R.I.P. Anne McCaffrey, Creator of Pern and The Ship Who SangS

Anne McCaffrey wasn't just the inventor of Pern, the world where a whole society is based on dragon-riding. She was also an incredibly influential author who helped transform the way science fiction and fantasy authors wrote about women, and the way all of us thought about bodies and selfhood. She was the first woman to win a Hugo Award and a Nebula Award, as well as a Grand Master of science fiction.

Top image by Michael Whelan

Besides the Pern books, McCaffrey wrote the classic space-faring novel The Ship Who Sang, in which a severely disabled girl becomes the core of a starship, or Brainship, with her mind controlling all its major functions. McCaffrey's novel provided a startling new way to think about personhood and the nature of the mind/body connection, but also helped pave the way for a whole subgenre of posthuman space opera, in which heavily modified humans explore space.

She told Locus in 2004:

I think the best story I ever wrote was 'The Ship Who Sang'. It still causes people to cry, including me. When Todd and I were reading it at Brighton, they had a BBC crew filming it. So there were these BBC cameramen hunkered down filming us, and comes the end of the story (which Todd always reads, because I can't go through it without weeping), I saw that these cameramen had tears rolling down their faces. That's such a thrill — a story I wrote at the beginning of my career, and it's still packin' the house. I wrote that story because I couldn't tell my father, he died in 1953. I remember reading a story — I can't remember the name or that of the author — about a woman searching for her son's brain, it had been used for an autopilot on an ore ship and she wanted to find it and give it surcease. And I thought what if severely disabled people were given a chance to become starships? What if they wanted to do that? I thought, 'Hey, that would be a gorgeous idea.' So that's how 'The Ship Who Sang' was born.

McCaffrey's first novel, Restoree, was written in response to the unrealistic depiction of women in science fiction and fantasy.

But it was the many Pern novels that sealed her renown. One of my fondest convention memories is of going to Dragon*Con one year and attending a panel about "Emergency Medicine on Pern." There, a group of extremely earnest — but good-humored — people were hashing out exactly what you would do if someone happened to be on Pern and fell of his/her dragon. How would you make a stretcher out of items that were readily available on Pern? How would you keep the fallen rider's dragon from freaking out? And so on. The world of Pern was as real to these people as Atlanta — maybe more so.

Anne McCaffrey died today at the age of 85. [Media Bistro]