Dragonsong: The Unforgettable Anne McCaffrey

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(Lev Grossman writes about books here every Wednesday. Subscribe to his RSS feed.)

Anne McCaffrey died a week and a half ago, on November 21. I never met her — she lived in Ireland in a house called Dragonhold that she designed herself (isn’t that where all fantasy writers should live?) But she is a permanent presence in my brain.

[She lived in Ireland because of a special tax shelter there for writers, but she was born in Cambridge, MA, about 20 minutes from where I was born, and she went to (essentially) the same college as me too. Holla, Massholes!]

It’s one of the strange and wonderful qualities of McCaffrey’s writing that it creates indelible memories. I can still remember entire scenes from Dragonflight and Crystal Singer, including some word-for-word sentences, even though I hadn’t opened either of those books for 25 years. They must imprint themselves on some very primal, very durable part of one’s brain.

It’s not because McCaffrey was such a magnificent prose stylist (although she was very good). Something more was going on. Let’s take a look at two of those, literally, unforgettable scenes.

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Scene I: The bathing of Lessa

This one’s from the first Pern novel, Dragonflight. Backstory: Pern is a planet that’s home to huge telepathic dragons. Human colonists bond with them, psychically, as soon as they hatch, and ride around on them. If a dragon bonds with you, especially one of the big fancy types of dragons, it’s called Impression, and it’s a big deal.

(Yes, this was ripped off, without even a nod, in Avatar. At least on Pern they do it wirelessly.)

Anyway, Lessa is a filthy (though secretly high-born) servant who gets a chance to Impress a gold queen dragon. She has lots of spectacular scenes of flying and fighting and such later in the book, but curiously the part I remember most clearly is an early scene of Lessa bathing. Before she’s taken to the dragon-hatching, she gets to take a bath, in a huge fancy bathtub, something which she apparently hasn’t done for a long time:

She ducked under the surface, shaking her head to be sure her hair was thoroughly wetted. Then briskly she rubbed in more sweetsand, rinsing and scrubbing until she felt her hair might possibly be clean. Years, it had been. Great strands floated away in tangles like immense crawlers with attenuated legs, toward the far edge of the pool and then were drawn out of sight. The water, she was glad to note, constantly circulated, the cloudy and dirty replaced with clear. She turned her attention again to her body, scrubbing at ingrained dirt until her skin smarted. It was a ritual cleanings of more than surface soil. She felt a pleasure akin to ecstasy for the luxury of cleanliness.

It goes on like this – McCaffrey wrote in long, fluid paragraphs – and even now I find it hypnotic. You see how McCaffrey thinks of everything (the recirculation of the water), which is key when you’re writing a wish-fulfillment fantasy like this one. She also has a keen instinct for when and how to mix pleasure with pain (the painful scrubbing). The result is a scene that turns a very simple experience into something absolutely mythic: a pagan rite of cleansing and renewal.

(McCaffrey’s writing activates whole tranches of deep, dormant neural code in its readers. When my daughter was 6 she was too young to read McCaffrey, but I told her the story of the scene where Lessa impresses her golden queen dragon, and she was thunderstruck by it. Immediately she started acting out the scene herself, over and over again. Often in public places. She always played the part of the dragon.)

Scene 2: Killashandra cuts a crystal

I was obsessed with McCaffrey’s Pern novels, but I was also into her Crystal Singer books, even though they never achieved the same runaway success. Pick one up and you can see why: they were odder and more arcane, and plus they had really terrible covers. They were about people who harvest naturally-occurring, musically resonating crystals on the planet Ballybran (I feel that McCaffrey, uncharacteristically, stopped short of perfection when naming Ballybran – it must be an Irish thing). The Crystal Singers all have perfect pitch and have undergone a traumatic bonding with some kind of bacterial symbiont native to Ballybran, which makes them more awesome than normal people.

(They also have amazing bathtubs on Ballybran, full of something called radiant fluid. Baths are one of McCaffrey’s go-to motifs.)

The Crystal Singer stories are less obviously mythic than the Pern ones — there aren’t a lot of Old English epics about people cutting crystals. But McCaffrey was a bit of a Crystal Singer herself, and she spotted the resonant, vibrating power of this story, despite its oddness. It’s a diamond in the rough.

The first time our heroine, Killashandra Ree (now there’s perfection), cuts crystal in the wild, she becomes so mesmerized with her work that 16 hours pass before she even looks up from it. It’s another scene I remember with total fidelity, a quarter-century on, and I think of it every time I finish up a big writing project. Here is K.R. making her first cut, in a rare seam of black crystal, which sings and chimes all around her as she works:

She did not have to strike the crystal again. The A was locked in her head and ears. She hesitated just once more as she steadied the infrasonic blade to make the first incision. As well, for only an unconscious resolve, an obstinacy that she had never had to invoke, kept her cutting. Sound enveloped her, an A in chords and octaves, a ringing that made every nerve end in her body vibrate in a state that wasn’t painful, was oddly pleasurable but curiously distracting. She felt the blade sound darken and pulled it out. She made the second vertical cut just before Keborgen’s mark. This block would be shorter than the others and narrower. It couldn’t be helped. She gritted her teeth against the coursing shock as blade met crystal and sound met nerve.

And when she’s done:

Carefully, she put the cutter down, awed by the thread-thin separation she had caused. With hands still shaking from the effort of guiding the cutter, she tipped the rectangle out and held it up. Sun caught and darkened the oblong, showing to her wondering eyes the slight deviation from a true angle. She couldn’t have cared less and wept with joy as the song of sun-warmed black crystal, now truly matte black in response to the heat, seeped through her skin to intoxicate her senses.

How long she stood in awed thrall, holding the rectangle into the sun like an ancient priestess, she would never know …

Just like in Dragonflight, McCaffrey builds up a simple scene out of sensory impressions, and imbues it with a kind of monumental emotional power. The thing you notice about both these scenes is that neither of them relies on fantasy or science fictional elements, particularly — Killashandra was cutting a crystal, but she could have been painting a picture or making a hat or whatever. Crystal Singer is a book about writing: this an artist describing her own art-making process, and making art from it.

McCaffrey’s work is a landmark in the fantasy canon, but she will never make it into the literary canon. She was a hugely powerful presence in her field – she did as much or more than anybody to make tough, powerful heroines part of the fantasy and SF tradition – but you don’t see her work taught in colleges. I understand why. She wasn’t a writer who hoarded her gifts: she wrote a lot, 21 novels about Pern alone, some of the last in collaboration with her son Todd. They weren’t all great.

But they all have their moments, and McCaffrey’s moments are unlike anybody else’s. Her books weren’t perfect, but in a way imperfection, the slight flaw, was part of her art. Notice how in that Crystal Singer passage she mixes not just pleasure and pain (that coursing shock) but perfection and imperfection (that slightly shorter block, that slight deviation from the true angle). She knew making art was about both those things, perfection and imperfection, and if you can combine them, you can make something that’s richer than either one alone.

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