The July Arthur C. Clarke 2013 Reading Challenge book is The Sands of Mars, Clarke’s first science fiction novel which was published in 1951 and is now available from Gollancz.
‘It is the twenty-first century. On Mars a dedicated group of pioneers – among them some of Earth’s finest brains – struggle to change the face of the planet… Science fiction writer Martin Gibson finally gets a chance to visit the research colony on the Red Planet. It’s a dream come true – until he discovers the difficulties and perils of survival on another world . . . and the very real terror it holds.’
The Sands of Mars is a curious delight. Written in 1951, at a time when the Moon landing was still almost a generation away and Mars remained a writers’ enigma, it links the science fiction vision of H.G. Wells with that of Arthur C. Clarke’s later novels, when exploration of the Moon had begun and everything seemed possible, everywhere ultimately reachable. In it, Clarke is very aware of the limitations upon an earthbound author to imagine space travel and Martian colonies and it actually becomes a theme, embodied in the novel’s central character, science fiction novelist Martin Gibson.
Set during the early years of the colonisation of Mars, when humans are looking further afield to Jupiter and Saturn, Gibson is given the chance to travel to Mars in the spaceship Ares as an observer and reporter. As we follow him on the voyage and then during his time on Mars, we witness the change in his character as he not only discovers truths about his own life – the past catches up with him even as he steps into this strange future – but also about what it means to be a human being travelling into the unknown. Gibson is transformed from writer into explorer in front of our eyes and to the accompaniment of his amusing and amused reflections on what is going on around him. There are moments of dialogue that made me laugh out loud. I really liked Gibson.
Arthur C. Clarke found it easier to imagine space travel than he did the development of technologies we see around us today, sixty plus years later. That means we have the rather odd description of Gibson trying to use his typewriter and carbon paper in zero gravity and a passage on how communications with Earth could be sent by fax. The Sands of Mars also includes an intriguing discussion of the problem of creating science fiction to last the ages – it is extremely datable, as this novel demonstrates so well. But, just as H.G. Wells’ novels still deserve to be read, so does early Arthur C. Clarke and, Gibson insists, so does Martin Gibson.
Where the novel is harder to accept, for me, is in the descriptions of the flora and fauna of Mars. Whereas I’m prepared to accept most things in Burroughs’ Barsoom series, it seems a little harder to take in an Arthur C. Clarke novel. This, though, is all because of the passing of time and it did not spoil the novel for me in the slightest. By contrast, the potential for suspicion and distrust between Earth and Mars hinted at here seems especially perceptive and believable.
The Sands of Mars is very hard to put down. At 200 pages (albeit of teeny writing in my 1960s’ edition), it’s a fast read and it’s both exciting and fascinating. Its combination of science fiction and mid 20th-century historical context added an unintentional (but ultimately inevitable for all science fiction) element that intrigued me from start to finish. As always, though, Arthur C. Clarke conveys brilliantly his hunger and thirst for exploring the planets around us as well as the distant stars. This enthusiastic vision and imagination, partnered with sympathetic and likeable characters, makes reading The Sands of Mars a thoroughly enjoyable experience.