Monday, November 14, 2011

Arthur C. Clarke's Sands of Mars: 60 Years Later

It was 60 years ago this year that science-fiction grandmaster, Sir Arthur C. Clarke, wrote one of his lesser known books The Sands of Mars. It was never as famous as Childhood's End (1953), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or Rendezvous with Rama (1972), but it was great book none-the-less, and I would like to now share with you some of my thoughts about it, as it nears the end of its sixtieth orbit around our Sun.  

The Hohmann Transfer Orbit, a means for us to leave Earth's orbit and head to Mars.

The story follows writer Martin Gibson as he travels to Mars in an effort to publicise the nascent colony's efforts to grow the Red Planet. The first part of the story recalls his crossing between Earth and Mars on the Ares, a ship that it is hoped will one day be a Cunard-like vehicle for people leaving Earth permanently. As he travels, we watch him adapt to three months in space and befriend and learn from the crew, all the while writing reports to his publishing company back on Earth. 

Upon arrival on Mars, he interacts with and befriends the citizens of this New World, not only growing to admire their early efforts to bring civilization to this distant place, but himself becoming Martian in outlook and in one instance making a discovery that changes humanity forever.

A 2005 NASA impression of an early human settlement on Mars

NASA's 'Spirit Mars Exploration Rover - A', 2004-2010
The book is an enjoyable story and it is hard to believe it is sixty years old. As with most science-fiction, there are some errors, the biggest being the Martian-based biological discriptions that subsequent exploration efforts have proved non-existent. But these errors are completely outweighed by the amazing insight -- both the scientific and psychological -- Clarke brings to the early human effort of travelling to other planets and exploring the stars. For example, in one of my favourite passages, Gibson recalls the momentous occasion of him leaving Earth’s orbit for the first time: 

Down there is all my past life and the lives of all my ancestors back to the first blob of jelly in the first primeval sea. No colonist or explorer setting sail from his native land ever left so much behind as I am leaving now. Down beneath those clouds lays the whole of human history: soon I shall be able to eclipse with my little finger what was, until a lifetime ago, all of Man’s dominion and everything that his art has saved from time. (Page 22) 

As well as capturing the genius, courage and audacity of humanity's first efforts to become a space-faring race, Clarke also notes how, as human beings, we will inevitability take our failings to the stars as well. In one instance while the protagonist is outside the ship exploring space, he encounters some of the rubbish that has been cast from the spaceship pulling him along. Here, Clarke  writes in a way anyone who regularly walks around London, Toronto or New York knows only too well: “We’ve been throwing out waste every day for weeks... and all our junk will soon go shooting out from the solar system.” When traveling around Mars in an aircraft there is a crash, and while I don't want to give too much away, this episode not only has a lasting impact on Gibson and the story, it also gives us an idea of how both terrifying and magnificent it will be when  we finally examine Mars by foot, wing and wheel.

NASA artist impression in the late 1980s
Despite some technological issues, none of which really distract from the story and could easily be updated by word replacement software – 'typewriter' to 'tablet computer', etc., Clarke’s 1951 story of a voyage to and life on Mars remains remarkably visionary and inspiring. We know now that Mars has a barren and lifeless surface, but we also know that one day many years ago, it had liquid water and perhaps even life. We also know that the spaceships in our future will not launch from Earth, but rather a giant orbiting space station just like the ‘Space Station One’ of Gibson’s time. Further, and on a slightly more mundane note, we also know how viral marketing and earned media are often the best way to excite people about something new and fresh. Clarke wasn't writing a marketing manual, but in these aspects of Sands, he was spot on. 
An artist impression of an O'Neill cylinder space station from The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space by American physicist Gerard K. O'Neill 
So if you’re looking for something interesting to read and you are already familiar with Sir Arthur C. Clarke's more famous works, then give Sands of Mars a read. At 60 years, it’s still a fun, inspiring and reasonably accurate book that will satisfy anyone looking for some hard science-fiction to supplement their diet of Silver Surfer or Captain Atomic. 

(The author of this piece read the reprinted Sidgwick and Jackson 1982 edition which was found at Orbital Comics in London, UK)


  1. Sounds like a cool book we need to check out! We thought we'd devoured the entire Clarke library years ago, but somehow missed this one.

  2. Thanks for commenting, MWSNM! It's a good, short book and I'm sure you'll enjoy it. Clarke's canon is quite extensive and truth be told, I only discovered this one recently too. Cheers!

  3. i've always been a big Mars buff when it comes to exploration concepts fictional or otherwise. i really followed the news closely during NASA's 'Spirit Rover mission. those were some real awesome photos it transmitted back to Earth. Red Planet was ok but i thought Mission to Mars was pretty good.