I have a particular soft spot for this vision of Martian exploration by one of the greatest science
fiction writers to ever emerge from the UK, because while it has inevitably become a bit dated,
Clarke nails a lot of the sociological and political problems that a Martian colony would face,
and that's timeless. In fact, it's clear that later novels, steeped as they are in modern science
and knowledge, owe this book a considerable debt.
Clarke's hero is Martin Gibson, a successful science fiction writer who we first meet on the launch
pad, just seconds away from his first trip into space! There's got to be plenty of wish fulfilment
in that scenario, and indeed Clarke has lofty ambitions for his space faring scribe, who is about
to embark on a sort of Busman's holiday to Mars, there to report back to the people of earth on his
impressions of the new frontier. En route, Clarke has great fun with the character of Gibson and
his interactions with the crew of the space liner Ares, who express a degree of good-natured derision
for his profession and the inaccuracies in his books. Clarke has Gibson argue that of course his
earlier novels are works of imagination but now he can write much more accurately, and as such Clarke
bravely heaps derision on his own vocation while attempting to inject Sands of Mars with as much "realism" as
he could muster at the time with his pre-space age knowledge. It's a brave thing to do, because of course it
does still date, though not as badly as you might you think and in general, the writing stands up surprisingly well.
Arriving in Mars orbit, Gibson gets his first inkling that something odd is going on, as the ship is mysteriously
diverted without explanation from its normal berth on the moon Phobos to Deimos. Reaching the colony of Port
Lowell, Gibson finds himself identifying more and more with the embattled colonists, who must not only deal
with a hostile environment, but a dwindling supply of funds from a home-world that is increasingly reluctant
to pour unlimited resources into the project. This is where Clarke excels, painting a picture of a frontier
world and the first stirrings of nationalism. It's a theme that has been repeated many times since, but Clarke
got their first. Even his rather quaint portrayal of a romantic entanglement between a crewmember of the Ares
and a local girl can't dampen the fun to be had from this novel, though the introduction of an indigenous race
of ruminant like creatures strains the reader's indulgence. Meanwhile, as Gibson continues to become more Martian
in outlook, he encounters further evidence that the colony is hiding something, both from both him, and the Earth!
This is one of those novels that thoroughly deserves to be called a "classic", and while it is by no stretch of
the imagination a scientifically accurate manual for Martian living, it should still be required reading for
perspective Martian astronauts, and I certainly wouldn't be at all surprised if one day in the not too distant
future, a dog eared copy will be sitting on a bookshelf in the real Port Lowell.
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