Friday Forgotten: Sands of Mars by Arthur C. Clarke

Sands of Mars Arthur C. Clarke, publishing history: UK: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1951, as The Sands of Mars, US: Gnome Press, June 1952, as Sands of Mars, this copy Anchor  Permabook, 1962.

Sands of Mars was Arthur C. Clarke’s first published novel.

I bought this copy of Sands of Mars, when I was in high school. At the time it was the first novel by the popular short story writer. I read it, and liked it, and then put it away on the shelf. It’s held up pretty well through rereadings, the latest last month. It’s now considered a classic, though it would be another year before Clarke received a Hugo nomination for his next novel, A Fall of Moondust.

The story was published in 1951, before humans had achieved space flight. It is set on the way to, and on the planet Mars, which has been settled by humans and is used essentially as a research establishment. The story setting is that Mars has been surveyed but not fully explored on the ground.

[summary edited from Wikipedia]
“Martin Gibson, a famous science fiction author, is travelling to Mars, as a guest of the crew of the spaceship Ares. After arriving at Space Station One, in the orbit of Earth, from which all interplanetary journeys start, he begins the three-month trip to Mars.

On Mars, Gibson and the crew go their separate ways. On a trip by passenger jet to an outlying research station, Gibson and the crew are forced down by a dust storm. They explore the nearby area and discover a small group of kangaroo-like creatures, the unsuspected natives of Mars. They appear to have limited intelligence by human standards and are vegetarians, living on native plants. It is later revealed that the plants are being cultivated by researchers to enrich the oxygen content of the Martian atmosphere. This project, and related others, are being kept secret from Earth.

Hadfield reveals that scientists have been working on “Project Dawn”, which involves the ignition of the moon Phobos and its use as a second “sun” for Mars. It will burn for at least one thousand years and the extra heat, together with mass production of the oxygen-generating plants, will eventually – it is hoped – make the Martian atmosphere breathable for humans.

Gibson finds himself so persuaded of the importance of Mars as a self-sufficient world that he applies to stay on the planet, and is invited to take charge of public relations – in effect, to “sell” Mars to potential colonists.”

The good: I love this classic old science fiction cover by Robert Schultz. I really like what Clarke did imagining both the flight to Mars and the way the colony there has been created and is developing. Clarke is, and always continued to be masterful at the hard science aspect of his novels and stories, and this is a good example. Everything is explained in a way that makes it easy to accept and believe, “Yes, that’s the way it would be” the reader thinks.

The bad: The plot is pretty thin. Even with a secondary plot involving Gibson and one of the crew having a connection on Earth, you could summarize the plot as fellow goes to Mars, wanders around, decides to stay. The discovery of the Martians is underwhelming, and what and who they are seems mostly a setup for ending.

Anyone used to more modern, exciting, action-packed science fiction would likely find this boring. I didn’t, but I was mindful that I was reading a classic from the early 1950s, that it was Clarke and his style, and I just wanted to enjoy the book for what it is. You may too.

This review qualifies for VintageSciFiMonth at the Little Red Reviewer blog.

About Rick Robinson

Enjoying life in Portland, OR
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19 Responses to Friday Forgotten: Sands of Mars by Arthur C. Clarke

  1. realthog says:

    I loved this book when I first read it, and as a result read it a couple more times. Thanks for a great account of it, and for giving it the credit it’s due.

  2. Jerry House says:

    A great book for its time and one that still holds up. I enjoy Clarke in the “science-y” mode he use on this novel and on PRELUDE TO SPACE, as well as in his more speculative mode or more whimsical mode.

    • I enjoy that too, Jerry. In spite of what, to my 21st Century eyes, seemed a thin plot, Liked the characters and the over all concept, and I read it straight through it in a day and a half, which is pretty fast for me. When I put this one back on the shelf today, I saw PRELUDE TO SPACE sitting right there.

  3. Like you, I had bought a copy of this book as a kid. Loved the cover! The story might be “thin” but when you’re 12 years old, you tend to not notice. Clarke liked to tackle Big Themes, something I’ve always admired.

  4. Steve Oerkfitz says:

    I always liked Clarke better than Heinlein or Asimov. I read this years ago but don’t remember anything about it. My favorite Clarke books are Childhood’s End, City and the Stars and Rendezvous On Rama.

    • realthog says:

      Childhood’s End was the first grown-up sf I read, aged about 12 — I’d read stuff like the Kemlo kids’ books earlier — and it blew my mind. Decades later I worked with Arthur on one of his nonfiction books and found him to be the nicest of guys; as you can imagine, that blew my mind too!

      • Steve Oerkfitz says:

        Last year I read a new book about the making of 2001 and Clarke comes off as a very nice guy. Found it interesting he would hang around with Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs.

      • He was somewhat of an outlier with the others of “the big three”, but I like his books. Not as exciting as Heinlein. It’s always good to see a nice guy do well.

    • Those are great ones too, Steve, though Rama perhaps a little less. I’m planning on reading Prelude to Space soon.

  5. tracybham says:

    Very nice review, Rick, and I love that cover too. Your review entices me to try this book. I know I read some Arthur C. Clarke, but it was long ago and I can’t remember if it was only short stories or maybe one or two novels too.

    • He wrote a ton of short stories and may be best known for them, though the novels others have mentioned here are good. If I were to read just one of his novels, it would probably be Childhood’s End.

  6. Jeff Meyerson says:

    I like Clarke a lot too. I haven’t read this one, but let me echo the others: I love that cover!

  7. Redhead says:

    ” Everything is explained in a way that makes it easy to accept and believe, “Yes, that’s the way it would be” the reader thinks.”
    Sounds perfect!
    Too bad the Martians were underwhelming.

    This was Clarke’s first published novel, how does it compare to his later work?

    • Like any first novel, it indicates where he’ll be going: hard science, interesting characters, big concepts. I think Childhood’s End is the real classic, though many like the later-than-that novels.

  8. Pingback: #VintageSciFi Dicussion week 2! | the Little Red Reviewer

  9. Pingback: FFB: Islands in the Sky by Arthur C. Clarke | Tip the Wink

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