THE SANDS OF MARSA novel by Arthur C. Clarke
(2001, Aspect Science Fiction)
[original copyright: 1952]
A journalist travels to Mars to write about the fledgling society, and finds more than he expects.
-- First reading (multibook hardcover)
A very engaging tale, with a very interesting main character.
I can't believe this novel sits second on the billing of this double-book. Actually, I borrowed it from the library because I wanted to read The City and the Stars. Considering that I nearly didn't finish that book, it took a real effort to pick the book up again and read the second novel contained therein. If I hadn't, I wouldn't have known what I was missing. This is a great, great story.
The main character, Martin Gibson, is a writer, asked to do a story about the Martian colony that has been... thriving, for lack of a better word- though this is not entirely accurate- for years. He is a very compelling character, in a simple world. While the first part of the story reminded me of another SF novel that I just read, Bloom, because Gibson spends months on a spaceship going to Mars, the worlds created when this novel was written were much simpler, much less complex. Thus people don't hide much of their emotions, they can be up front, and what we see around us isn't much less than what actually exists. Perhaps that is why people like these classics so much. Today's books require twisted politics, complex relationships, and plot twists, all of which I like, but which somehow seem unnecessary when compared to a book like this.
The time spent on the spaceship tells us more about Martin than any of the other crewmembers, like the captain, engineer, doctor, and others. The way they react to him tells us more than anything that he is popular, with the cautionary way people treat popular people. Sometimes they want to associate with him, at others, they don't want to associate with him because they disagree with the way he became popular. He writes science fiction stories, and in his youth, he wrote about space travel in a way that was romantic, but mostly wrong about the details.
On the ship, the only other character who really matters to the story is young Jimmy, with whom Martin feels a bond. Throughout the story, as we get to know Jimmy more, we also learn that he is the son of a woman Martin was very serious about in university. Later in the story, we can deduce that perhaps Jimmy is actually Martin's son, which is confirmed much later.
I especially liked the way the captain went out of his way to give Martin a chance in a spacesuit after a leak was secretly discovered in the reporter's cabin! Other people also use Martin in their own ways. The administrator of the Martian colony gave him a lot of latitude, but notified him that he must treat Mars in a positive light. He is also kept in the dark about several things that are happening on Mars, which become less obscure as the story builds.
The author mentions in his introduction that the science in the book doesn't hold up to what we now know about Mars. In fact, that doesn't matter in the slightest until the very end, and even then, it doesn't detract seriously from the story. So there are plants on Mars -an adapted story could make them introduced by humans decades or centuries before. It is unfortunate that he makes reference to specific years, notably the 1970s and beyond, because this could easily be a timeless story. The only real fact that could ruin the plausibility of the science is the fact that we know there is too much carbon dioxide on Mars. Even if oxygen could be added to the atmosphere by these magical plants, there would still be too much carbon dioxide, enough to poison. On Earth, oxygen is 20% of the atmosphere, with inert nitrogen making up the bulk of the rest. If Mars' atmosphere was 80% oxygen, 20% CO2, it would still be poisonous. Project Dawn, which lit up Mars' moon Phobos into a mini-sun, which would last 1000 years, was a technical achievement (one that would be more than matched in Clarke's novel 2010, when he blew up Jupiter), and added some neat science to the science fiction. Heating the soil, while releasing much oxygen, would also release more CO2.
However, compared to animals roaming the Martian wilderness, what is the point of arguing atmospheric science? Gibson seems to have a fortuitous wandering streak. On his first journey out of the Martian dome, he comes across the secret research station, though he is not permitted inside. Much later, he is journeying to the second city on Mars when his plane crashes due to a dust storm. The valley where they crashed contains neat plants that can extract oxygen out of the soil, as well as animals that feed off these plants!
The discovery of animals and a new "sun" added some excitement to life on Mars, but I felt it didn't increase the level of the story in any way. I already thought the story was great, just because of the character work between Gibson and the people around him. Just reading about his interactions makes this book worthwhile. I liked the way the author described the events that occurred, and Gibson's feelings about the matter. Gibson felt like a real person. A great example is the way he consistently felt annoyed by not being awakened in time to do things with the others, yet realized that he would have been even more annoyed if they had awakened him! Why didn't anybody tell him about several events? Actually, they had, he realized, feeling foolish! I feel that way sometimes, and it added extra depth to the character to see it there, too.
In the end, Gibson grows to love Mars, and decides to stay, though Jimmy and his love, daughter to the Martian director, are heading for Earth. The director is being recalled due to the secrecy of Project Dawn, and it is perhaps the least realistic part of the story to expect him back on Mars within a year. Even when this story was written, people who did that sort of thing were never reinstated to positions of such power, no matter how "indispensable" they seemed.
Still, between them, the Mars that would be created in the next fifty years would be one I think many people would like to visit. The story was one of discovery and exploration, of Mars and of the main character, and was well written in all respects.
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