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Clarke at 100: The Sands of Mars

By / March 27, 2017 / no comments

After looking again at Earthlight and A Fall of Moondust, our revisiting of the works of Arthur C. Clarke in the year he would have turned 100 brings us to one of his earliest novels: The Sands of Mars.

Sand of MarsEarly novels can be curiously revealing. When a writer still hasn’t acquired the sophistication of more mature works, what will become persistent themes and ideas can be much more obvious. And certainly there’s a element of that in The Sands of Mars. On one level, the spaceship Ares that carries his protagonist from Earth to Mars is an only slightly cruder version of the spaceship that was at the centre of 2001, A Space Odyssey more than 15 years later. On a more general level, the novel follows the pattern we’ve already seen, for instance, in Earthlight: a tour of the future landscape so that Clarke can point out how ordinary, how liveable, it is, along with an occasional dramatic incident that seems to be included less for plot purposes than just as a way of highlighting the next bit of scenery.

Yet in many ways this is not a typical Arthur C. Clarke novel. For a start, it is a comedy, or at least a good portion of the book has comedic highlights. Comedy never came naturally to Clarke, so it is hardly surprising that it was not a feature of any of his later books. The surprise is that it features here, even if it is, perhaps inevitably, a little heavy-handed. Thus, in the opening scene, the protagonist, Martin Gibson, a successful middle-aged novelist, is about to blast off from Earth for the first time. The pilot chides him for getting the details wrong in his science fiction stories, such as having his characters faint under the acceleration. Inevitably, Gibson faints under the acceleration. And when he comes to, he starts recalling his other novels, such as one in which:

He had devoted a whole chapter to space-sickness, describing every symptom from the queasy premonitions that could sometimes be willed aside, the subterranean upheavals that even the most optimistic could no longer ignore, the volcanic cataclysms of the final stages, and the ultimate, merciful exhaustion.

Before his flight he had, of course, taken the powerful new drugs that meant that such space-sickness was a thing of the past; but recalling the details of his story, he inevitably throws up. Of course, the pilot is only interested in one thing: “who’s going to clean up my ship?” (Once again, as we saw for instance in  A Fall of Moondust, Clarke is so eager to make our future in space seem so domestic and unthreatening that being a space pilot comes across as about as dramatic as being a bus driver.)

Another way in which this differs from what we normally expect of Arthur C. Clarke is in the characterisation. I think it is safe to see Martin Gibson as a surrogate for Clarke himself. Clarke at this point was in his early-30s and really just getting started on his career, writing exactly the sort of books that he ascribed to Gibson. And Gibson is surely where Clarke hoped to see himself in a few years time (indeed, pretty much exactly where Clarke did end up a dozen or so years later): well off, successful, acclaimed. Everyone that Gibson meets during the course of the novel has read his work, and has an opinion about it. But if Gibson is, at least partly, a self portrait (and there’s a lot of self-deprecating humour at Gibson’s expense that rather supports such a reading), what is curious is that Gibson claims D.H. Lawrence as an influence.  Now Lawrence isn’t exactly the first name that springs to mind when you are reading Arthur C. Clarke, but here there is an attempt to get inside the characters that is at least a gesture towards the Lawrentian. There is even a suggestion of unmarried sex, though in every other respect the characters and the society we see are staid and prudish.

Compared to Lawrence, of course, the psychological penetration of the novel is barely skin deep, but it is there, and more tellingly so than in just about any other Arthur C. Clarke novel. The story is as much concerned with the inner life of Martin Gibson and his interactions with other people as it is with the technology and nature and feel of the future.

Gibson had a breakdown while at Cambridge; it led him to drop out of university and was part and parcel of losing the one true love of his life. Ultimately, this is what led to him becoming a writer, but he still bears the scars. On the ship carrying him to Mars, the youngest member of the crew (Clarke refers to him as a supernumerary, today we might call him an intern, but the best description might actually be midshipman) turns out to be the son of that lost love, though it is late in the novel before he realises what most readers have probably guessed, that he is the boy’s actual father. The whole dramatic thrust of the novel, therefore, is concentrated upon this relationship, upon how the presence of the youth, Jimmy, awakens feelings of guilt and of loss in Gibson, upon how Gibson tries to compensate for all of this without actually revealing the exact nature of the relationship. In the latter part of the novel, this is coupled with Jimmy’s love affair with the daughter of the chief administrator of Mars, and Gibson’s uneasy assumption of the role of paterfamilias in dealing with the administrator.

Behind all of this, the long flight to Mars and the time spent in the first city of Mars and exploring its environs stands largely as a backcloth. Occasionally it comes into focus. This Mars, for instance, is closer, both in time and in character, to Barsoom or to Stanley Weinbaum’s “A Martian Odyssey” than it is to the aridity of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy. This was an optimistic Mars, a Mars with atmosphere and vegetation. Okay, the atmosphere is too thin for humans to go outside without breathing equipment, but it is not sterile, not completely hostile. So, during the course of the novel we discover that the vegetation stores oxygen, and when the moon Phobos is turned into a miniature sun to provide extra heat and light the idea is that it will encourage plant growth and that will in turn provide a breathable atmosphere within a lifetime. Then, on top of that, Gibson discovers marsupial-like Martians. Given that there are no insects, and no other creatures on the planet, this is ecologically dubious to say the least, but that is exactly how Mars was imagined at the time. And of course one of the Martians shows signs of intelligence;this particular Martian is given the name Squeak, and I wonder if that is meant to be a tribute to Weinbaum’s Tweel.

Meanwhile, the human society that exists on Mars is pretty well indistinguishable from human society on Earth in the 1950s. Administration basically consists of paper pushing, entertainment is amateur theatricals and the occasional film brought in from Earth, and when Gibson takes photographs the film will have to be sent back to Earth before it can be developed. Exactly as we saw in Earthlight and A Fall of Moondust, Clarke’s future is identical to his present; small town England has been transported to Mars, and that is all. Which is not a criticism: this view of the future was common to most science fiction writers of that time, but it helps to explain why these books can so often seem dated.

Yet taken on their own terms, they are still remarkably readable.

Buy The Sands of Mars from Amazon.

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