In my primary school and teenage days, I was an avid reader of both boarding school stories and what I have since learned are variously called ‘juveniles’ or ‘planetary romances’ by authors such as Robert Heinlein or Arthur C Clarke. Thanks to Chaz Brenchley, I now realise those books had far more in common than I was aware of back then. All these stories were set in worlds that were equally alien to me as kid in a UK state school in the 1970s. I was no more likely to ever be a pupil at somewhere like Mallory Towers than I was to go to Mars, to skate along frozen canals and meet marvellous, scary creatures. A great deal of all these stories’ appeal for me was following characters who could be my contemporaries as they learned and navigated the unknown rules of unfamiliar and not necessarily safe environments, to come through their adventures unscathed – for mostly non-lethal values of ‘unscathed’ in English boarding schools.
So combining these traditions is quite simply a brilliant idea, creating an alternate reality where Mars is a stalwart colony of the British Empire and while boys go back to Eton or Harrow, the girls can be educated satisfactorily and more cheaply there. Thus Brenchley offers an entertaining read that’s both familiar and brand new.
This is far more than an exercise in inventive nostalgia though. Looking back, I can see how all those stories were founded on the assumptions of their respective decades and authors. Those assumptions are now to a greater or lesser extent often problematic. For a start, the stories of St Clare’s, the Chalet School, the Abbey Girls and the like, were the pretty much the only books I was reading that focused on female protagonists, viewpoints and concerns. I remember that was one reason why I actively sought them out. Everywhere else, any sort of adventure was exclusively male, or at best, male-led. Even so, I now see these girl-centered stories were as laden with outdated views on class, race and society as their overtly masculine counterparts. Brenchley is way ahead of me. With a deft and subtle touch, he interrogates the attitudes of those ‘classic; books and their era with charming ruthlessness. The reader is cordially invited to consider how many such attitudes persist and why.
All told, this book is an excellent diversion; an escape from everything that’s besieging us all at the moment. In the very best traditions of SF, it also offers us somewhere to go, where we can see where we came from more clearly.