It’s 2019, more than half a century since space exploration began unlocking the secrets of the solar system. And what secrets there are, from the chemical composition of Uranus to the discovery of Neptune’s odd rotation, the impact of Jupiter on Earth’s history to the reasons behind Venus’ hothouse atmosphere. Also, sustaining human life on Mars has become a possibility with clarity unlike ever before. Spanning that half-century is Arthur C. Clarke’s The Sands of Mars (1951).
In a meta twist, The Sands of Mars is the story of Martin Gibson, a well-known science fiction author. He has been invited to travel to Mars aboard the spaceship Ares, and at the outset of the story finds himself going through what a large number of sf heroes do at the beginning of their novels: learning about the novelties of spacecraft and spaceflight. Arrival on Mars doesn’t change the program; Gibson continues to learn what makes life on Mars different than Earth, and it isn’t long before he gets to put his own little stamp on the evolution of science on the red planet. (Sound sharp as a knife? No…)
The Sands of Mars is not an overtly terrible novel, but it is the poster child for most things that make hard sf a poor form of fiction (but perhaps the ultimate form of nerd daydreaming). Plot essentially non-existent, the novel is a carousel of novelties resulting from highly non-standard situations—in space, in lighter gravity, in a geodome, in a space suit, etc., etc. While on one hand this can be fascinating—to have these situations tangibly presented, but if it’s not packaged in the suite of concepts that make fiction, fiction, then there is little contextual reason to continue turning the pages.
Thus recommending the novel becomes a clear exercise: if hard sf is your thing, particularly an ageing sample from the 50s, then the novel should fit. If, however, you’re looking for something of substance in terms of plot or character, you will need to be exceptionally forgiving of The Sands of Mars to get into it.
When taken in context with the ‘big three’ of his era (Heinlein and Asimov the other two), Clarke has undoubtedly aged the best. The concerns of The City & the Stars, Childhood’s End, and Rendezvous with Rama transcendentally human, The Sands of Mars is too practical, too meager in substance to remain noteworthy save as the first novel Clarke ever wrote, and for Clarke fans.