Arthur C. Clarke: The Sands of Mars

The 1951 book The Sands of Mars sees Clarke following on the hard SF of Prelude to Space with a story about the colonisation of Mars. In it, science fiction writer Gibson (we don’t get his first name, so we will never know if it is William or not…) is sent across the gulf of space to Mars in a spaceship named the ares that will thereafter be the first commercial passenger transport between the worlds, with the mission of writing about what he finds there.
The opening quarter of the novel details his experiences on the voyage where he learns to deal with handling himself in freefall, learning about the ship, it’s occupants, and what they think about Mars.

The ship briefly docks on Deimos, and the crew are shuttled down to Port Lowell, the second settlement on Mars that is widely regarded as its first city, but due to the inflated dome nature of the settlement is actually quite small. Gibson knocks around the city for a bit, learning about its inhabitants and their mindset, and particularly about the settlements hard-headed, no-nonsense leader Hadfield. (Hadfield has a daughter with whom Jimmy, the youngest member of the crew on board the ares and, unbeknownst to himself, Gibson’s son, falls in love). After being forced to crash land whilst flying to Mars’ original colony, Gibson manages to discover plants that convert the Oxygen locked in Mars’ sands back into gas, and a race of ‘Martians’; in reality a cross between chameleon’s and kangaroo’s that graze on these plants and thereby draw oxygen from them.

However, it turns out that these plants have already been discovered by the Martian settlers, and there is a secret project to cultivate them into larger, hardier plants able to oxygenate the atmosphere. This plan is sped up by the equally secretive ‘project dawn’, about which Gibson is kept in the dark. This is a plan to turn Mars’ moon Phobos into a second sun, which will dramatically increase the habitat of the oxygenating plant, and eventually give Mars an atmosphere that is breathable by humans. Gibson eventually stays on Mars and refuses to go back to Earth, becoming one of the colonists.

This story, whilst having some necessary secondary but nevertheless wholly enjoyable character driven subplots, is in actual fact about interplanetary politics. Much as Kim Stanley Robinson would later conclude in his unsurpassable Mars series, the links between Earth and Mars become strained very quickly for a number of reasons. Firstly, Mars colonies cost Earth a lot of money on which they see very little return for their investment, and secondly, the Mars project draws all the best scientists away from Earth in a classic ‘brain drain’ system. Initially, Gibson’s missive’s from the red planet increase public awareness of and applications to become part of the colony on Mars, and finally, following the success of Project Dawn, Hadfield is recalled to Earth in triumph.

The choice of a writer as the main character does feel a bit wish fulfillment’y on the part of Clarke, but this can be forgiven, as who wouldn’t want Gibson’s job? I think the main strength of this book is not in the descriptions of Mars, as it is in Robinson’s later opus, but in the imagining of a fully functional space program. Gibson’s fellow passengers on the ares count amongst their number a man who has visited the moons of Jupiter, and plans to also join an upcoming mission to Saturn, as well as Jimmy, a cadet for whom the passage to Mars is merely part of his spacefaring education. The roll call of characters is secular elitism all the way (a criticism often levelled at Clarke), but this is to be expected when dealing with such a hard SF’nal concept in an early postmodern society). There are a few moments in the plot that feel a little thrown in, and you wonder where Clarke is going with them, only to find that they were merely asides all along. Possibly a symptom of the novel being judiciously but not fully cut, or maybe a sign of Clarke’s wandering imagination. Either way, it is a minor gripe with an otherwise highly entertaining and readable novel.

~ by Snake Oil on March 14, 2012.

2 Responses to “Arthur C. Clarke: The Sands of Mars”

  1. Glad you enjoyed it! I have a copy of this one, but I haven’t started it yet.

  2. Great review. I have yet to read any Clarke novels but am fond of the short stories I’ve read. And as I’m also particularly fond of Mars as a planet and as a central character in SF stories, this one will be going on that ever-growing list.

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