The Dragon Lady

One long-ago Eastercon saw a surprise entertainment – a fan version of the Oz story masterminded by Judy and James Blish (he played the Great and Terrible Wizard) and titled The Wizard of Ozimov. Robert Holdstock wore a hideously uncomfortable metallic spray-painted costume as the Tin Woodman. The show was stolen by a cameo part, the madly overacting Wicked Witch with green make-up and the only professionally trained voice in the cast: Anne McCaffrey. Unforgettable.

Very sadly, James Blish died in 1975, Rob Holdstock in 2009; and in November 2011 we lost Anne McCaffrey.

She'd been active a long time, publishing her first story in Hugo Gernsback's final SF magazine in 1953 and her first novel in 1967. Restoree has a typically tough, feisty heroine who not only rescues the male lead from durance vile but, since he's useless at sea, sails the getaway boat more or less single-handed.

There are glints of autobiography in McCaffrey's best-loved works. Though she most definitely wasn't a cyborg, her operatic training resonates through The Ship Who Sang (whose opening story, which she could never read aloud without tears, mourns the death of her father) and again in The Crystal Singer – whose heroine has to deal with learning that she has a good singing voice and not, as she'd passionately wanted, a great one.

McCaffrey's favourite hobby was horse-breeding, and her neatest literary coup was translating the traditional horse-mania of teenage girls into a loving telepathic pair-bonding with dragons – for girls and boys alike – in the Dragonriders of Pern sequence. Its first two stories won her the Hugo and Nebula. The series may have stretched out too long (a writer has to live, after all), but there's real magic in the early volumes.

Though of course it's not magic but psi powers that can be given sciencey names like telepathy and teleportation, acceptable to the "hard SF" magazine Analog where Pern debuted in 1967-1968. Science fantasy, critics call it. The world of Pern has the romantic air of adventure fantasy but is underpinned by science: the dragons are genetically engineered, the riders' ancestors arrived by spaceship, catchy ballads are mnemonics that hide scientific clues, and there's a great deal of Old Technology to be rediscovered. Lovers of boys' toys were won over too. The series gained a huge, admiring readership.

A digression that I can't resist: the SF author Richard Cowper had a favourite anecdote about his first writers' conference, where an exuberant woman he'd never seen before (guess who) seized him and cried, "You have the eyes of a prune!" Well, he did have twinkly eyes, and it seemed Anne McCaffrey was irresistibly reminded of one of her characters whose name sounded a bit like ...

She wasn't the first SF author to give us catlike aliens, but the ones in Decision at Doona have a certain memorable charm. This story also features a pesky and unspeakably irritating human brat who for some inscrutable reason is called Todd. Now read on ...

More recently, Anne McCaffrey received two of SF's major life-achievement honours, the SF Writers of America Grand Master Award in 2005 and the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2006. A frequent convention guest, she was always voluble, generous, witty and hard-working, signing books for eager readers until her hand seized up with cramp. She kept on writing, and answering the fans' online messages, until the end. Her son and (latterly) collaborator Todd repeated her apology to an SF convention she wasn't well enough to attend: "Sorry that old age came up and bit me on the a**!" It bites us all in the end.

Somewhere in imaginative space, the cyborg spaceship Helva is singing a lament for the Dragon Lady.

David Langford found "The Wizard of Ozimov" online: see, issue 5.