped” Anne for Chinese food and presented the first copy of the book to her. Needless to say, Anne was deeply touched. Her fans were proud to give back to Pern’s creator appreciation for what she had given to them.
Like Camelot, the golden age of McCaffrey fandom may be a glorious time that we will look back on with nostalgic longing. While her books are still with us, she is not. The McCaffrey Effect may not be as powerful without Anne’s presence, but the legacy of openness and acceptance that she promoted through her books always will be. We regret that that special connection with the writer herself is no longer possible. Time passes. The lives she changed remain changed. The fans whose lives she touched still love her work and will continue to give it to others to enjoy. It is up to those privileged souls to keep the joy alive by being open, accepting, curious, inclusive, and cooperative–by reaching out to those who are not yet a part of the group and giving them the same kind of welcome that Anne gave to them.
- Bill was one of the owners of Mayfair Games and was on the design team that developed the Dragonriders of Pern role-play game (and, not incidentally, employed one Todd McCaffrey to help work on it). He packaged not only the Crossroads game books, Dragonharper and Dragonfire, but also The Dragonlover’s Guide to Pern, as well as a number of novels coauthored by Anne and less established writers in some of her other universes. Jody wrote The Dragonlover’s Guide to Pern, Dragonharper, and Dragonfire, as well as co-authoring four of those other books; writing a solo sequel to one, The Ship Errant; and penning short stories for a few of Anne’s own anthologies.
- The riders of green (female) dragons, except for a girl named Mirrim, are men. When these dragons mate, it is with male dragons whose riders are also male. Pernese society does not discriminate against green riders. They are just dragonriders like all the others, courageous and competent defenders.