“She’d be top in whatever she did or die in the attempt.”
- from Crystal Singer, by Anne McCaffrey
Anne McCaffrey is an icon of sci-fi/fantasy, and if you’re moderately fond of either outer space or dragons you should know who she is. Most of her books were published between the seventies and the nineties, at the tail end of New Wave science fiction, an era marked by experimentation and by female voices (same rough time period as Le Guin). McCaffrey’s work is more populist, with driving action, sudden flare-ups of romance, and characters that have a certain vacuity, as if waiting for the reader to fill them in. Most of the time this works, and the parts of her books that are memorable—no matter how fast you read them—are the backdrops. Her world-building is magnificent and grand, driven by practicality but undergirded with strange beauty.
The heroine of Crystal Singer is more marked by personality traits than I remember from her other books, but still lacks depth. Killashandra is driven by ambition and arrogance. When she is told she’s not good enough for a vocalist career that she’s spent ten years training for, she’s furious. Then she hears about an alternate career that might be acceptable. This universe is powered by crystal. It’s used in spaceship engines, computer memory, and most importantly, as an instantaneous communication device between planets. Most of the crystal comes from a single planet, with highly restricted access. Being a crystal miner brings power and vast wealth, and requires courage, endurance, and skill in the form of perfect pitch, which Killashandra happens to have. The challenge and the promise are irresistible. But the more questions she asks, the more her future career seems fraught with danger and conspiracy, both obscured by secrecy. The crystal guild begins to feel like a cult.
Always driven to be the best, Killashandra plays to win, even when she thinks the game might be rigged. McCaffrey throws obstacles in Killa’s path so skillfully that she never has to resort to a bad guy. I like seeing an arrogant heroine—an underrepresented class in literature. I admired Killashandra’s determination at the same time I questioned her judgement. If Killa seems too in love with power to legitimately care much about a romantic partner (or three), it doesn’t dampen the enjoyment of the story.