Early Sci-Fi by Women Writers

Recently I decided to re-read some of the books I enjoyed in my 20s. In that vein, I thought of Crystal Singers by Anne McCaffrey. Her Dragon Riders of Pern probably left more of an impression on me overall, but I liked ideas and feeling in the Singer series: the idea of singing having power, augmented by crystal. I found myself disappointed in some of the writing: moving too fast through scenes, not taking the trouble to really paint it, immerse us in the experience. Repetition of mundane vocabulary. That’s just one book, of course. One day soon, I’ll pick up a Pern novel to re-read.

I decided to take a look at her life. She’s most known for the Pern novels, read widely in middle schoolers. I loved them for the medieval feel of craft guilds, giving status to those who make everyday things. And the sentient dragons.

For me, writers like her were a welcome treat. Up until my 20s, mostly what was available in sci fi was written by males – Heinlein, Bradbury, etc… Reading woman-centered speculative fiction opened a whole new world. Turns out, I wasn’t alone in that. McCaffrey was a trailblazer. She was the first woman to win a Hugo Award for fiction (for Weyr Search, 1968), and to win a Nebula Award (Dragonrider, 1969). Both in the category of novella. They are very short books. Her 1978 novel The White Dragon became one of the first science-fiction books to appear on the New York Times Best Seller list.

McCaffrey was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, studied Slavonic languages at Radcliffe , and loved opera (which might explain Crystal Singers, the Ship Who Sang, etc…. She became a full time writer around age 40. Five years later, she divorced and moved to Ireland with her two young children. Her publishing started with two short stories in the 50s (in her 30s), and her first published novel was The Ship Who Sang (1959). She considered it her best story and her favourite. She said, “[I] put much of myself into it, and the troubles I had in accepting my father’s death [1954] and a troubled marriage.” About Restoree, published in 1967, she wrote, “I was so tired of all the weak women screaming in the corner while their boyfriends were beating off the aliens … it served its purpose of an intelligent, survivor-type woman as the protagonist of an s-f story.”

For some years after she moved to Ireland, she had a slump in her writing and struggled to make ends meet. But the YA market was a crucial opportunity. Atheneum Books sought to attract more female readers to science fiction and, with their Atheneum, she was able to buy a splashy home outside of Dublin, with stables. She named it “Dragonhold”. Her son, Todd McCaffrey, wrote her biography and called it Dragonholder.

McCaffrey said, “I started writing s-f in the late 50s/early 60s, when readership was predominantly male. … Women began reading s-f and fantasy—and, by preference, [reading] women writers. My stories had themes and heroines they could relate to.” So true!

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