"We went to the Moon as technicians; we returned as humanitarians." --Edgar Mitchell

"We came all this way to explore the moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the earth." --William Anders

Saturday, November 26, 2011

A Eulogy

On Monday, the world lost a master bard and we will be forever changed. Anne McCaffrey, author of The Dragonriders of Pern, The Rowan, The Ship Who Sang, and around 100 other works of fiction, died of a massive stroke at her home Dragonhold-Underhill in Ireland. She was 85 years old, and …

Can I tell you how heartbreaking it is for me to write the words “Anne McCaffrey was…”? The first science fiction I ever read was written by her – Dragonsinger - and that was that. I’ve been addicted ever since. It was Pern, and the introduction to the Rukbat system that always prefaced her books in that series, that first solidified my interest in astronomy. I started to see stars, not as pictures and terms in my science book, but as the suns of other worlds. When I ventured into FT&T territory with Jeff Raven and the Rowan, I started to wonder how much bigger our existence would seem if we could travel between such places with ease. Each new character – and I don’t just mean the people – brought new ideas into my mind, and expanded my universe a bit.

When I graduated high school, I went to Ireland and was fortunate enough to meet her. She welcomed me and my family into her home, and was more warm and gracious than I had any right to expect. My memory of that afternoon is one of my favorites. 

David Brin wrote an amazing tribute to how Anne McCaffrey defined herself and her writing. I would say he's spot on. Everything that Anne McCaffrey wrote was steeped in the pursuit of progress, even her "fantasy." Her worlds were based on egalitarian principles, where everyone had a right to basic survival, but the extent of your success and comfort was based entirely on your own merit and efforts. She perfectly melded capitalism and socialism in a way I fervently wish could be duplicated in the real world. But this is not a discussion of politics. I am talking about a grand lady. 

The Dragonlady.

It is difficult for me to overstate the effect that she had on my life. It was her books that made me become cognizant of the fact that women could be strong, fearless, and powerful in their own right (and also made me realize that my mother was one of these women - she reminds me of Lessa). And it wasn't just her characters that were successful: Anne McCaffrey was the first woman to win a Hugo award for fiction, and the first woman to win a Nebula EVER. She nearly joined the very short list of those who have won a second Hugo with The White Dragon, which was also one of the first science fiction books to make it onto the New York Times bestsellers list. Notice I didn't say "written by a woman" on that last one. Anne McCaffrey was a force that brought science fiction into the forefront of the public mind, as well as bringing women into the traditionally male genre. 

I wouldn't be where I am today without her. When I left the Air Force Academy, I was sure I'd left engineering and space for good. But over time, I started reading again, and it was a one-two punch delivered by Nimisha's Ship and The Crystal Singer which convinced me that there was no way I could ignore this fundamental truth about myself: I will never be satisfied resigning myself to an Earthbound fate. I may not actually make it off-planet, but I'll die trying. And so I went back to school.

So take this lesson from that anecdote: never underestimate the effect that a writer has on the rest of the world. The Einsteins and Von Brauns and Steve Jobses of the future must have their inspiration from somewhere.

Her death was inevitable. But that fact did not make the blow any softer. It's hard to put aside the feeling of a empty, gaping wound in the place she used to occupy. The world is not as rich today as it was at the beginning of the week... but it is richer now than it was before she shared herself with the world.

.. And for that, I am forever grateful. 

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