Andra by Louise Lawrence

1971 UK HB, art by Antony Maitland

Like the first Louise Lawrence book I read (1974’s The Wyndcliffe), I bought Andra (1971) because of the wonderful Antony Maitland cover to its UK first edition. But whereas The Wyndcliffe proved equal to both its cover and my expectations of it as a slice of vintage 70s British YA folk-fantasy, the best thing about Andra remains its cover, and it was mainly interesting to read because it was Lawrence’s first published novel (she wrote four — “very bad”, in her own words — beforehand, apparently).

It’s set 2000 years from now. Our world’s surface is no longer habitable, thanks to a bomb that “swung Earth from her orbit” — the year is now four times as long as ours — “just to end one stupid war and left us with a lump of useless rock”, as the titular heroine puts it. The action takes place in Sub-city One, one of three subterranean redoubts lit and heated entirely by artificial means. (There are a further five cities belonging to the rival nation-state of Uralia, which, ruled as it is by one Gravinski, is clearly a Cold War Russia analog.)

It’s a dull, mechanistic future. Children are separated from their parents at birth and raised by E.D.C.O. (whose initials aren’t explained, as far as I recall, but thinking of it as Education Corporation works), which separates the low IQs from the high, and assigns everyone, on adulthood, with a job and a spouse. People only ever wear the colour assigned to their job, all hair is cut short and, for some reason, everyone is blond-haired and blue-eyed.

1991 PB

Andra, a.k.a. Citizen C/22/33/5, whose age is given as 15 (though this must be our years, not theirs, otherwise she’d be a rebellious teen of 60), is a misfit from the start, classed as low IQ for her resistance to E.D.C.O.’s production-line style of upbringing. Playing hooky one day, she’s caught in an accident that destroys the part of her brain processing eyesight. Normally, she’d be terminated (“The city would not support any person who was not physically faultless”), but one Dr Lascaux takes the opportunity to try an experimental brain graft. The only available brain that will fit is one that belonged to a young man from 1987. The operation proves a success. Andra can see.

But she does so with the added memories of someone from the 20th century, who knows what such things as the sun, trees, fields and animals are. And she feels the hunger to see these things again. (To make matters worse, her hair also turns black and her eyes go brown, to the disgust of the more conservative dwellers of Sub-city One.) Having decided she’s nowhere near as stupid as E.D.C.O. says she is, Dr Lascaux recommends she be assigned to help the three-hundred-year-old Professor Kiroyo in the archives. Yet even this unusual, and perfectly suited, opportunity — Kiroyo is researching how people used to live before the surface became uninhabitable — grates with Andra’s intensely individualistic personality. She starts to display clearly 1960s-inspired signs of unacceptable free-spiritedness, such as growing her hair long and writing pop lyrics, putting her at the centre of a burgeoning youth movement which brings her into conflict with the the city’s autocratic director Shenlyn.

Andra is mostly a pretty straightforward free-spirit-versus-stultifying-society narrative. Everything about Sub-city One is an imaginative teen’s exaggerated idea of what being a dull, conforming adult is all about:

“…in this whole horrible subterranean place there is nothing, not one thing, I would class as beautiful. The language we speak is empty and void of any real meaning. Beauty no longer exists… This is not living… This is merely existing, being kept alive to keep our species alive and feed the demands of Shenlyn and the computers… With every breath I take I long to see the sun.”

It’s saved from being a straight-out dystopia when it turns out that Kiroyo is studying how people used to live so colonists can be sent to the newly-discovered, old-Earth-like Planet 801 in a fleet of rockets — so all the young people singing songs of rebellion and freedom are going to get their wish, freedom from the city and a chance to make their own way of life. But things, of course, don’t go quite so smoothly, thanks to those evil Uralians, and the novel ends on a rather abrupt down-turn.

Perhaps this reflects Lawrence’s own situation at the time. She was in an unhappy marriage (though soon to get out of it) and the dedication, “To my husband, for his tolerance during Andra’s creation”, can’t help, with that knowledge, sound distinctly cold.

