The science fiction novel that moved my reading tastes from adolescent dragon wonder to feminist space opera was Sassinak (1990), by the then immensely prolific Anne McCaffrey and the fairly unknown Elizabeth Moon. I had been a teenage McCaffrey completist, but once I’d read Sassinak – an engrossing space opera about planet pirates, orphan enslavement, naval training, in-ship subversion and space heroics with the totally magnificent Commander Sassinak (her only name) – I put the Dragons of Pern into a box and moved off into space with Elizabeth Moon. It wasn’t just the fresh (to me) new subject, setting and attitude. Moon is simply a far better author than Anne McCaffrey, and I was ready for the change.
Sassinak is one of the three Planet Pirates novels, planetary romances in what the ISFDB and ESF call McCaffrey’s Ireta series (ie the name of the planet), the others being Death of Sleep (1990) by McCaffrey and Jody Lynn Nye, and Generation Warriors (1991) by McCaffrey and Moon. They were planned to overlap with McCaffrey’s earlier novels Dinosaur Planet (1978) and Dinosaur Planet Survivors (1984). The latter are among the weakest of McCaffrey’s novels, and the time gap between their publication, at a crucial plot point cliff-hanger, shows how distracted McCaffrey was at this time, juggling the development of her Dragons of Pern novels into back-story spin-offs, and writing the first of the Crystal Singer series.
These five novels take place on Ireta, a purportedly uninhabited planet that has been chosen for Federated Sentient Planet exploration by a group of mixed ‘lightweight’ (ie regular) humans and Heavyworlders. These are humans who have adapted genetically to their strong-gravitied home planet, and who labour under a resentful and politicised sense of inferiority to the ‘lightweights’. When the Heavyworlders discover the carnivorous habits of the native animals, who appear to have been seeded there aeons earlier from Earth dinosaurs, their dissident members urge the others to embrace this chance to eat fresh meat, a taboo practice now on the ‘lightweight’ human worlds. This puts the ‘lightweights’ in serious danger, not just from the theoretical possibility of the explorers being eaten, but from the rippling implications for fragile interplanetary politics. Sassinak brings her Fleet cruiser through this system in covert pursuit of pirates, and the plot thickens.
The injection of 1980s value systems – vegetarianism, feminism, environmentalism, minority rights – is not particularly subtle, but the complex action works, and the novels’ function in McCaffrey and Moon’s proliferating FSP universe contributes necessary groundwork for what Moon would later do with her two Vatta’s War and Serrano Legacy series. In short, I rate the Planet Pirates series because of what Moon would go on to do with its rich background, not for what it offers the reader on its own merits.
After Dinosaur Planet Survivors came out, McCaffrey developed different series by writing with collaborators, effectively setting up her own franchises. After the Planet Pirates, she co-wrote the Doona books with Nye (which I have not read, being put off by Death of Sleep), and the much more successful ‘Brains and Brawn’ series. This developed the feminist cyborg space-ship concept from her The Ship Who Sang of the 1960s, writing with several collaborators, almost all women (though she did co-write one of these novels with S M Sterling, a bloke). Collaboration became an important mark of McCaffrey’s brand, demonstrating her creative generosity, and her eagerness to launch new worlds and new ideas with new writers.
I asked Elizabeth Moon how her collaboration with McCaffrey came about.
Moon: My introduction to the project was my then-publisher, Jim Baen, calling me up and asking if I would consider doing a collaboration with Anne McCaffrey. I knew McCaffrey’s work and liked it, so my immediate reaction was “YES!” I did not know anything about the details during that phone call, nor which of Anne’s worlds it was, or anything else.
Later I found out that I had been asked for Sassinak because of my military background and my known appreciation of Anne’s work. I never did know who mentioned my name first; Anne herself, Jim Baen, or the series’ packager, Bill Fawcett, but clearly Anne made the final choices. Right then, several senior authors in the field were starting to do collaborations with newer writers; Anne eventually worked with quite a few.
When Anne decided to try accepting collaborators into her worlds, she worked with Bill Fawcett, whom she already knew as a fan, editor, and packager well known in the field. Collaborations were becoming popular, and different kinds of collaborations existed and continued to exist for some time. Some were between ‘equals’ (writers of equal or near-equal publishing history and status) and some, like Anne’s, were between a senior writer and a very junior one, someone with only a few books out and who would benefit from the publicity of working with a bestselling writer.
So when I was offered the chance to collaborate with Anne, the three-book package was handed out to three junior writers: Bill Fawcett’s wife Jody Lynn Nye, another writer who dropped out of the project and whose name I unfortunately don’t recall, and me. Jody’s book was the ‘prequel’: Lunzie’s life before the Dinosaur Planet books, in Death of Sleep. Mine was another semi-prequel, covering Sassinak’s early life and intersecting the second Dinosaur Planet book when Fleet arrived. The other writer was supposed to write Generation Warriors, which carried on both Sassinak’s and Lunzie’s stories into the future. These contracts were then handed to each of us, and the books were to be written simultaneously, due at the same time. I had not met any of the other people involved.
