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.
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.
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.