Arthur C. Clarke Reading Challenge 2013 – July: The Sands of Mars

The Sands of Mars by Arthur C ClarkeThe 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.

9 thoughts on “Arthur C. Clarke Reading Challenge 2013 – July: The Sands of Mars

  1. Joachim Boaz

    Fun review of a fun novel — I too found this, despite the simple premise, incredibly engrossing — never mind that Mars is not exactly as he describes… If you like this one I recommend Fall of Moondust.

    1. Kate (For Winter Nights) Post author

      Hi Joachim – I found it very engrossing too. I’ve read seven Arthur C. Clarke’s so far this year and this is definitely one of my favourites. Very simple and very addictive. I really enjoyed A Fall of Moondust. That was the read for April:

      I have five more books to go in the Challenge. I’m glad I thought to do it. Thanks for commenting 🙂

  2. Christopher Lee Deards

    What’s interesting in reading the classics is that they are good reads despite having odd, dated technology. The presence of fax machines and typewriters dates the novel, but not the premise. We could have had colonies on the moon and Mars in the 70’s, with 8-track players and desk-sized computers.

    1. Joachim Boaz

      I have NEVER found the technological content of an old science fiction novel at all detrimental to the story. It’s all about characters, situations, world building, emotion etc… like any novel. Of course, when someone is rather predictive (which I often chalk up to coincidence rather than foresight — alas) it’s always a nice (obviously rather random) touch.

      1. Kate (For Winter Nights) Post author

        I totally agree. I love reading older SF – its vision and imagination seems vast. I try and read at least one a month. Still working through the backlists of Baxter, Hamilton and Reynolds. Next year I’ll do a Masterworks challenge.

    2. Kate (For Winter Nights) Post author

      Hi Christopher! I love that though. It is so true. When people were landing on the Moon, computers could fill a room. Good science fiction is timeless in its ideas and this mix of timeless stories with dated technology is a fascinating part of the genre.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.