Fiction Reviews

The Sands of Mars

(1951 / 2019) Arthur C. Clarke, Gollancz, 8.99, x + 227pp, ISBN 978-1-473-22236-6


This is a very welcome 2019 reprint of Arthur C. Clarke's 1951 novel; 1951 being the year his first two SF novels were published, the other being Prelude to Space.

Further, this reprint is one of the first of the new Gollancz, Golden Age Masterworks' series: a venture really worth shouting out about.

It is the early 21st century and there is a colony on the Moon as well as on Mars. Both are expensive to maintain but the Martian one, being so much further away, is the youngest and harder to justify the expense.  So the 'Corporation' decides that it needs good publicity and so contracts the famous science fiction writer, Martin Gibson, to travel to Mars and stay for a few months writing about the colony.

The story begins with Gibson suffering space sickness (motion sickness) on the way up to an orbiting space station (not unlike the one Clarke was later to vision to Kubrick for 2001: A Space Odyssey).  Before long he is onboard for the inaugural journey to Mars of the new interplanetary liner the Ares. It is a craft not too dissimilar from that of Discovery in 2001:A Space Odyssey: two spheres separated by a long connective tube to protect the human crew from the radioactive atomic motors.  The journey on which Gibson embarks has him as the only passenger with a stripped own crew and a substantive cargo payload instead of other travellers.  It is a journey that has, half way through, see them capture a missile transporting medicines to Mars, as well as having to deal with a micro-meteorite puncture.

Arriving on Mars we get to view life for the early colonists whose principal settlement is housed within giant inflatable domes.  Then there is an airplane journey to Mars' second city, a journey that was to feature a profound discovery.

The Sands of Mars was billed on publication as a novel of a Mars with 'no fabulous cities or exotic princesses' (cf. for example Edgar Rice Borroughs) but the 'planet which modern science has revealed to us'.  This then is the first of a number of good reasons for young (which means in 2019 those under 40 years of age) SF readers to get this book: our scientific understanding of Mars back in 1950 (when a 33 year old Clarke researched and penned this work) was very different to that of today post-Curiosity and its discoveries since its touchdown of nitrates, evidence of an ancient Martian lake and ancient organic matter.  Remember, this was before the Viking probes of the1970s; heck, it was before the NASA Mariner probes of the 1960s.  Over two thirds of a century ago all our knowledge of Mars was gleaned from Earth-bound telescopes and so there was a lot we just did not know.

I do not want to unpick Clarke's novel (though there is much for the scientist into SF to mine, and equally a good deal for history of science-and-arts academics to study), but I will give you just one example: Mars' atmospheric density.

Back in 1950 one of the few ways that the Martian atmosphere's density could be estimated was to see, using Earth bound telescopes, how the brightness of bright patches on the surface varied between when viewed at the equator (looking through the least thickness of atmosphere) and when the same patch appeared at the edge of the Martian disc (looking through more atmosphere much like the Sun appears more red at sunrise or sunset as more yellow and blue end of the spectrum is filtered out by the greater thickness of atmosphere it has to traverse at that low angle).  Such early estimates, between 1940 and 1948, gave a range of results of Mars atmospheric pressure at its surface of between 80 and 120 millibars. (For comparison, the air pressure at sea-level on Earth is just shy of 1,000 millibars.) So a mid-range 1940s estimate for the Martian atmosphere, of say 100 millibars, is a pressure roughly 10% that of Earth's at sea level and roughly the pressure 11 miles up (very roughly twice the height of Everest). This is the pressure Clarke seems to be using: he refers to it being equivalent to the pressure of Earth's a few miles above that of Everest.

At such a pressure all a human would need to survive would be a pressure suit of the sort high-altitude, jet fighter pilots use and an airtight helmet.  In Clarke's The Sands of Mars, all people need on the surface of Mars is a light pressure suit and an oxygen mask.

Today, post the 1976 Viking missions we now know that the Martian atmosphere's density around its lowlands is only around 6 millibars (or 0.6% that of Earth's), but don't blame Clarke for not knowing that back in 1950.

Clarke's science strength in The Sands of Mars comes from him being a scientist (being a mathematics and physics graduate and later a physics science journal editor) cum engineer (war time radar technician) and here, in The Sands of Mars, there is a lot in which he is prophetic; though the need for his author protagonist to bring a typewriter with him to Mars, or the strength of radio broadcasts needed for interplanetary communication (which seem absurdly high) are, today, ridiculous.  But among the more accurate 'prophecies' within The Sands of Mars is one for an electrically controlled glass that can switch from being see-through to a mirror.  Less successfully, he delves into biology.  I don't know what it is about non-biological scientists trying to do biology (something that other life scientists, such as Jack Cohen FIBiol., have also mused) but at one point Clarke refers to a particular species as a marsupial! (Bless.)

Fascinatingly, at this novel's heart is an attempt at the author's own wish fulfilment.  It would appear as if the protagonist, SF author Martin Gibson, is a reflection of Clarke himself. His protagonist even has had one serious, but short-lived romantic fling (prescient that of Clarke himself a couple of years later). Also, one of Gibson's published stories was titled Martin Dust a variation of which Clarke was to use to title the novel A Fall of Moondust (1961).

Most interesting early on in the book is the discussion some of the characters have regarding Gibson's work as well Gibson's own reflections on the time-proofing of SF: Science Fiction is written of its time even if there are aspects that may stand up over the years and decades. Indeed, Clarke himself might well be rightly proud how well much of his novel stands the test of time even if his picture of Mars is dated and decidedly wishful.  Importantly, the novel also still engages as a story.  The Sands of Mars therefore deserves if not 'should' be read by the new, younger generation of SF aficionados today.

Unlike some titles in Gollancz longstanding 'SF Masterwork' series, The Sands of Mars, and the other titles in the newly launched 'Golden Age Masterwork' series, have been re-typeset: therefore not being photocopied/scanned, the typeface is crisp and clean.  This new 'Golden Age Masterwork' edition also comes with an introduction by the SF author Stephen Baxter.  This introduction to Clarke, and the other four Clarke titles being released among the first tranche of 'Golden Age Masterwork' titles, also appears in these other works.

For younger SF readers this new 'Golden Age Masterwork' series is an opportunity to add past SF classics to their collections.  For older readers, this new series of old titles gives a chance to add copies as an adjunct to ancient, battered and creased editions already in collections. Either way, it is genuinely worth SF readers of any vintage to check out and order titles from this series.

Jonathan Cowie


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