One interesting thread that runs through the history of science fiction is the changing depiction of Mars. As science has gradually expanded our knowledge of the “red planet”, fiction has changed to accommodate new information. Key novels like The War of the Worlds (1897), A Princess of Mars (1912), The Martian Chronicles (1950), the Mars trilogy (1992 - 1996) and The Martian (2011) all chart this shifting perspective.
An important milestone in this history is the flyby conducted by the Mariner 4 mission in 1965. The visit cemented the new understanding of a lifeless, desolate Mars so thoroughly that stories about the planet can be divided into pre-Mariner and post-Mariner eras. After the 1960s, some writers still wrote nostalgic stories that explored the romantic, adventurous, and inhabited Mars that never was - as in the anthology Old Mars (2013) edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois.
Arthur C. Clarke’s novel The Sands of Mars occupies an interesting and unusual position in this history. One of the author’s earliest books, it was published in 1951, long before the Mariner 4 flyby. However, its portrayal of the red planet is much closer to reality than other books of its era. In keeping with his hard science fiction approach, Clarke adhered to the emerging ideas about Mars. This book deals thoughtfully with the challenges of reaching Mars, of surviving on the surface, and even of making it more Earth-like.
In the wider context of Clarke’s glittering career, The Sands of Mars is a minor novel. It is an interesting one, though, for a number of reasons - not only due to its view of Mars. Because its main character is himself a science fiction author, it has a kind of meta quality. It can also be said to serve as a kind of spiritual prequel to Clarke’s later book set on Earth’s moon, Earthlight (1955). Finally, it represents a prototype more generally for the author’s later books, which present a similar positivist view of humankind’s future.
The Sands of Mars is set at some point in the 21st century and can essentially be divided up into three phases, or acts - each of which focus on the main protagonist, Martin Gibson. In the first act, Gibson experiences a three-month journey to Mars on the atomic-powered spaceship Ares. In the second act, he learns how the nascent Martian colony operates, and gradually becomes a part of the community. In the third and final act, he helps make a discovery that ties into a bold project to radically remake the Martian environment.
The fact that Gibson is a science fiction writer is a gently playful aspect of Clarke’s book. Gibson has spent years writing about space travel and about Mars, and finally gets to experience these for real. At times, Gibson comments that some of the things that happen to him are so unlikely that they seem like events in a book. Obviously this is quite meta, but is reserved for a sequence of family and relationship melodramas that are some of the weaker elements of the story - these were never Clarke’s specialism.
The other purpose that Gibson’s profession serves is that it allows Clarke to explore the differences between the fantastical depictions of Mars in most fiction and his somewhat more realistic portrayal. Clarke often focuses on specific details of how a spaceship or a Martian colony would work, rooted in his scientific understanding at that time. This almost lightly educational quality would permeate many of his later novels, in a continually updated form as the science changed.
While the first two thirds of The Sands of Mars are quite scientifically grounded and plausible - even all these decades later - that begins to change in the final act. Gibson and his friends first encounter a Martian plant which has the incredibly convenient property that it produces oxygen. Later, they go one further and discover a community of strange, kangaroo-like aliens which feed on said plant. Today, these developments are a bit difficult to accept and represent a crashing reminder that yes, this novel was published in 1951.
It’s hard to imagine that Clarke would have retained these plot points had he written the book after the Mariner 4 flyby. Sure enough, his depiction of aliens in later books like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Rendezvous with Rama (1973) are much less direct. Perhaps this was partly an effort on Clarke’s part to make sure these representations retained a sense of mystery, and were not dated by scientific progress still to come.
There is another Clarke novel with which The Sands of Mars makes an interesting comparison point, and that is Earthlight (1955). While the novels are not actually set in the same continuity, they are set in a very similar kind of future. It would be quite easy to decide to view the books as a kind of de facto series; in that case, Earthlight would have to be set some time later, because the colonisation of Mars is at a much more advanced stage.
Both books are set in a fairly standard Clarke vision of human progress, in which technology is viewed very positively and civilisation seems to have been able to shed most of its negative aspects. In almost all of Clarke’s books, any hazard or threat arises not from human (or non-human) malice but from natural events and blind chance. In this latter area Earthlight is an exception, as its plot does hinge on conflict between human factions in a struggle for scarce resources.
Clarke’s positive view of human flourishing in the future, and a world free of prejudice and war, is at odds with a lot of later science fiction. Some may go so far as to view it as a little naive. However, another way of looking at it is to view it as a noble goal - Clarke believed that only a united humankind could truly look to and achieve its potential in the stars, and he may well have been right.
While The Sands of Mars is far from an essential entry in Clarke’s body of work, it is an eminently readable novel which has a unique perspective on the red planet, especially for its time. Those readers who have already tackled the author’s more major, later novels will find a lot to enjoy in this earlier book, especially if they are interested in the changing depictions of Mars over the decades.
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I write about classic science fiction and occasionally fantasy; I sometimes make maps for Doom II; and I'm a contributor to the videogames site Entertainium, where I regularly review new games.