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Lost Dick-McCaffrey Collaboration Found
© Jesse Walker
June 10, 2002

Paul Williams' eyes sparkle as he remembers the day he made the discovery. "It was in the last box of Phil's papers," he recalls. "On the outside, he'd written 'Receipts' in magic marker, and sure enough, it was filled with receipts. I don't even remember why we were bothering to look through it."

He smiles a great big grin. "I was halfway through them when we spotted something else."

The "Phil" in question is Philip K. Dick, the late cult writer, and Williams is the executor of his estate. The "something else" Williams discovered was a manuscript: Dragonvalis, Dick's long-rumored, long-denied collaboration with the popular science-fiction writer Anne McCaffrey.

"As soon as I started reading it," continues Williams, "I realized I'd found something amazing. This wasn't just a lost manuscript. It was the weirdest chapter in science-fiction history."

A Strange Partnership

The story had been circulating among Dick's friends and fans for years, but no one had taken it seriously. Now at last, Williams held proof of the collaboration in his hands. He made some calls, and the tale soon fell into place.

"It was summer of 1980," remembers Ron Atwood, at that time an employee of the Scott-Meredith Literary Agency. "McCaffrey had written two wildly popular trilogies about the dragonriders of planet Pern, and her fans were demanding more. But she was sick of the subject, and wanted to try new things. One of her friends made a suggestion: Why not hire someone else to write the book? She would fly him out to her ranch in Ireland, put him up for six months or a year or whatever, and let him churn out the novel. She'd approve the final product, make whatever tweakings she thought were necessary, and put both writers' names on the cover. No mess, no fuss.

"I knew Phil was a little short at the time, cash-wise. I also knew he could turn out a book in just a month or two. And I knew his career needed a kick in the pants—something to take his mind off all that mystical crap he was getting into. So I gave him a call, and he jumped at the opportunity.

"We just didn't expect Anne to hate the book so much."

In retrospect, it was a marriage doomed to failure. Dick was a postmodernist popular with intellectuals and the counterculture. McCaffrey's novels were more traditional, and appealed mostly to kids in their early teens. Yet Dick's attempts to work within the constraints of McCaffrey's universe make for fascinating reading.

Deconstructing Pern

Dick's book opens five centuries after the end of McCaffrey's series. The people of Pern had long before launched an expedition to the Red Star, the neighboring planet that periodically showered the Pernese with deadly spores called threads. The threat had been halted at the source, and Pernese society had, as a result, evolved far beyond the medieval system that had prevailed in the earlier stories. Suburban sprawl covers the planet, producing a society that strongly resembles that of Dick's beloved Southern California.

But with some differences. Dragonriders criss-cross the sky, mostly working as aerial cabbies. And on the streets and in the weyrs, a new recreational drug is taking hold: Substance T, made from threads farmed on the Red Star.

Under the influence of Substance T, the book's protagonists—D'card, a henpecked dragon-riding traveling salesman; Menolly, his compassionless wife; and Pris, the dark-haired girl he secretly loves—begin to notice odd changes in their world. Dragoncabbies seem to battle falling threads. The Masterdealer who sells them their drugs begins to resemble Chairman Mao Tse-Tung. And Pris, en route to a suburb called Damascus, is struck by a beam of pink light.

D'card begins to suspect that the world he lives in is an illusion, a false reality overlaying the true Pern, in which threads still fall and dragonriders still hold a position of prominence and respect. Eventually, we learn that D'card is actually an alienated 14-year-old girl in a mental hospital in modern America. A devoted fan of fantasy fiction, D'card (real name: Melissa) is addicted to an antidepressant called Substance P, which leads her to believe she has entered the world she so passionately wishes she lived in.

In the final chapter, as Melissa undergoes a painful electroshock treatment, her father looks out the hospital window—and sees a dragon flying by.

"And that," reads the book's final line, "was only the beginning."

McCaffrey's Reaction

McCaffrey refused repeated requests that she comment on the manuscript, but Atwood remembers vividly her reaction back in 1980. "She despised the book," he says. "She was livid. I still remember her calling me right after she read what Dick had written. 'What the hell is this?' she yelled. 'There's no way I can make this shit publishable. It's supposed to be a goddamn horsey book!'"

Dick returned to California, dejected at his failure but with a generous kill fee in his hands. The manuscript wound up in the box of receipts. And McCaffrey wrote the next Pern book herself, a tome without any reference to alien psychedelics or beams of pink light. She never spoke with Dick again, and her lawyers are reportedly prepared to sue the Dick estate if it publishes his book.

"I hope this sees the light of day," comments Williams. "It may take decades to sort out the legal hassles, but trust me: The result will be well worth the wait."


Jesse Walker is an associate editor of Reason magazine and the author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America.

 
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