There’s plenty of what would play out in Lawrence’s subsequent books, here in raw form. Andra’s brain graft — an alien and destabilising influence that opens her up to a new way of seeing things, bringing with it a host of sometimes dangerous difficulties — recalls the microscopic alien race that infects Jane Bates in The Power of Stars, the ghost that befriends Anna Hennessey in The Wyndcliffe, or the fascination Owen Jones feels for the nature-goddess-like Bronwen in The Earth Witch. There’s also the conflict between the worlds of potentially destructive technology and the raw power of nature, as laid out most clearly in her later book Star Lord.

1976 TV tie-in edition

Andra was adapted for Australian TV in 1976, apparently with such a low budget that shop window dummies were used as extras, and the scenery was mostly large coloured blocks. The novel was republished in 1991 in the US, with Publishers Weekly complaining of “the sometimes puzzling British slang” (I’d love to know what they were referring to) and that Lawrence “seems unsure of her message”, while Kirkus Reviews mentioned “Hackneyed writing, lack of science, and general implausibility”, but ultimately found it worked, “by establishing Andra as the one striving, scornful, yearning person in a world of drones”.

I have to admit I found the writing sometimes unpolished — occasionally a character would just start speaking in a scene when they weren’t previously present, and the point of view in the early chapters slips from one character to another mid-paragraph. I’d say it’s probably best read as part of an interest in Lawrence’s work, as the opening move in a soon-to-improve writing career, rather than as an introduction to it. Those of her later novels that I’ve read are all more interesting, and prove that she was up to taking on some strong themes. (Her post-nuclear Children of the Dust sounds rather Threads-like.)

I’ll still be keeping my hardback copy primarily for the Antony Maitland cover, though.


Hit Parade of Tears by Izumi Suzuki

A second collection of Suzuki’s stories, following on from last year’s Terminal Boredom, this book contains her breakthrough SF story “Trial Witch” — a title which wrongfooted me, because those words inevitably conjure the phrase “witch trials”, whereas in this case it means “apprentice witch on her trial period”. It’s the comical story of a woman who, out of the blue, is told she’s been selected by the League of Witches to become one of their number. She’s granted magical powers for a limited period, but finds her main ability is to transform her husband into a variety of new forms, which she either can’t, or doesn’t want to (he’s unfaithful), undo by the time the trial ends. It’s fun to imagine this story as the image of Suzuki herself, self-trialling herself as a writer in the fantastical vein. Only, unlike with the story’s protagonist, Suzuki turned out to have, with this story, won herself a place as a writer of SF in Japan (though not, it turns out, to have been allowed into the all-male SF Writers Club of Japan).

The main feeling I came away from in my review of Terminal Boredom was of emotional disconnection in human relationships, edging its way into emotional disconnection from oneself. With some of the stories of Hit Parade of Tears, that aspect is ramped up, with sometimes quite extreme self-alienation being a predominant theme in the longer, more serious tales.

That feeling of distanced relationships is still there, as in this, from the opening story, “My Guy”, about a young woman who finds herself picking up a man who says he’s an alien from another world:

“I guess I’d never really been in love, or even learned what was involved in ‘liking’ someone. This could be why I always seemed to wind up in relationships defined by mutual distaste and an inability to walk away.”

The alien man tells her things are the same on his world:

“Back home, everyone starts making love, so to speak, once they reach adulthood, except only with the partner that the government assigns them. Then they spend the rest of their lives as a happy couple who never fight. But that isn’t what you’d call ‘love’ now, is it…”

But elsewhere in the book — in what I feel is probably a later tale — Suzuki seems to have hit on something of a solution, only a messily human one, when in the story “I’ll Never Forget” she presents us with an ever-squabbling-and-making-it-up couple, who keep their relationship fuelled by the failures of previous ones:

“They were a strange pair, these two. They each prodded at some past infidelity, real or not, and that’s what formed the basis of their relationship.”

