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On the Sands of Mars

“Sleepily, he tightened the fastenings of his bedclothes to prevent himself drifting out into the room. It would be nearly a hundred days before he had any sense of weight again.”

Renowned author and journalist, Martin Gibson is about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime. To travel to Mars on the maiden voyage of the world’s very first starliner, the Ares.

Unfortunately, the only way we can make the same journey is by living vicariously through the character Martin Gibson, in The Sands of Mars by Arthur C. Clarke. Written in 1951, the book’s events are set in our very own twenty-first century. Its age gives it the ability to provide a peephole into the past and look at the future through the eyes of people in the 1950s. There isn’t much in the sense of thrill or action-driven plot in this novel. There is, however, an adventure we can undertake together with Martin Gibson as we witness humanity’s first steps of space travel.

Dust jacket of the first edition of The Sands of Mars.
Dust jacket of the first edition of The Sands of Mars.

Arthur C. Clarke worked as a radar technician in the British Air Force during WW2 and earned a Bachelor of Physics from London University after the war, so his writings draw from a solid scientific foundation [1]. He is possibly best known for 2001: A Space Odyssey (the novelisation) or Childhood’s End. But his first novel, The Sands of Mars, is entertaining and worthwhile in its own right.

In this novel, Clarke imagines everything from the logistics of a meeting held in antigravity (you can have more participants when people stand on the walls and ceiling), to the sight of the first lunar cities faintly glowing on the dark side of the moon. But between the futurism, there’s a humour that can only come from the discrepancy of reading sci-fi written in the context of 1950s technology in 2023. Humanity may be sailing to the stars, but Martin Gibson is still using a typewriter to transmit his adventures to Earth, via fax. In fact, his carbon paper “had a habit of getting into the airflow and gluing itself against the ventilator”. The image of a typewriter floating in the zero-g of a starliner is strangely aesthetic.

However, Clarke was very self-aware. In a conversation between Gibson and the captain of the Ares, the captain says “nothing is deader than yesterday’s science-fiction,” as if winking to the future reader. The characters mention Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon (1867), which was as old to Clarke in 1951 as The Sands of Mars is to us now. The captain says science fiction “may have a social value when it’s written, but to the next generation it must always seem quaint and archaic.” Perhaps Clarke had an inkling of just how absurd Gibson’s typewriting and faxing might appear to people in the twenty-first century.

The Sands of Mars was written when Mars was commonly believed to be teeming with alien life. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that NASA’s Mariner Missions began to dispel this idea by providing evidence of a dry and barren planet [2]. As to why the idea of life on Mars was so prevalent…legend goes that one cool September evening in 1877, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli was observing the Mars opposition as it lined up with the Earth and the Sun. He saw ‘canali’ or channels on the surface of Mars which may have carried water. In English, ‘canali’ was not translated to ‘channel’ but to ‘canal’, a word which suggests artificial waterways constructed by intelligent life, consequently giving rise to the exciting idea that there may be aliens on this not-so-distant red planet [3].

‘Little Green Men’ from Buzz Lightyear of Star Command
‘Little Green Men’ from Buzz Lightyear of Star Command

We now know there are no straight canals or channels on Mars, but instead, they were spotted by some astronomers because of the human tendency to make patterns out of a mess [4]. The canali story may be little more than a myth. Nevertheless, it’s fascinating to think a mistranslation might have given birth to a

whole generation of media depicting little

green Martians.

Clarke’s Sands of Mars rides the wave of this Mars fever, although its blurb is quick to reassure us that “the Mars of this novel has no fabulous cities or exotic princesses; it is the planet which modern science has revealed to us.”

In the book, Martin Gibson can move around with a simple oxygen mask. However, we now know that Mars' surface pressure averages 6-7 mbar [5]. This is low enough that you must wear a pressurized space suit or come to terms with your new lifespan of two minutes [6]. The novel also imagines chlorophyll-less plants with leaves like “brilliant green parchment” that grow on soil and sunlight alone. In an expedition, Gibson and a friend become the first people to make contact with aliens. The Martians of this book are described as “very plump kangaroos, their almost spherical bodies balanced on two large, slender hind-limbs,” with hairless skin like “polished leather”. One of them takes a liking to Gibson and becomes to him something between a pet and a friend.

Tying in the Martian ecosystem with political tensions between the homeworld and Mars, Clarke weaves an epic ending to the book. To some readers, it could come off as overdramatic and incongruous with the rest of the book. However, in developing the ending, the author makes good points about the sort of tension that could arise between the two worlds when the brightest scientific minds of humanity are all leaving Earth for Mars. He even touches on the ethics of colonising Mars when its native inhabitants are seemingly less intelligent than humans. “For it was [the Martian’s] world, not Man’s,” Gibson thinks to himself, “however [Man] might shape it for his own purposes, it would be his duty always to safeguard the interests of its rightful owners… And when, as was one day inevitable, Man himself came to the notice of yet higher races, he might well be judged by his behaviour here on Mars.” But while Clarke's characters consider the ethics of the situation, they ultimately still choose to play God over the fate of the Martian environment.

To conclude, it’s easy to point out the novel’s scientific absurdities of space-faxing and sceptical biology with the benefit of hindsight. But a good portion of it is sensible and daring, from the nuclear-powered Ares, space station artificial gravity, to tissue culture in nutrient vats that make up for the lack of meat on Mars. Clarke demonstrated admirable forward-thinking, and he is not known as one of the science fiction giants for nothing. Especially to an audience in 1951, for whom the first man in space was still another decade away, The Sands of Mars would have been impressive, exciting, and futuristic.


[3] 4th Rock from the Sun by Nicky Jenner. Chapter 4.

By Mikaela Chen

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