The Big Idea: Chaz Brenchley

There once was a saying that “The Sun Never Sets on the British Empire” — and in Mary Ellen, Craterean!, author Chaz Brenchley expands on that idea, with a whole new planet for the sun, and empire, to consider. He’s here today to explain how he got to this point, a journey that begins, of all places, in California.


Not wishing to seem contrary, but the best novels—to my mind, at least—come from the confluence of several Big Ideas all swirling together, setting up riptides and surges, hidden currents, all manner of moist metaphors.

That said, there is in fact a single Big Idea underlying not only Mary Ellen but almost all the work I’ve produced in recent years. I blame SETI, mostly.

Thing is, I emigrated from the UK a dozen years ago, to marry a Silicon Valley geek. The house we live in is literally walking distance from half a dozen major Big Tech campuses: Google’s over that way, LinkedIn is down there, Apple is all over the place. SETI’s headquarters is a two-mile stroll from here—and they used to hold weekly seminars where planetary scientists and astronomers would discuss their latest work, discoveries, theories, and so on. On occasion it became clear that there were more Nobel laureates in the audience than on the panel.

Anyway, when Curiosity landed, there was inevitably a lot of talk about Mars; and at the same time there was a conversation going on in the steampunk community about how the genre was dominated by notions of the British Empire, and it really didn’t need to be. So I was following that, and thinking about the Red Planet, and wondering how you could mix current planetary science with the Old Mars of golden-age SF—and again, not wishing to come across contrarian, but my mother was a classic Daughter of Empire (father in the Scots Guards: she was born in Rangoon and grew up in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore between the wars, having one of those strange, privileged colonial childhoods), and I’ve always been fascinated by that whole end-of-empire period; and the further I move away from the UK, the more inveterately British my fiction becomes.

So, in defiance of the mood of the times, I started to think about Mars as a province of the British Empire: how that could have happened, and how it would have changed history back on Earth. (Answer: a lot. George III may have lost America, but he gained a whole fertile planet. Victoria the Queen Empress never actually dies, she merely disappears into a Martian cocoon, so that her heirs become Princes Regent, never King. The Kaiser is far too cowed to make war anywhere in Europe; instead, WWI happens between Britain and Russia, because the Tsar got Venus, which is a hellhole, and he’s had covetous eyes on Mars ever since…)

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