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The Sands of Mars by Arthur C. ClarkeThe Sands of Mars: Signet edition3.5 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsArthur C. Clarke tells us that The Sands of Mars was his first full-length novel, though it was published after such works as Against the Fall of Night and Prelude to Space. While a surprising amount of Clarke’s output from the 1950s doesn’t date too badly, The Sands of Mars does, mainly for the obvious scientific reasons. We’ve known for a good while now that Mars isn’t rife with vegetation, let alone critters, although the hope of microbial life still hasn’t gone away for many. And a person would need a heck of a lot more than just basic breathing apparatus to walk around on its surface. Also, as you might expect from mid-century SF, everyone is white and female characters are insignificant and relegated to romantic interest only. Yet knowing these things, it’s easy to understand such elements as artifacts of their day. For all that science and social advancements have overtaken the book, it still spins a convincing and engaging yarn about the first offworld human colony and how its people live.

Vincent di Fate Signet editionIt’s also enjoyable for Clarke’s going a little self-effacing and meta on us. The protagonist is (ho ho) a science fiction writer named Martin Gibson, who travels to Mars as the first civilian passenger to do so, and has to eat a little humble pie along the way when the reality of space flight doesn’t always conform to his imagination. Today you might call the character a fairly obvious self-insert, but so what? Science fiction has always been a literature for dreamers, both among its readership and its creators. There’s nothing out of the ordinary about a writer projecting himself into one of his own stories. And, in sharp contrast to what makes “Mary Sue” projections deservedly risible, Clarke doesn’t idealize or romanticize Gibson, but makes him a regular fellow (if perhaps enjoying a higher celebrity in the eyes of the general public than an SF writer might have done in the ’50s) with much to learn and some youthful indiscretions that come back to haunt him.

Still, the first half of Sands is way too expository and talky, lacking much in the way of conflict apart from Gibson’s discovering that his past is rather uncomfortably linked to that of the vessel’s youngest crewman, Jimmy Spencer. From that sentence alone you can probably guess where Clarke is going to take the thing. Once we land on the red planet, the story markedly picks up, with Gibson involved in a series of discoveries — some having to do with Mars’s ecosystem itself, others to do with the possibility that the colony is Up To Something it doesn’t want Earth to know about — that propel the narrative far more effectively than the rather dry tech-talk of its first half. 

There’s more attention to character development than one expects from hard SF of this vintage, although much of it by today’s standards is the stuff of cliché: an inevitable romantic subplot between Jimmy and the daughter of the colony’s administrator, for one, which incorporates the quaint and archaic idea of a young suitor asking the father of his girl for her hand. SFnally, I enjoyed separating some of the speculation that Clarke got right from that which he got hopelessly wrong. For all that he anticipated such technologies as satellites, it’s always fun to see how neither Clarke nor any of the early SF giants was able to anticipate much of today’s basic personal tech. Gibson, who is primarily going to Mars for the sake of reportage, hauls along a clunky typewriter, and his articles are sent back to Earth from space via fax machine! In this wireless world, things like this inspire plenty of chuckles, though in fairness, no writer can reasonably be expected to be that clairvoyant. Still, a lot of the fun of reading yesteryear’s SF lies in seeing where reality diverged from imagination.

The following year Clarke released Childhood’s End, the career-defining novel that pretty much eclipsed his earlier output. But The Sands of Mars, and most of Clarke’s other work from this formative period, remained in print all down the years due to the stature he attained following that book and especially 2001. For readers seeking an excursion into the kind of retro SF “they just don’t write anymore,” and to which today’s most innovative and forward-thinking work owes its existence, The Sands of Mars is a classic experience indeed.