Which leads to the realisation:

“…love isn’t like a house you can just kick back and live in once it’s completed. No, it gets more worn and tattered day by day. So unless you keep on making it up, day by day, it disappears in all but name.”

But it’s the alienation from oneself that dominates Hit Parade of Tears. In what may be the longest tale, “Hey, It’s a Love Psychedelic”, a woman, initially called Reico, then Reyko, then Reiko, finds herself transplanted to what seem to be alternative versions of her own life. In each, she’s aware that things are wrong, usually through her knowledge of popular culture — an album that should have been out, or a brand of cigarettes that shouldn’t be available yet. The time-stream of her life is being manipulated by someone, taking her further away from the life she knew: whereas in the first section of this tale, she’s actively involved in the 1960s/70s rock music scene, by the last section she’s merely reading about it in a trashy novel called Groupie.

Some Japanese covers to Suzuki’s books

“The Covenant” starts with a somewhat useless-seeming husband figure who claims to be telepathic and in contact with aliens from another world, who he somehow helps with his mental powers. Then we meet a girl whose self-alienation starts out as an emotional self-disconnection similar to other Suzuki characters:

“Akiko had been alone ever since she was a child. She’d never had friends. She’d been a taciturn, expressionless, polite child. Her good grades had made her something of a teacher’s pet, but she never cared about any of that. After many long years of resenting the fact that no one loved her, she had conceived a vague hatred for this world.”

But she comes to realise these feelings are because she is (or so she believes), an alien from another world, here on Earth to fulfil the covenant of the story’s title. She forms a friendship with another similarly outsiderish girl, and things get a bit Charles Manson-ish.

The starkest image of self-alienation, though, is in “Memory of Water”. Here, the main character is a woman whose agoraphobia has led to her being mostly cut off from the world, and barely leaving her flat. But there are inexplicable (and, to her, alarming) intrusions into even that safe space, such as phone calls from a man who seems to know her, and items of clothing she’d never wear suddenly appearing in her wardrobe. Unknown to herself, she has a second self, one who is not anxious, depressed and sick, but whose idea of a free, adventurous life is one she’s so afraid of, she has cut that whole self off to the point that it has managed to break away and live an independent life. But instead of embracing this new self, the anxious woman only retreats further.

This feeling of being linked to another person, one whose mental and physical ill-health is dragging you down, also pops up in a tale I’ve already mentioned, “I’ll Never Forget”, which is actually a sequel to the story “Forgotten” from Terminal Boredom. “Forgotten” presented us with an alien but humanlike race, the Meelians, who never forget, which is why they don’t have war on their planet. In “I’ll Never Forget”, though, we learn there’s a downside to this never forgetting, as Meelians’ emotional experiences never fade; as a result, when “their heart has exceeded its capacity”, they tend to take their own life. (Human beings, on the other hand, merely descend into “a sort of hellish torment”. Thanks.) The main character, a Meelian woman who’s on Earth to do some modelling work, finds herself unconsciously targeted by the telepathic emanations of the human woman from “Forgotten”, who loved a Meelian man, Sol, who’s now dead. Alongside this feeling of being burdened by a stream of negativity that mixes physical ill-health, depression, and a feeling of life-failure, there’s the helplessness of not being able to do anything about it. In this sense, both “I’ll Never Forget” and “Memory of Water” are quite despairing tales.

Cover by Araki

As with Terminal Boredom, there’s no indication of when the Japanese originals from Hit Parade of Tears were first published, but I’m willing to bet that “The Memory of Water” and “I’ll Never Forget” date from the end of Suzuki’s career. That feeling of being burdened by longstanding physical ill-health, as well as mental ill-health and a feeling of the failure of human relationships chimes too much with Suzuki’s biography to ignore. (And I realised I should have taken my own advice from my review of Terminal Boredom: “I’d like to read some more stories by Suzuki, though perhaps I wouldn’t read them back-to-back, as that malaise of disaffection can be hard to read too much of.”)

