Reflections on “The Sands of Mars”

Fictional Mars, one of my favorite subjects in science fiction, is a place that has been presented in many guises over the years. This post is going to take a look at a “realistic” version of the Red Planet.

British-Lankese author Arthur C Clarke was one of the titans of science fiction when I was young in the 1970s, together with Americans Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. As I see it, Clarke was at his best from the late 1940s to the end of the 1960s, a period during which he for instance wrote the famous short-stories “The Sentinel” and “The Nine Billion Names of God”. Around 1950, he wrote The Sands of Mars, a sand-in-the-spacesuit novel about one man’s exploration of Mars and of himself, a story of growth and transformation, of becoming an adult and responsible individual.

Clarke possessed a talent I have come to like more and more with advancing age, the ability to write an interesting yarn without introducing violent conflicts or bad-guy characters. The Sands of Mars is a prime example: it deals with saving lives (futuristic medicine), making deserts bloom (well, sort of), and the constructive handling an old mess (no spoiler here). The main character, a science fiction author named Martin Gibson, grows in a credible manner from being immature and egocentric to assuming great responsibility.

I found the novel in a bargain bookshop in my hometown Gothenburg in the late 1970s and it has remained in my bookshelf ever since. I have read it so many times that I can summarize it “on the run”. At the time of the purchase, the novel was about 25 years old and its description of Mars had been rendered obsolete by the detailed photo-mapping of the Red Planet by Mariner 9 in 1972. But that did not matter much, because I liked it from the start.*

Clarke sends the reader to a worn-out Mars covered by rolling deserts without exciting topology. Its carbon-dioxide atmosphere is reasonably thick and its dunes are home only to hardy plants — not a Martian in sight. One of the main themes is the interaction between the colonists and the planet, how people’s mindsets get “martianized” while they are busy making the planet more human-friendly.

Another interesting matter that Clarke deals a lot with is the significance of administration and efficient use of scarce resources. Establishing a permanent human presence on Mars is an expensive and time-consuming project and, in order to succeed, it must be managed in a professional and unheroic manner. Therefore production statistics and balance sheets get as important as back-breaking labor. Scientific progress — i.e. in physics, chemistry, and xenobiology — is the underlying key to success and Clarke uses this trope to create suspense: every now and then protagonist Martin Gibson asks himself “What the heck is really going on here?”

Does the novel have any weaknesses? The gender roles are antiquated and the story fails the Bechdel test. But that’s what Europe in 1950 looked like. And it is hard to criticize Clarke here, because he does show how working women participate in the colonization of Mars even though they get almost no speaking parts in Martin Gibson’s adventures. From literary standpoint, the prose suffers from occasional Clarke-isms (quasi-philosophical expressions like “the stream of time”, not-so-funny humor, etc) that disrupt its otherwise smooth flow.

In the 1950s, the readers must have seen The Sands of Mars as a plausible description of what interplanetary colonization could be like. Today, six decades later, the story’s technology is partially outdated (e.g. Martin Gibson uses a typewriter and carbon-copies; radios have tubes instead of transistors) and partially futuristic (e.g. the well-described nuclear-powered passenger ship by which Gibson travels to Mars). But despite its age, the novel remains a piece of solid craftsmanship because it deals with an issue that always is with us: how to build a better world for our children, be it on Mars or on Earth.

*The novel also helped me in my German studies in my last year in school in 1977-78. During that spring semester we got a standard assignment: write a long essay about a journey. Being inspired by Clarke’s novel, I wrote several pages about a Gibson-style trip to Mars. For that particular teacher, the genre was a novelty and he therefore raised my final mark one step as a reward for originality and quality.

2 thoughts on “Reflections on “The Sands of Mars”

  1. BRA Anders!
    Låt dig stimuleras till en spännande och informativ berättelse.

    Kommande upptäcker på Mars kommer att ruska om mänskligheten?
    Jag väntar med spänning på nyheten att de hittat Prokaryote bakaterier på Mars.. och ALLT måste omvärderas 😉

  2. Pingback: Reflections on “Between Planets”: Vietnam on Venus? | The Dream Forge

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