Science fiction writer Anne McCaffrey died on Tuesday. She is best known for her series of books about the dragon-riders of the planet Pern, but I also think of her as the writer who has made the lives of a lot of teenagers better. I still have a drawing of a dragon made by an eleven year old girl who made it through the first year of middle school supported in no small part by the Pern books. Another teenager of my acquaintance analyzed the dragonriders of Pern as characters who strove for and accomplished things that were challenging and important, and as such were worth emulating.
Not that McCaffrey’s books are just for teenagers. I first read her books when I was well into adulthood; for me as an adult, they provided a path into that same archetypal realm that the Star Wars movies, or the Lord of the Rings books, or the Harry Potter books and movies lead you into. But where Star Wars and Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter are story cycles about the confrontation between good and evil, McCaffrey’s books are more about the ways that humans and other sentient beings confront impersonal natural forces.
Over the years, some of McCaffrey’s books made it onto the New York Times bestseller list; yet her stories never achieved the popularity of Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, or Harry Potter. I suspect McCaffrey achieved a somewhat lower level of popularity because the central conflict in her stories is between sentient beings and Nature, whereas the central conflict in Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter is between good and evil. The religious foundation of our Western culture accords greatest importance to battles between good and evil, and that cultural bias downgrades McCaffrey’s popularity. Given my own religious perspective, I prefer stories about confronting impersonal natural forces; I see more of that kind of thing in my day-to-day life than epic battles between good and evil; so I prefer stories like hers.
I would say that McCaffrey’s earlier books were her best. Her later books, especially some of the books she co-wrote with other writers, have the faint whiff of the writing-factory about them. But then, the majority of the Star Wars movies are less than inspired, the mock heroic language in the middle book of the Lord of the Rings trilogy is cloying, and there are far too many words in the Harry Potter books. Tapping into archetypes does not always produce great art, but it sure does produce satisfying art.