OK, folks, welcome to the Chalet School on Mars. I usually avoid sci-fi like the plague, but I gave this a try because it was a school story; and I have to admit that I rather enjoyed it. The school-on-Mars thing is apparently part of a genre called “steampunk”.
In this universe, Mars, or the Red Raj, is part of the British Empire, and some of the pioneers settling there, and other Britons there temporarily, want a boarding school for their daughters. Our school, the Crater School of the title, is on the shores of a lake, there’s a sanatorium nearby, girls have to curtsy to the headmistress, and no-one dares mess with the Head Girl or the matron (well, nun, but effectively a matron). People are “wise in their generation”, “suit their actions to the word”, make a “long arm” to reach things, are fined for using slang and have mishaps with the stationery cupboard. There’s even a rack-and-pinion railway. This will all sound rather familiar to Chalet School fans, and it’s meant to.
But there are monsters in the lake. And they eat people. This is not Briesau, Guernsey, Armishire, St Briavel’s or the Gornetz Platz. However, when it comes to escaping from the said monsters, we’re back in familiar territory – difficult climbs and conveniently-placed huts. And, actually, the monsters are hardly mentioned: no-one seems very bothered about them. For the most part, it’s pranks, escapades and spy stuff, and general school story issues about settling in at a new school and making friends.
Going back to climbs and huts, there are shepherds, of course. But, whilst most of the characters are British, the shepherds are Basques, who settled on Mars after fleeing persecution. Being a historian, I’ve driven myself mad trying to work out when the book’s set. I should probably accept that it doesn’t necessarily work like that in a sci-fi universe, but I can’t! It’s not clear to which period of Spanish history the talk of persecution refers. What we do know is that the colony on Mars dates back to at least the 1840s, because we’re told that Mars sent food to Ireland during the Potato Famine. There are references to a recent war, but it’s a war that only exists in this universe, between Britain and Russia (which held Venus, which apparently couldn’t be settled, but wanted Mars) – the Great Game War which never happened in reality. Russia is still ruled by a tsar, and Britain by the “ancient undead Queen” – Victoria. And Russia occupies the moon/moons, presumably once held by Britain, and the father of two new girls is a Lord Haw Haw type figure, broadcasting Russian propaganda over the radio.
There are no mobile phones or computers, inkwells are still in use, and the janitor remembers using candles for light. And one of the Crater School girls has Dolores Ibarruri as middle names. So … maybe this is the 1950s, like the Swiss-era Chalet School books? Or, well, maybe you aren’t meant to worry about time in a sci-fi novel, as I’ve already said. Probably the latter. Heigh-ho!
Apparently, this is a sub-genre of sci-fi, called steampunk. I think I’ve seen adverts for steampunk festivals, but I thought they were something to do with heritage railways. However, it appears not. It’s to do with sci-fi involving Victorian technology. Or something like that. And what it isn’t is spoof-writing: it’s all meant to be taken seriously.
The three twins are one pair of twins and another girl whose twin is at a different school. That’s quite an interesting idea: twins loom large in the Chalet School books and in Girls’ Own books in general, but I can’t think of a book in which same sex twins are sent to different schools. All three have Russian heritage, but it later transpires that their grandparents fled the pogroms. That, depending on which wave of pogroms it was and how old they were at the time, would fit with this being set in the 1950s, but makes it very odd that the first set of twins have Russian names – Tatiana and Natasha – and say “We’re Russians”.
The two girls with the Haw Haw-esque dad haven’t seen him for years, as their mother took them to Mars to hide from him, but he sends Russian agents to kidnap them. They’re easily spotted due to their red hair – another nod to the Chalet School – but other girls step in and outwit the kidnappers. Hurrah! And the separated twins are reunited: the one originally sent elsewhere is allowed to become a Crater School girl. Hurrah!
I don’t know anything about steampunk fandom, so I’ve got no idea whether or not a crossover with school stories in general and or the Chalet School in particular is likely to work for the people in it. However, there’s already a second Crater School book out, so that seems positive. The whole concept is very strange, but it did actually work quite well for me.