Communication was a problem. Remember, this was in the late 1980s; the books came out in 1990 and 1991. I believe (would have to call Jody or Bill to ask) that they were on GEnie, and Anne was also on GEnie [a pre-internet text service]. They could communicate by email. I had no internet (accessing GEnie meant an expensive long distance call on our landline and then a very slow dial-up connection – couldn’t afford it.) We did not get a local internet provider until 1995 (still slow dial-up, but at least not with long-distance charges. Reliable cellphone service in this area didn’t arrive until 1998-99 when they built a tower close enough. I lived over 1000 miles from Bill and Jody in the Chicago area, in a small town in Texas. I’m not sure where the third writer lived but have a vague idea it was somewhere in the northeast. Anne of course was in Ireland, accessible only by snail-mail or phone (but the phone to Ireland was even more out of my reach than the phone to Chicago.) So almost all the communication was on paper, with a few phone calls between us. The questions and rough manuscripts went from us to Anne; she was certainly one layer in the editing process as well as the writing process.
The third writer dropped out late enough in the process that neither Jody nor I could have finished the book for its original due date, and Jody had another contract she was in the middle of. So I was offered it, and started from scratch with the original notes Anne had provided. By then Anne was deep in other projects, and I had met her, so it was easier to communicate and – since she’d liked my work with Sassinak – she gave me a lot of freedom to develop some things on my own. The book required multiple point-of-view characters, and thus was a wonderful ‘stretch’ to what I understood so far.
So I wasn’t writing in daily contact with any of the others. Jody’s book and mine were separated by all of the first, and most of the second, Dinosaur Planet book – we had no real reason to compare what we were doing. Where my assignment overlapped the end of Dinosaur Planet Survivors, I just used the Lunzie as Anne had written her in that book.
It was different for Generation Warriors – and the delay in that one worked to my advantage, because I had Jody’s book, all complete, and could use all the things she had contributed to Lunzie’s history and character, to inform the Lunzie of Generation Warriors. It would’ve been very difficult to write the third without the first two already in hand. Perhaps that’s why the other writer dropped out.
Despite the difficulties inherent in communicating long-distance without internet, I found working with Anne to be a great experience. I could ask her about anything that was giving me trouble – characterization, how to make a certain kind of transition, for more background on one of her characters, and so on. She was incredibly generous with her time and attention; she never made me feel like a nuisance. And it was a master class – her answers were brief, pointed, crystal clear. (Years later, I could still ask her about problems I was having with my newer stuff, and she was just as willing to help.) She was also generous in sharing her ‘sandbox’ – letting her co-authors introduce things, including characters. I met her at the launch event for Sassinak, and after that we became friends.
The most striking example of how Moon, Nye and McCaffrey developed the same character in different ways was in the use of the Theks, floating pyramidal sentient beings of silicate origin, with enormous telepathic power, the most impressive in the Federated Sentient Planets universe. On their first appearance, in Dinosaur Planet, McCaffrey treats them with reverence and irreverence at the same time: ‘it was difficult to know a Thek elder from a rock until it spoke, but a human could perish of old age waiting for the word’. Thus there were tonal choices for developing these lifeforms, and Moon and Nye made different choices. The importance of the Theks in this universe means that their characterisation underpins the tone of the novels. By allowing divergence in their treatment, collaborative writing made the Planet Pirates novels even less likely to work together as a sequence.
Moon developed the Theks by giving them meaningful cooperative relationships with humans, showing how mutual respect breeds collaboration (much like her own relationship with McCaffrey). Her, or their, most effective elaboration of the Thek in Sassinak was to give it a sessile life stage, inert and anchored in a tank, but fully integrated with all ship systems, and a potentially crucial part of enhanced lightspeed flight modes due to Thek mathematical abilities. This sessile larval form – more like a giant coral fan than a slug – is an inspired solution to the problem of how to get Theks integrated enough into human society and into Fleet as serving officers, without floating pyramids engulfing the ships. When humans learn enough about Theks to be able to identify individuals, that signals the beginning of a healthy working relationship. In Sassinak, the sense of wonder is multiplied by Moon’s marvellous enhancement of McCaffrey’s original idea.
My thanks to Elizabeth Moon for her cooperation with this interview, and for checking the facts. The opinions expressed are my own.
Anne McCaffrey and Elizabeth Moon, Sassinak (1990)
Anne McCaffrey and Jody Lynn Nye, Death of Sleep (1990)
Anne McCaffrey and Elizabeth Moon, Generation Warriors (1991)