Young People Read Old SFF

Unwillingly to School

Pauline Ashwell

Young People Read Old SFF

12 Jan, 2021

And so we reach the end of this phase of Young People Read Old SFF with Pauline Ashwell’s Unwillingly to School. Ashwell is an author whose work I have read before Rediscovery Vol 1. Less than entirely usefully, the sole work of hers I have read was 1992’s Unwillingly to Earth, which collects the Lizzie Lee stories, of which Unwilling to School is the first. I do not, therefore, have much sense of her skills outside this particular series. Unwillingly to Earth struck me a bit old-fashioned in 1992. Since the first instalment was written in 1958, that’s not terribly surprising.

Still, readers nominated Ashwell’s fiction enough to nominate her for the Best New Author” Hugo. Twice. Not only that but twice in the same year, courtesy of a pen-name and the difficulty fans had discovering that Pauline Ashwell and Paul Ash were the same person. Will my Young People think as highly of her story? Let’s find out.

I had actually read this one not too long ago as part of the collection of these stories Unwillingly To Earth. Whilst the sequels didn’t impress me much this first one is a bit of a gem. 

First off is the setting, the idea of a young girl from a rural background getting a chance to go to an elite school seems more like something out of Blyton or Burnett than Bester or Bradbury, this means even as a starting point it strikes you as something different. But then mixes these masterfully with the science fiction elements to create a unique blend.

Secondly, it makes use of a number of interesting narrative devices to tell the tale combining flashback, epistolary and stream of consciousness, which makes it come alive.

But most importantly, is the character of Lizzie Lee herself. As we can see in this collection alone, character does not seem to be considered as important as idea at this time when constructing a science fiction short story. However, here she as fully rounded as you would get in any full length bildungsroman.

A great choice to finish the collection. 


It appears that in the future, manipulation is a science. I do approve of regulating it, since people being susceptible to it will never go away, and it does need proper ethical oversight. It is a thin line between persuasion, leadership and manipulation, after all. However, it’s somewhat iffy for it to be institutionalized. To what end would such techniques be used? It could be used for great good or great evil, and could be used to gain or maintain a solid grip on power.

I’ve done a lot of thinking on this subject over the years, mostly due to a fascination with leadership and persuasion, and it’s good to know someone else has thought about this subject a lot. I think I know more about this sort of thing after reading this story than I did before, like the author had thought more about this than I had. Or perhaps studied it. Terminology like push” is used, a somewhat familiar term to me.

This story discusses principles and techniques and only briefly touches on the ethics. Maybe that’s covered in later years? I hope so. It can dearly be abused. Though it’s debatable whether teaching ethics in higher education produces better, more ethical decisions.

In any case, I didn’t really get interested in the story until they started dealing with this subject. That, and dealing with themes of disability and higher education also piqued my interest. The gender themes could also be discussed in great detail, but I feel I’ve gone on long enough already.