Review of The Sands of Mars (1951)


Arthur C. Clarke (writer).

Read in 2017.

A distinguished science fiction author and science writer resembling the Arthur C. Clarke of the 1990s visits Mars in the 1990s, as the planet was imagined at the time of writing: the late 1940s.

Mostly hard SF. Fascinatingly different, in scale and hardness, from The City and the Stars (1956), which Clarke had written earlier in a shorter form, but the two are ultimately compatible.

This was Clarke’s first published novel. In retrospect, it is a highly self-conscious work. The protagonist is not literally Clarke, having started his career a decade later etc., but the novel is still more proficient in its predictions about its author avatar than about Mars and the development of space travel. Strangely, one of the things Clarke gets right about the setting is that printed books were indeed still a vital medium ca. 1990–2000, though carbon copies were on the way out. The sexism is also plausible. One of the things Clarke gets wrong, rather more significantly, is the flora and fauna on Mars: a very simple ecology, wilfully endangered by the human settlers, as if they had no genuine concern. There’s not even any political pressure against atomic-powered rockets; I guess the Cold War ended quickly.

The soft-SF prospect of lighting Phobos on fire is even more outlandish, but at least the novel is interested in the actual future—the modern reader’s past—unlike Bradbury in The Martian Chronicles (1950). The protagonist’s inner monologue refers explicitly to more enduring predecessors than Bradbury: Wells, who wrote The War of the Worlds (1897) and Burroughs, who wrote A Princess of Mars (1912/1917).

The character of Captain Norden outlines the central problem of the novel in which he appears. He says “Nothing is deader than yesterday’s science-fiction”, because real understanding expands to undermine the speculation and fantasy of the past. The protagonist defends himself saying people still read his old work. This has now become the voice of the dead Clarke addressing itself to me and others picking up this novel.

References here: Between Planets (1951), Blade Runner (1982), Red Mars (1992), “Second Sight” (1993).

text fiction