Skip to content
Answering Your Questions About Reactor: Right here.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter. Everything in one handy email.

A Science Fiction Writer in Space: Sands of Mars by Arthur C. Clarke

A Science Fiction Writer in Space: Sands of Mars by Arthur C. Clarke

Home / A Science Fiction Writer in Space: Sands of Mars by Arthur C. Clarke
Rereads and Rewatches reread

A Science Fiction Writer in Space: Sands of Mars by Arthur C. Clarke


Published on June 27, 2023

In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

Arthur C. Clarke’s first published novel—1951’s Sands of Mars—is also one of his most compelling and personal books. It is the story of Martin Gibson, a science fiction writer who has long dreamed about traveling in space, and gets the opportunity to travel to Mars on the trial run of the first interplanetary cruise liner. When he arrives on the planet, he finds not only a frontier full of mystery, but a sense of personal fulfilment and adventure that his life had previously been lacking.

I have remembered this book fondly for years—or at least, I thought I did. I can still see my dad’s paperback copy, featuring two astronauts with cylindrical metal helmets standing in front of a classic streamlined rocket landing on its tail fins beside a dome with antennas on top. I remember a colonist, who may have been brought to Mars involuntarily, struggling to survive on a planet where you couldn’t live for long without an oxygen mask, and the detail that many of the earliest workers on the planet came from mountainous regions of Earth, like the Himalayas and the Andes, and were able to function better in the thin atmosphere.

That paperback of dad’s is long lost, so I ordered the book from my state’s interlibrary loan system. The only copy they had was in an omnibus edition, Prelude to Mars, which included the books Prelude to Space and Sands of Mars as well as 16 short stories. And then, when I finally started reading Sands of Mars, I was shocked to find that I hadn’t ever read this book after all. I must have confused the title with another story about early Mars exploration. So this column is not a re-read, but it is still a review of a book that is well worth visiting, and a classic of the genre. [And if anyone has ideas of other Mars exploration books I might have confused with Sands of Mars, I would be delighted to hear from you in the comments!]

I have visited Mars a number of times in this column. This includes looks at several works featuring the more fanciful planetary romance version of the planet, most notably Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, and a number of works by Leigh Brackett, including the adventures of Eric John Stark and the classic novel The Sword of Rhiannon. I also reviewed Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, which can be seen as a bridge between the planetary romances and more realistic depictions of the planet. Heinlein’s juvenile adventure Red Planet contained another view of Mars written in roughly the same era as The Sands of Mars. And in Ben Bova’s Mars, I found a more realistic view of visiting the planet, rooted in modern science.


About the Author

Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008) was a British science fiction writer who spent his final years living in Sri Lanka. He is one of the most influential authors from the formative days of the science fiction genre; with Clarke, Robert Heinlein, and Isaac Asimov often referred to as science fiction’s Big Three. I have discussed Clarke’s work before in this column, having reviewed A Fall of Moondust and Rendezvous With Rama, and you can find more biographical information in both of those reviews. Among his many other books were classics like Against the Fall of Night, Childhood’s End, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and The Fountains of Paradise.


The Great Gap

The Sands of Mars portrays Martin Gibson as a science fiction author who started his career in the days before actual space travel and who gets to travel to Mars later in his life. While specific dates are not mentioned, I would guess that Gibson might have been born in the 1940s, started writing in the 1960s, and travels to Mars in the 1980s or 1990s. In the real world, of course, that progress in spaceflight hasn’t come to pass. Here in 2023, the pioneers of the Golden Age of science fiction field have almost all passed away. And if they were still alive, they wouldn’t be able to get a flight to the Moon, let alone Mars. There were high hopes for space programs after men landed on the Moon on July 20, 1969, and people had visions of moonbases and trips to Mars in the coming decades. But progress is not always linear, and the Apollo program came to an ignominious end in 1972 after only six successful lunar landings. There were a few orbital uses of leftover equipment, including the Skylab program, as well as the eventual launch of the International Space Station, but humans have not left Earth orbit since.

