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I’m not sure exactly how old I was when I first encountered the works of Louise Lawrence—no more than thirteen or fourteen—but I do remember the effect her writing had on me. It opened my eyes to the depth, the width, the sheer imaginative immensity possible under the umbrella of SF. She was not the first SF author I’d read—that was C. S. Lewis, many years earlier. But Lawrence was the first writer of SF—and more specifically, of science fiction—I’d met who was visibly (to me, anyway) female. I’d read several novels by Andre Norton by this point, but had not realised that Norton was a woman. (I was a British child. The only Andres I knew of were male and French.) I knew women could and did write fantasy: I’d read Le Guin’s Earthsea books, and the magical pony books of Elyne Mitchell. But SF . . . that seemed to be the province of male writers and male heroes (the Nortons I’d read by then all had male protagonists).

That first novel I read by Lawrence was Andra—which, as it transpired, was the first novel she published, too. It was the first true dystopia I encountered, the first SF novel with a female character at its centre, the first novel of revolution. In retrospect, Lawrence did not innovate any of these trends—though I think she may have been the first to bring them together in a book aimed specifically at teenage readers. The protagonist—fifteen at the start, seventeen at the end—was in her origins profoundly ordinary: not especially pretty, not especially intelligent, not especially anything, just a girl who happened to be in the right place at the right time. And, as a result of this accident of circumstances, both she and her world are profoundly changed and she is the agent of that change.

In other books I’d read, boys started wars, piloted starships, worked magic, while girls waited on the sidelines. Andra all by herself flouted the rules of her society and started a revolution by her questions and confrontations and courage. She was the first kick-ass heroine I met—though, thankfully she was without the seemingly mandatory backstory of abuse and drama that modern convention seems to demand of female leads with agency. In a very real sense, she was the precursor of Katniss Everdeen and the other female leads of modern dystopian YA, though I don’t know how many people outside the UK and Australia in the 1970s read Andra. It was not an easy book to find, even then. I read a library copy which subsequently disappeared, and I did not find a copy to buy for myself until many years later when I found a second-hand paperback. But then, none of Lawrence’s books were easy to come by. YA as a genre was only just beginning to exist in that Britain of the 1970s, and most of what there was consisted of serious older books, issue books about social exclusion, persecution, and historical events. SF was not a serious genre, moreover, and while Puffin, the dominant children’s book publisher, published some Norton, Lawrence was too new and too questionable. Her paperback publisher was Red Star, which my local bookshop did not stock. There were no YA shelves, and Red Star books, with their teenage revolutionaries and doomed romances, did not sit well alongside Enid Blyton and Henry Treece. So Lawrence was a library book writer for me, and I read her piecemeal, as I found her books, and never expected anyone else to have read them. She wrote mostly about girls, mostly aged between about twelve and seventeen, mostly ordinary—but forced by circumstance to confront and deal with the extraordinary and the extra-mundane. Her backgrounds ranged from alien worlds and spaceships to the contemporary Welsh borders to grim dystopias (including her best-known book, the one Puffin did publish, Children of the Dust, a Walter M. Miller–esque depiction of a post-nuclear world). She never seemed to be included in the roster of contemporary British SF writers. The SF bookshop from whose catalogue I bought most of my books did not stock her; the members of first my local SF society and later the one at my university did not seem to know of her. She was an author of girls’ books with girls as protagonists and as such could not possibly have anything to say. (The American Norton was taken slightly more seriously; Le Guin, a Hugo winner, was treated with respect. But they mainly wrote male protagonists at that point.)

She was also the first overtly political woman SF writer I encountered. It would be three years before I moved on to any of Le Guin’s adult SF, and the politics encoded in the Earthsea trilogy had passed me by on first reading aged eight. I knew books could be political: my family were and are political, and left-wing politics were a regular topic of conversation. I’d read Animal Farm, and found it sad and depressing. I knew of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World (and, indeed, Spartacus, a book whose hard left politics often seem to escape those who only know the film and think it’s all about individualism). I knew that women could be involved in politics. But I didn’t know they could write about them, not in the direct and focused way of Lawrence. Here she was, in the early 1970s, criticising colonialism and divisions based on race, highlighting matters of ecology and the environment, presenting revolution and resistance as valid and necessary tools of ordinary people faced with controlling and domineering systems of government and social organisation.

