The Thread-Free Sky

Her eyes were green. Her hair was silver, and she freckled. The rest was subject to change without notice.

To a jaded cynic, the work of Anne McCaffrey (1926-2011) was little more than a science fictional repackaging of well-worn tropes from the world of fiction for adolescent girls. She had an entire stable of protagonists modelled on Cinderella or Lisa the Lonely Ballerina, and a whole paddock of tales about ponies and horses, which she rewrote as dragons. I was a ten-year-old boy in 1981; I didn’t know that. If I had, I might have turned away with a sneer and bought something about space marines.

Instead, I discovered that Pern was a place where elegant, terrible, wonderful creatures sought out the purest of heart. Passions and yearnings could wake worlds, knowledge was passed on through songs… imperfectly, poetically… warning that something called Thread would fall from the sky. Old songs, forgotten songs, whispering of apocalypse, ignored, belittled, dismissed. Until the day the songs came true.

The series, as it existed when I first came to it, comprised twin trilogies, one for adults, and one for younger readers, often offering different perspectives on the same scenes and events. And it all came to an end with this:

The dragons on the fire-heights rose to their haunches, bugling their jubilation on this happy day while fire-lizards executed dizzy patterns in the Thread-free sky!

What a sentence. As a teenage would-be author, I fixated on that last phrase. This day, the sky was free of Thread, the awful alien spores that brought ecological disaster. And already, the Dragonriders had found a way to neutralise Thread on contact with the ground. The Dragonriders had rendered themselves obsolete. Their whole world was about to fall apart, and nothing would be the same again. F’lar and Lessa, the reluctant first couple of Pern, walked out of the narrative with smiles on their faces, but they stood at a momentous moment in history, thick with melancholy and pregnant with loss.

Opening my battered, much-read, much-loved copy of the The White Dragon this morning, I turned once more to the sentence I thought I knew so well. Just try reading it out aloud. It is breathless and giddy, arguably missing a comma and ending in a grandstanding exclamation point. You would need to be an opera singer to belt that sentence out and get it in all its passionate, gabbled glory. Anne McCaffrey, who once was an opera singer, and often wrote as if translating music into prose, ended her masterpiece on a crescendo and a descant.

Sadly, perhaps, it wasn’t the end. I would read the first six Pern novels on an almost annual basis, but I had little time for the diminishing returns of the later bolt-ons. I liked Dragonsdawn, with its revelation that McCaffrey’s world was a sci-fi acronym: Parallel Earth Resources Negligible. I was intrigued by Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern, and not only for its glimpse of a legend only whispered in the main saga, but also for its engagement with something only obliquely referenced in earlier books – the fact that a number of the dragonriders were gay. But I had no time for the rest of it: the Celtic whimsy and the pointless dolphins, the previously unmentioned gipsies and the inevitable aging and changing of the characters I loved.

As I protested to my fannish friends, all largely aghast at my passion for a girl’s book, it’s all there in the last sentence of The White Dragon. They’re dancing in the Thread-free sky. Game over. Do we really want to see them building factories and laying roads? Must we watch them bickering, growing old, dying? The tale is told.

When All the Weyrs of Pern was published in 1991, I was living in Taiwan, and had no hope of finding a copy. In early 1992, I met an American girl in Japan who had the audio book. After resisting for weeks, I put the tape in my Walkman, and lay there in the dark, listening to the big finish. It was read by McCaffrey herself.

She stumbled over the voices of minor characters. She blundered around in a forest of adverbs. I seethed, throughout, at the clear proof of my Thread-free Sky thesis. Like all fans, I wanted more, more, more, even though I knew that more was not necessarily for the best. And then she got to a moment when a major character, a unifying figure in the saga as a whole, a mentor to many and father-figure to a few, died. McCaffrey was having trouble reading her own book, her breathing came in weird places, and I realised that she was trying not to cry. When death finally came, she stopped reading and wept.

I love Anne McCaffrey, for loving her own story so much that it moved her to tears. I will always be grateful to her because I went into the Boxall’s newsagent next to Prittlewell railway station, on my way home from school in 1981 and came out with a book about men riding on dragons, instead of the previously desired bar of chocolate. I love her because I adored Dragonflight so much that I dragged my stepmother into That Fancy London to buy the rest of the books at the hallowed Forbidden Planet – a store I had never been to before.

I learned from Pern that it was okay to take what you wanted from an author and leave the rest. I learned the joys of hunting for the next book in a series and staying up late to find out what happens to imaginary people you’ve come to care for. I learned to describe a particular colour as Harper Blue. That it was okay to grow up and move on, and look fondly on books you treasured as a child. When The Skies of Pern came out, I decided I was not going to read it. I had my Pern, and I kept it. I read the first six books again, because they had a real something, and that something ended with the Thread-free sky.

