One of the joys of living in the heart of Silicon Valley is that NASA Ames is just over there, and SETI HQ is even closer. We live among the cool kids – and the cool kids like to share. I went to NASA for the recent transit of Venus; and ever since I moved here, I’ve been going to SETI’s weekly colloquium where planetary scientists and cosmologists talk about the latest discoveries, or the specific projects they have on a new mission, or the latest weird theory that’s almost a guaranteed Nobel prize if it should ever prove true (“but right now there are only two people who believe it, and they’re both in this room”), and like that.
So there I was with planetary scientists at my fingers’ ends for the asking, and lots of Mars talk going on around the time of Curiosity’s landing, so it’s really no wonder that I started thinking about Mars fiction. Real Mars, not so much, for it is dry and inhospitable and I have written my desert books already – but old Mars, Mars with canals and an atmosphere and aliens? Oh, yes. Very much yes.
And very much within that spirit, I wanted to steampunk it up a bit; and there was a lot of talk at that time in my social media about how steampunk tended to assume British Empire overtones, as though that were the only choice, and how it so very much was not. So I thought somewhat about that – but I did keep coming back to the British Empire, because I am far from home and the more time I spend in California the more inveterately Brit I become, and because I am the son of an Empire brat (Grandad was a major in the Scots Guards; Mum was born in Rangoon and grew up in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, speaking Malay more readily than English), and because above all I was really curious. If Mars were a province of the British Empire, how would that actually work? How could it happen, and what would it mean – to the Empire, and to European and world history? And to Mars, and to the presumptive Martians? How do you impose colonial rule on a race that has no concept of empire, or statehood, or governance? And does it make a difference if you’re there by their courtesy, via their aetherships, for reasons you still don’t understand? And how do you negotiate even the broadest heads of agreement where you can barely communicate at all?
And, and, and. This is one way that fiction happens, with a whole slew of questions that need answering. So this last couple of years, I have been writing stories that seek to do that. The first of them, “The Burial of Sir John Mawe at Cassini”, was published in Subterranean and picked up by Gardner Dozois for his Year’s Best SF anthology; the second – “The Astrakhan, the Homburg and the Red Red Coal” – appeared this year in Lightspeed’s “Queers Destroy SF” special issue (Oscar Wilde on Mars!). And I’m working on T E Lawrence on Mars, and A E Housman on Mars, and I’m irretrievably bogged down in a novel about Kipling on Mars (for many of these stories begin with “Y’know, if Mars were a province of the British Empire, [X] would so have gone there…”).
So there’s that, and I am passionate about it, beguiled by it, almost obsessed with it.
But I have other passions too, lifelong passions – and one of those is the Chalet School series by Elinor M Brent-Dyer. Sixty books, written over forty-five years: the tale of an English boarding school established in the Austrian Tyrol, with all that that implies. Mischief at midnight, practical jokes and punishments, prefects and dormitories and matrons and mistresses; but also adventures on a much greater scale, for these books were written in real time through the war and the girls witness anti-Semitic cruelty and take a stand against it and have to flee the Nazis themselves. And retreat first to Guernsey, which turns out not to have been such a good idea, and then to Wales; and spies come after them, and the makeshift migratory wartime school yields some of the best stories in the series. And then after the war the school moves to Switzerland (for it needs to stay close to the TB sanatorium that brings in many of its pupils, and staff too – and that supplies another constant theme to the series, loss and survival and the comforts of faith), and things go on much as before until the author’s death in 1970.
These books have a cult following, including some surprising names that I shall not bandy here. And just a few weeks ago, I was walking home from the farmers’ market when I suddenly thought, “Y’know, if Mars were a province of the British Empire, the Chalet School would so have a sister foundation there…”
It’s already established in the canon that boys are sent home to the great boarding-schools of England; but aethership journeys are expensive, and space is at a premium. Of course they’d want to educate their girls locally, oh yes…
And so the Crater School was born, in a failed hotel built as a Norman castle, on the rim of a crater lake inhabited by a Martian naiad. Just across the water from a sanatorium, for Mars comes of course with its own diseases; and there are Basque shepherds on the slopes and Dutch families on the canal below, Indians and Chinese in the great port cities, and and and…
And I’ve stitched all this together into a Patreon project, and we are going to have so much fun, it ought to be illegal. Or at least see us sent to the Headmistress on report. You can read the first two chapters for free here, and the Patreon page is here, if you’d like to support the Crater School for this term and beyond…
And by the way, the stories sent out to subscribers as part of the Patreon project will eventually be published all in one place in a Book View Cafe edition.