There are some tales in Hit Parade of Tears that escape this negativity, though. Perhaps my favourite is one of the most explicitly genre-science-fictional, “Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise”, about the human crew of a spaceship exploring other planets, not for the purposes of scientific advancement — there are just too many planets out there for every one of them to be treated with such care and attention — but as part of “a get-rich-quick scheme to collect unusual animals for Earth’s leisure class”. This mismatched, flawed, and very un-military-SF crew, collect a bunch of animals from various planets, half of which die, some of which injure or poison the crew. On this planet, they find what seems to be a human baby, and their disagreements about what to do with it lead to a near mutiny. But the captain, who is equally fed-up with their mission, decides to take a new, and very un-Captain Kirk-ish solution: she says maybe they should give up and just live on this planet as they are.

It would be interesting to know when this story was written. The idea of a crew setting down on an alien planet and collecting specimens has been done in SF before, but the crew’s mismatchedness, and the detail that, back on Earth, there’s a “nerve centre linking the computers used by the various government ministries” called “MOTHER”, recalls the fact that the Nostromo’s computer is also called “Mother”, which makes me wonder if this isn’t a jokey take on Alien.

I think I like Suzuki most when she’s engaging explicitly with the sort of big ideas you find in genre SF — she inevitably has a fresh and meaningful take on them, alongside a carefree sense of humour and a wide acceptance of human foibles. But elsewhere there’s that overpowering emotional malaise and feelings of despair that just can’t be channelled into the sort of punky kicking back at society that would give this collection the life it needs. I really didn’t enjoy that aspect this time around.


The Waterfall Box by John Gordon

Kestrel Books HB, art by Chris Molan

The Waterfall Box was John Gordon’s fourth YA novel, published in 1978. The box of the title is a small (“no higher than a teacup”) box of heavy, dark wood, ornately carved and bearing the words “IN TIME OF NEED” on the outside. It belonged, a few centuries back, to Silas Waterfall, known as Potter Waterfall for his founding of the Waterfall Pottery and his invention of his own unique green glaze. The box has been passed down — not to Waterfall’s descendants, as he had none, but to those of his housekeeper — until, in the present generation, it and the item it held (a small, sealed flask containing an unknown liquid) have been inherited by sisters Alice and Martha, one of whom has the box, the other the flask. There’s a family injunction never to sell these items, but whereas Martha married into money (her husband Richard now runs the Waterfall Pottery), Alice isn’t so well-off, and when she’s approached by antiques dealer Harman (“buying up the past to sell to the present”) offering her a substantial sum for the box — enough for her, her husband, and teenage son Bran to escape “this narrow house, squeezed by its neighbours in a crawling ant-run of a street” — she at first refuses, but, when Harman’s gone, changes her mind. She and her husband go out to celebrate the decision, and are killed in an accident.

Bran inherits the box, and is moved in with his aunt Martha, uncle Richard and his teenage cousin Sandy, who falls into an instant flirtation with him. (Even though Sandy’s parents are well-off, she’s impressed by the fact that, because he has the money from the sale of his parents’ small house, Bran is “rich”.) But it’s not long before Harman is back, claiming the sale of the box was agreed (even though he couldn’t know Alice changed her mind and decided to sell it after he’d gone). And by this time Bran has learned there’s more to the box than its being a mere antique. As well as a potter, Silas Waterfall was an alchemist, and it’s possible the liquid in the flask is the Alkahest (the “universal solvent” required as part of the process of turning lead into gold), while the pottery base of the box might be the Philosopher’s Stone.

By this point, the novel is following two strands. In the one, we have the development of Bran’s relationship with Sandy, in the other we have Harman’s desire to own the Waterfall Box. We never learn much about Harman, why he wants the box or how much he knows, only that he seems to know more than he rightly should. He approaches other people in the village, including Sandy’s best friend Stella, recruiting them to gain information about where the box and its now-reunited flask are kept. Harman has the patient-impatient air of a man who knows he’s close to getting what he wants, something he’s wanted for a long time, and believes he’s entirely capable of getting, by whatever means necessary. And there’s more than a spooky air about this shadowy figure, as we learn he’s able to call on a supernatural strength at times.

