Arthur C. Clarke’s 1951 Sands of Mars is a standalone science fiction novel. It was his debut novel. It has also been published as The Sands of Mars.
To commemorate the maiden voyage of Ares, first passenger rocket on the Earth-Mars loop, famed science fiction author Martin Gibson has been dispatched to document the voyage. Although not decrepit as such, Gibson is old enough that he began writing when interplanetary travel was a matter of imagination and not practical engineering. Thus, he can provide an interesting perspective on the realities of crewed space flight.
While space flight is as unexciting as legions of engineers can arrange1, the voyage does provide some unexpected surprises.
Warning! Spoilers ahead!
Amongst the highly trained personnel on Ares is a young engineer named Jimmy Spencer. While listening to Jimmy relate his somewhat tragic family history, Gibson realizes that Jimmy’s late mother was the very young woman with whom Gibson had the ill-fated romance in university, a romance that left Gibson an unmarriageable, bitter bachelor. Were this not enough, when Gibson discovers Jimmy’s birth date, he realizes he and not his romantic successor (also now deceased) is almost certainly Jimmy’s biological father. Gibson reveals his connection to Jimmy as gracefully as possible under the circumstances.
Mars is by Terrestrial standards an underpopulated, harsh world, where to step outside the domes without a suit is to perish. Despite overseeing fewer people than there are industrial specialties on Earth, Chief Executive Warren Hadfield is determined to make Mars self-sufficient. However, Martian conditions present a significant impediment, as do Hadfield’s superiors on Earth.
While Gibson is treated to tours of the Martian facilities, Jimmy meets the only teenaged woman on Mars, Hadfield’s daughter Irene. All other women on Mars are either old enough to have the advanced degrees needed to qualify for the post or are young children. Irene is the lone exception. She was brought to Mars when she was but a child. Rather conveniently, the only two young adults on the entire planet fall madly in love, a romance doomed by the facts that Irene cannot leave Mars, whereas Jimmy may not return for years. Being as patient as young people are, which is to say not at all, the couple who have only just met begin searching for a way to spend their lives together.
Clearly Gibson (whose defining romantic characteristic is that when he was young, he was epically terrible at it) is the logical ally for the lovelorn couple. Gibson has his own problems. Again, and again, he encounters hints that the locals are up to something, and that whatever that something is, they very much do not want a nosy SF author to know about it.
The copy of the book that I own, and that I reread, is the 1959 Permabook edition. It sold for thirty-five American cents. Within the book I found an old an insert ad for the Science Fiction Book Club2 that mentions more books than are on the order sheet (should I list them?) as well as an insert ad for Time Magazine.
Enjoy this fascinating relic of an era gone by:
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The stuff dreams are made of3! Bowker is, of course, the company we can thank for ISBNs, along with Books in Print, of which this is an early iteration.
I don’t really think of Clarke as an author who was good at writing romances. Nevertheless, a good chunk of the book is shaped by Gibson’s disastrous romantic past and Jimmy and Irene’s mutual infatuation. Clarke’s later yaoi novel therefore should have come as less of a surprise than it did.
To spoil a seventy-year-old book, the big secret is that Mars, having attracted a few thousand of Earth’s best and brightest, has worked out a way to transform a moon into a small sun4. The small-minded functionaries on Earth would prefer the colonists not do this, but, dedicated to terraforming Mars, Hadfield and his subordinates press ahead.
Not to be too harsh on the colonists, but it is possible that Earth was cool on the idea because they figured terraforming the Red Planet wasn’t valuable enough to allow the development of a technology that would allow someone to turn the Earth into a small sun.
Rather conveniently for the colonists, the Mars of this novel is not as dead as our Mars. There is native plant life which they hope to enlist in their terraforming project, as well as one species of native animal life which has something akin to hands, may well survive the terraforming process, and seems to have the intelligence needed to be drafted into an unpaid workforce without having the cognitive resources needed to object. It’s kind of disturbing how often Clarke used the idea of bright but not too bright animals as workers in his SF.
This being a Clarke, the novel assumes everyone is essentially reasonable. One plane crash aside, the novel trundles along with all the nail-biting tension of a London Underground time table. To be fair, this seems to have been part of the point. The novel is an attempt to convey a mundane view of the future as it might be rather than one that would facilitate thrilling adventures. Nobody on Mars wants thrilling adventures because those are dangerous (several people die of Martian fever5 as it is) and the colony does not have a lot of people to spare.
Sands of Mars is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Barnes & Noble), here (Book Depository), and here (Chapters-Indigo). Note that some of these are omnibuses: not all booksellers offer Sands of Mars on its own.
1: Not least by declining to inform Gibson of matters he would only misconstrue, like the small hole a meteor punches through the wall of his cabin.
2: As recently as the early ‘00s, people very optimistically cut out and sent in ancient SFBC ads, hoping to get four vintage, long out-of-print hard covers for a very reasonable dollar a book. This happened frequently enough for the SFBC to announce they didn’t honour ads of such extreme antiquity.
3: I doubt Bowker will honour the terms of a sixty-odd year-old ad any more than the SFBC would.
4: Phobos will add about ten percent to Mars’ incoming energy budget, call it 60 watts per square meter on the lit side. Mars having about 7.2 million square kilometers on the lit side, that would be something like 4×1015Watts, or about a megaton per second for a thousand years.
5: Which is not a native Martian disease but a virulent strain of a Terrestrial illness that someone accidently brought to Mars.