I sometimes wonder what would have happened if Louise Lawrence had been Louis Lawrence. Her books now have dated—the future envisioned in Andra seems curiously old-fashioned, with its wired telephones and giant computers. The gender politics in Power of Stars, which presents a triad of two teenage boys and a girl and a case of possession somewhat reminiscent of Alan Garner’s The Owl Service, belongs firmly to the 1970s. But so too do the gender politics of The Owl Service, and while in that book an ancient Welsh mystery is solved by an incomer while the locals sulk and fail, in Power of Stars, the locals resolve the plot—which depends on extraterrestrial influence, not on mythology—while the incomers seek to control and destroy it. And the slightly later Dreamweaver carried a powerful ecological message which is years ahead of its time, alongside a delicate and nuanced depiction of cultural misunderstandings and a sharp critique of capitalism. If Lawrence had been male, or if she had started writing even as little as five years later (Andra was published in 1971), I think we might even now be taking her more seriously. Her earliest books are a little clumsy, perhaps, but the power of her imagination is clear, and her preoccupations—the environment, equality, a distrust of established and self-interested power—already to the fore. She was the first political writer for younger teens that I read and she remains one of startlingly few. We like our books for young people to be not too challenging, to focus more on the individual than the collective, to conform to a status quo in which bad regimes can be overthrown, but mostly only when they are visibly, markedly wicked and usually with the help of the power of One True Love. The controlling government of Andra is not evil, but it is over-controlling and unimaginative, and Andra’s challenge to it has its effects as much in changing how some elements in it think and behave as in violent change. The aliens of Dreamweaver know better in some ways than the humans who seek to colonise their world. But they are not flawless and the female protagonist faces up to native as well as incomer shortcomings. Lawrence’s writing is above all nuanced, and she expects her readers to appreciate and understand the subtleties she presents. She does not preach. She does not comfort, and she does not promise happy endings. She treats her young readers as equals, capable of dealing with loss and a lack of resolution (a quality she shares with her contemporary, Diana Wynne Jones). Although she published her last novel in 1986, and, sadly, died in 2013, she still has readers—several of her books are now once again available as e-books, and there is an active website devoted to her. SF ignored her in her lifetime: too female, too identified with books for teenagers in the days before YA was recognised as a valid genre, perhaps too openly political. But she is worth reading, and she deserves to be restored to her place in our histories as a forerunner of Suzanne Collins, Meg Rossoff, and others.

Kari Sperring is the author of Living with Ghosts (DAW 2009, winner of the 2010 Sydney J Bounds Award, shortlisted for the William L Crawford Award and a Tiptree Award Honor List book) and The Grass King’s Concubine (DAW 2012). As Kari Maund, she’s an academic mediaeval historian, and author of five books on early Welsh, Irish, and Scandinavian history. With Phil Nanson, she is co-author of The Four Musketeers: The True Story of d’Artagnan, Porthos, Aramis and Athos.
2 comments on “Matrilines: Louise Lawrence: A Woman Out of Time”
Joanne Ferguson

Hi Kari. I am currently rereading Andra and found your article really interesting.

I first read Andra around 1977 when I was in third form at secondary school. My Topliner Red Star copy was from the library, from the Teenage section of the Children’s Department. It had a huge impact on me - the rebelliousness, the sense of loss, the indefatigability of Andra, the beauty of her long dark dark and sparkly midnight tunic. And the tragic outcome. I lent the book round my classmates and most of my class ended up reading it too.
It never turned up in bookshops and it was only five or six years ago that I bought my own copy.
My reread shows the book’s age, and scientific naivety, but if I was 14 again I think it would deliver that punch to me.
I smiled at your other book choices as a teenager as they were mine too, Andre Norton, but especially Elyne Mitchell and her Silver Brumby books which I had read a few years earlier and remained on reading rota.
I developed a fascination for dystopia, science fiction and fantasy and went on to read Tanith Lee, John Wyndham, Orwell, Huxley, and this continues with my search for ever more obscure dystopia. One of my favourite reads is Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban.
Lovely to have shared your discussion about Andra. Joanne Ferguson.

Joanne Ferguson

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