The Spitfire Grave and Other Stories, Kestrel Books HB, cover by Allan Curless

But it’s clear the relationship strand is Gordon’s focus. Bran is attracted to Sandy, and Sandy is flirtatious with Bran, but the situation is more complex than boy-meets-girl. Prior to reading The Waterfall Box, I read Gordon’s first book of short stories, The Spitfire Grave and Other Stories, and noted there how a four-person teen relationship dynamic showed up in several stories, most notably “Better the Devil You Know” (about a girl deciding how much gruff masculinity she wants in a boyfriend, and gets a close encounter with something perhaps-supernaturally both beast-ish and man-ish to help her decide). There, you have an intelligent, sensitive, slightly loner-ish main boy; a tough, at first belligerent, but ultimately principled rival boy; an attractive, though superficial, better-off girl who flirts with both boys, even playing them off each other; and a quieter girl, the other girl’s “best friend” in an uneven relationship, giving way to her but clearly more sensitive and worthy of the main boy’s love. That quartet is here, too, with Bran as main boy and Sandy as flirtatious girl, then Sandy’s “best friend” (as in “She’s my best friend and I hate her”) Stella as the quieter girl, and her amateur boxer of a boyfriend Griff (who Stella knows is really attracted to Sandy) as the belligerent rival. It’s obviously a tangle Gordon himself felt the need to revisit and rework, a mess of male identity (being tough versus being quiet and sensitive) and sexual attraction (the more flirtatious and outgoing girl who too-quickly changes loyalties, or the more serious girl who puts herself in the background), all superheated by teenage hormones, and with an added dose of class tensions (the more flirtatious girl is more well-off, the quieter girl is poor) just to keep things difficult. (Or, now I think about it, is it to keep things simple?)

The TLS review of The Waterfall Box (1st December 1978, by Gillian Cross) criticised the incompatibility of these two narrative strands:

“In practice, however, the two elements of the book act against each other. The fate of the alchemist’s enigmatic legacy is almost totally subordinate to the interaction of the characters. The violent implications of the mystery undercut the more prosaic teenage romance. It is hard, for example, to be patient with the long accounts of Bran’s reactions to Sandy’s sexual teasing when his grief for his parents—who are killed a quarter of the way through the book—merits only half a page of description. The final effect is one of insubstantiality, of a sketch for a powerful book with neither the incidents nor the characters to flesh it out.”

But I think the point is that Bran can’t resolve the situation with Harman and the box till he resolves the inner tangle of his relationships, and so sorts out his own values and priorities. Just as Harman’s offer to buy the box means easy money, in a crude way Sandy is easier in terms of sexual relationships, but ultimately both are shallow and perhaps (though we’re never given an explicit reason to feel Harman is evil, only that he has the air of it) immoral. It’s only by coming together in the right combination that Bran and the others can see Harman off, once his more supernatural aspects come to the fore.

Still, I do agree it’s not an entirely successful novel — but more because the supernatural aspects are worked out a little too quickly, with a lot of rushing about and characters intuiting things about Harman at the last minute, as a means of defeating him. I think that aspect of the novel needed more laying out of a few clues as to how Harman could be defeated, and perhaps about his motives, too, just to make the victory feel a bit more morally satisfying.

The Waterfall Box, as far as I can tell, seems only to have been published in hardback in the UK, with no subsequent paperback edition. This makes it quite difficult to find (and a little more expensive than I’d normally pay for a book of this vintage). Still, I think it’s an interesting part of Gordon’s work, clearly developing some of his concerns (and a better novel, on a first read at least, than The Ghost on the Hill, which I read last year but didn’t write about because it was too confusing on a first read — but which did get a paperback edition). Valancourt Books have recently reissued Gordon’s most well-known (among readers of weird fiction, anyway) novel, The House on the Brink, and I wonder if they’re going to work through his others, in which case The Waterfall Box might get a paperback edition at last. Who knows?