We’re going to Mars today via the words of one of the “Big Three*,” Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s The Sands of Mars. Clarke said “I have a special fondness for Sands, as it was my first full-length novel.” Published in 1951 it is an optimistic story of the early days of colonizing Mars. I read an omnibus edition paired with The City and the Stars which was released by Warner Aspect in 2001. In the introduction, Clarke makes wry note of the year, and says, “When I tapped out ‘The End’ on my Remington Noiseless (ha!) Portable in 1951, I could never have imagined that twenty years later I would be sitting on a panel with Ray Bradbury and Carl Sagan at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory waiting for the first news of the real Mars to arrive from the Mariner Space Probes. . . .” Nor could he imagine the Mars we’ve come to know through modern telescopes and NASA rovers.
Clarke does not romanticize the harsh conditions he imagined the colonists would have to survive. He used the best scientific information available at the time, but admits there are errors in his speculations. Like many other science fiction authors, Clarke did not imagine the miniaturization and the development of personal electronic devices that resulted in a proliferation of computers and cell phones. His protagonist takes a manual typewriter on the spaceship, faxes articles back to Earth, and the crew of the space-liner smokes cigarettes. (Secondhand smoke was not an acknowledged issue in 1951.)
I am delighted that a multiple award winning, multiple best selling author like Clarke released this novel with all of its warts. The story is entertaining, though much slower paced than today’s novels. It has some stiff prose, weak conflicts, and internal story inconsistencies that are fairly typical of a first or second novel. Personally, I can forgive and overlook those blunders because I enjoyed reading about the characters.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT
The first half of the book deals with the flight to Mars. We meet the protagonist, Martin Gibson, a well-known science fiction author, seconds before the rocketship he’s in will be launched into space. He’s on assignment, going to Mars to report back to Earth what the first extraterrestrial colony is doing with the millions of dollars spent on it.
Gibson suffers from nerves, from the embarrassment of having written about space flight and exploration long before such things existed, and fears of being sent back to Earth in shame when he’s stricken with space-sickness. Fortunately for Gibson, and the reader, the space-sickness is quickly resolved and he boards the world’s first interplanetary space-liner, the Ares.
Ares is on her maiden voyage, a test run with a stripped down crew consisting of Captain Norden, an experienced space pilot; his engineer, the Scottish astrogator; the cynical electronics officer, the medical officer, and Jimmy Spencer, a Master’s degree student hoping to pilot his own spaceship someday. Jimmy, being the junior member of the crew, is assigned to assist their only passenger, Gibson. Over the course of the three month trip, Gibson discovers a link between Jimmy and Gibson’s own unpleasant college days.
When he first arrives on Mars, the spartan lifestyle in the small, claustrophobic settlement disappoints Gibson. As he explores the domed city and its surrounds, Gibson learns about the challenges of surviving on the planet: lower air pressure, lack of oxygen, growing food, harsh weather, and constructing buildings and traveling in a hostile environment. The weekly articles he researches, writes, and faxes back to Earth, become more and more pro-Mars as his ideas about the colony change. He meets and grows to respect and like the locals, even his antagonist Warren Hadfield, Chief Executive of Mars. Finally during one of Gibson’s excursions, a severe sandstorm forces his aircraft off course and he makes discoveries vital to the success of the colony, or so he thinks.
I found the ending satisfying, but in case you’d like to read this novel for yourself, I’ll keep that information to myself.
HOW THE RED PLANET IS PORTRAYED
Clarke’s vision of Mars is more scientific and less descriptive than some. During the trip to the planet the electronics officer confesses that he can’t see why anyone would want to go to Mars. “It’s flat, it’s cold, and it’s full of miserable half-starved plants looking like something out of Edgar Allan Poe.” The cities and scientific centers are contained in clusters of circular domes, filled with oxygen ‘cracked’ from the iron oxide that tinted the soil a dark red.
Clarke does a remarkable job of evoking the orbiting moons, Deimos and Phobos, and the size of Mars. However he speculates that lush brilliant green plants fill areas of the planet, though much of the planet was barren, red dirt and rocks. Infamously, he has his protagonist, Gibson, declare, “There are no mountains on Mars!” (That was true as far as anyone knew in 1951.) And finally, Clarke has his protagonist get stranded in a deep trench when his plane is disabled in a sandstorm. (In 1950 Clyde Tombaugh a member of the Lowell Observatory and discoverer of Pluto, proposed that the ‘canals’ of Mars were actually fissures radiating from craters which were the result of cosmic impacts.*)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Born in southwestern England, Arthur Charles Clarke (1917 – 2008) enjoyed stargazing and reading American science fiction magazines as a child. So much so, that he was active in science fiction circles before World War II. During the War he joined the Royal Air Force, serving as a radar instructor and technician. It was during that time he published his landmark scholarly paper, “Extra-Terrestrial Relays Can Rocket Stations Give World-wide Radio Coverage,” where he set out the first principles of global communication via satellites in geostationary orbits.
His first science fiction story professionally published was “Loophole” for Astounding in 1946. To list all of Clarke’s accomplishments as a scientist and author is not possible in this short blog post, but I’ll try to hit some of the major points.
Besides having been a radar instructor and technician, Clarke earned a first class honors degree in Physics and Mathematics in 1948 and served two terms as the British Interplanetary Society president.
He developed a keen interest in undersea exploration when he visited Sri Lanka (called Ceylon at that time) and moved there in 1956. He created a diving school. In 1962 he was diagnosed with polio which curtailed his diving activities. (Clarke, and his staff, and home were untouched by the 2004 tsunami that hit Sri Lanka and Indonesia but his diving school was destroyed.)
Regarded as one of the chief prophets of the space age, he joined CBS newsman Walter Cronkite and astronaut Wally Schirra in narrating the 1969 Apollo lunar landing and returned for coverage of Apollo missions 12 and 15.
Childhood’s End, Rendezvous with Rama, and 2001: A Space Odyssey are among the best known of the best sellers Clarke wrote. His body of work includes more than 70 books of fiction and nonfiction. He’s known for an optimistic view of the future of space exploration, accurate technical details, and philosophical themes such as ‘spiritual’ rebirth and the search for man’s place in the universe. Among the awards he’s won are Hugos, Nebulas, and the SFWA Grand Master. He was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 1997, and was knighted in 1998.
I would recommend reading this novel. It’s characters are engaging and the argument of whether or nor Mars should be explored and colonized are arguments still being made today. And if you’re a writer, or a Clarke aficionado, it’s fascinating to read the first novel of one of the best known science fiction writers of all time. Go ahead, go to Mars in the words of Arthur C. Clark’s The Sands of Mars.
If you’d like to read a Mars discovery timeline to make your own comparisons of the facts known in 1950 go to astrodigital.org
*science fiction authors, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and Robert Heinlein
I love it when you share your thoughts with me!
What do you think? Would you read a book with known inaccuracies?
Will there be a colony on Mars one day?
Is exploration and colonization worth it?