Ron Moore saw it. In Pern he saw a metaphor for a nation under siege, a hopeless, doomed conflict against an implacable enemy, a mid-holocaust tale of humanity on the brink of extinction. When his Pern TV series was announced sometime around the turn of the century, I was a twenty-something editor at Titan, a company bidding for the rights to do the tie-in magazine. David Bailey had already decided that he was going to be the editor. I immediately volunteered to be his deputy. We began addressing each other as D’vid and J’nathan, using McCaffrey’s honorific median apostrophes, much derided among serious SF fans, and to the great irritation of our colleagues. But the TV series never happened. In conflict with his bosses, Moore walked off it with the sets already built, proclaiming that he would do it right or not at all. Instead, he made Battlestar Galactica.

James Cameron may have seen it, too. Even if he didn’t, I did. Now a professional author of ten years’ standing myself, I sat through Avatar with a giant, stupid grin on my face, not seeing the film that he had made, but the film that was to come. This is it, I thought as men on flying lizards fought in the air. We can finally do it. We can do Pern.

You can keep your sparkly vampires and your boy wizards. One day, Pern is going to wipe the floor with them. But today there is an eerie, hair-raising, barely audible, high keening note, that signifies the passing of one of our kind.

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Cameron's Artifice

I have been having a good giggle this week at the redesigned election posters at http://www.mydavidcameron.com. for readers outside the UK, this is a site that lampoons the opposition election campaign by inviting the public to creatively vandalise one of their posters. The example illustrated, by one Ian Yates, is particularly nice, although I am baffled by the UK public’s supposed indignation about one element of the campaign.

There are plenty of things to argue about in British politics — real issues like education, health, crime and defence. And yet a large proportion of this week’s debate seems to have been about the fact that the picture of opposition leader David Cameron has been *airbrushed*. As if this is some sort of sin against nature.

I find it odd largely because the newspapers and TV shows behind this furore will be fully aware that everyone is airbrushed. On my days as editor of Manga Max, Vanessa the designer used to spend hours touching up the covers, even though they were often supposedly flawless anime digital images to begin with. She spent similar intricate efforts making the insides of the magazine look nice. Few images available to the press are ever plug-and-play.

Back when I was a presenter on Saiko Exciting on the Sci Fi channel, there was a brief storm in a teacup over the revelation that I wore make-up on air. This was whipped up by some people who thought that there was something unmanly about it, as if I were duping the viewers by not letting them ogle my zits. The plaintiffs seemed unaware that everybody wears make-up in TV, because you’re sitting under zillion-watt lights that make you look like zombies otherwise.

Most large-scale advertising images are doctored. If you’re on an billboard at 1200 dots per inch, why on earth would you want to look bad?

This isn’t even new. There was a little squib of fun in the 1940s, when a British politician’s wife, Lady Diana Cooper, was amused to discover that the president of Finland, Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, was wearing make-up when he met her. She didn’t consider that Mannerheim was also meeting the press that day, facing down the world’s media, and hoping not to look like someone who had been living in a shed in the forest.

A digital effects technician of my acquaintance got his first break in the industry going through a film that you have heard of, frame by frame, gently erasing the blemishes from the face of the leading lady. An actress of whose career you are aware, sure to be named in the top ten actresses you come up with if I asked you to list them, has an asking price that includes a million dollar fund to clean up her image digitally. Now, politicians are not actresses, but give them a little credit. If David Cameron had a big spot on his nose on the day that picture was taken, only a complete idiot would run with it as a campaign image to get him elected.

In the movie field, there’s a broader issue. If you’ve got a copy of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis the book, you may have already read my discussion of the possibility that animation is now perceived as a threat to “real” films. Some forms of artifice, it seems, are more acceptable than others. Special effects that make actors look good are welcome to many Motion Picture Academy voters. Special effects that make actors redundant are a very different matter — a large proportion of MPAA voters are thespians. As “animation” becomes so heavily integrated into special effects, and special effects so heavily integrated into live action, that we see “live-action” films that are almost entirely “animated”, the chance finally arises that a “best actor” award might go to a cartoon character, that a “best movie” Oscar might go to a… well, a cartoon.

You know, I don’t think David Cameron’s people are all that worried about the satire. I think they are telling themselves that no publicity is bad publicity, and, I suspect, storing up a whole series of stories about their rivals in the Labour party (shock!) wearing make-up and doctoring their photographs, ready to roll at the next news cycle. But as for David Cameron’s long-lost cousin, James, artifice is something to be proud of. He might even get an award for it.