Pivotal times and their books

I’ve been thinking all day about Louise Lawrence’s first novel, Andra. I read it when it was first released in 1971. I was ten and there was one scene where Andra (the protagonist) was addressing a crowd and winning them over. That scene helped me become a bit more political and when Gough Whitlam became Prime Minister of Australia in 1972, I could hear some of the devices used in Andra’s speech in what he said. Whitlam was an amazing speaker and very witty, so the combination of the book and the politician were big influences on me.

This isn’t why I was thinking of Andra today, however.

Andra is a political novel. It’s science fiction, about how teenagers handle authoritarian governments and about how governments talk and listen and where everyone fails. That was my reading of it when I was a child then again when I was a teenager, anyhow. It was a novel I read for comfort whenever anything politically challenging happened.

For two weeks now, my city has been visited by protesters. The unruly mobs causing problems in many capital cities have not spared Canberra. We normally support demonstrations here, but this one is different. If you want to know just how different and why it’s so very uncomfortable, find me and chat about it. While many of the protesters are probably exceptionally nice and simply want a better world, there are enough seriously disruptive and difficult people among them to turn a crowd into a mob. A mob during a pandemic is not a good thing.

I need a novel that’s as important to me now as Andra was in the 1970s. I don’t know if one exists, or whether I need to write it. If I have to write it, I haven’t reached the moment where I know what is critical in it. All I know is that something in me needs a book that touches that emotional trigger and makes it possible for me to think past the politics of this strange situation and to reach the heart of it.

It’s funny, because when I was ten I needed the opposite. I needed a novel that taught me that politics existed and that words could address it and that not everything worked out well all the time.

If I find that book that I need, I might have to compare it with Andra and to discover how fifty years of my life has shaped me. Or maybe I’ll discover what fifty years in the world has done to our image of politics. Andra was written soon after the 1968 student protests and in the middle of the Cold War. In years leading up to Andra humans travelled in space and landed on the moon. The Chicago Seven were put on trial and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty changed international relations. The Beatles broke up and Hutt River Province seceded from Australia. I didn’t know any of this, of course, but Andra was published in one of those pivotal times when everything changed. This is why Whitlam became Prime Minister, in fact. We used to sing “It’s time”  – the election jingle that helped persuade voters to choose a different party to the one that had ruled for 23 years.

We’re in one of those times now. No-one told me when I was ten just how uncomfortable pivotal periods can be. I hope I find that book.

One thought on “Pivotal times and their books

  1. The period in which Andra was written was the time that shaped my life. I don’t know the book, but I participated in those times first-hand. They were chaotic, but in a different way from now. (A discussion of that difference would take more time and space than I have right now.)

    I think we need a lot of fiction coming at this period from a lot of directions. I can think of two that I’ve read in the last few years — one I read just before the pandemic started and one I just finished last week — that are on point. The first is Sarah Pinsker’s A Song for a New Day, which takes place in a near future U.S. in which isolated living became the norm after a lot of terrorism and a pandemic. It’s the story of people pushing back against that isolation. It was written before this time, but it still gets at some core truths.

    The second is the one I wrote about last week — Stan Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future. I think it nails the kind of work that we need to do to not just survive, but thrive.

    The first book has a lot of emotional touchstones and is also integrated with music (as was the 1968 era). The second has emotional moments, but is in some ways more of an explanation of how to deal with this chaos, particularly climate change.

    Neither of these books are directly about the pandemic, but in reading them it is easy to see that our current chaotic times are about so much more than that.

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