The biggest problem with further manned space efforts was high launch costs: The cost of launching anything into orbit on the single-use, custom-made boosters of the Apollo program was hideously expensive. The US shuttle program was intended to address that with a reusable launch system, but budget limitations and cost overruns hampered it from the start. Instead of being totally reusable, the system ended up with strap-on boosters and fuel tanks that were disposable, and a shuttle with a complex heat shield system that was extremely difficult to maintain.

Part of the problem was focusing on a large vehicle that could perform all missions, including the launch of heavy defense satellites. As someone remarked at the time (I think it might have been Jerry Pournelle), the decision to build such a large craft was like a family buying an 18-wheel truck for daily use, in order to be ready for occasional moves to a new home. The shuttle was tremendously expensive (it cost $54,000 per kilogram launched into orbit), it was not reliable enough for crewed flight, and the shuttle was retired even before its mission of supporting the International Space Station had ended, leaving that task to aging Russian Soyuz craft.

In recent years, however, space launch technology has made major leaps forward. There are several disposable rocket systems that can launch material in space at costs five to ten times cheaper than the shuttle. SpaceX, with boosters that fly back to the launch site for reuse, promises even cheaper costs in the future. And there are other companies also working on reusable launch systems, including those that launch from high-flying aircraft. No one can compete with the cost of an intercontinental aircraft flight (at least not yet), but these innovations have revived hopes of more robust crewed space flight programs in the future, and renewed the hope of bases on other worlds. (See this Wikipedia article for more discussion of launch costs.) After a gap of fifty years, during which meaningful progress in crewed space flight had been minimal, there is renewed hope that the days when a science fiction author can fly to other planets may be in our future after all.


The Sands of Mars

The book opens on a launch pad, as science fiction author Martin Gibson prepares to fly into space for the first time. The pilot teases him about people not passing out from the acceleration of a launch (as they did in his books). Martin, a bit high strung, passes out. And then, despite new drugs that minimize nausea in zero gravity, Martin gets sick in orbit. Gibson resembles the author Clarke to a great degree, and Clarke shows he is ready to poke some fun at himself, here.

Gibson arrives at Space Station One and begins to recover in the artificial gravity produced by its rotation. He sees the dumbbell-shaped ship, Ares, which will transport him to Mars. It is a passenger ship, but he will be the only passenger on this shakedown voyage. The ship is an atomic rocket, which explains its shape, with a crew compartment forward separated by a long, central shaft from the highly radioactive fission plant that heats the reaction mass. It is heavily automated, and has a crew of only six: the captain, Norton; the engineer, Hilton; the navigator, Mckay; the doctor, Scott; the electronics officer, Bradley; and the young supernumerary (on a military ship, he might be referred to as a midshipman), Jimmy Spencer. There are many staterooms that on this trip will be empty. Through Gibson’s eyes, we tour the ship and observe its operations. In fact, in a “meta” moment, one of the officer’s jokes that such tours of the ship are a regular part of Gibson’s books, and Gibson admits that describing a tour is the easiest way for the author to let readers know how things work.

There is a bit of excitement introduced when Earth launches a high-speed cargo rocket carrying an antidote to “Martian fever,” a disease the colonists brought with them from Earth, but which has mutated into a dangerous form. They must contact the missile with a homing signal, and bring it aboard so the doctor can tend to its contents during their voyage.

There is a micrometeorite strike that puts a tiny hole in Gibson’s stateroom, so small that only the instruments detected it. The crew does not want him to find out about it (and alarm potential future passengers by writing about a threat that is vanishingly small), so his previously denied request to go out in a spacesuit gets approved. Designed only for zero gravity, the spacesuits do not have articulated legs, and are more like a tiny personal spacecraft. He has a delightful time, and the crew patches the hole in his stateroom with no one the wiser. There are a few anachronisms that crop up, as communications and navigational equipment is far more primitive in the book than it turned out to be in the real world. Gibson still types manuscripts on paper with carbon copies, and they are transmitted to Earth in a scanner that resembles a facsimile machine. And the spaceship dumps its garbage over the side, as ships did in the days before pollution became a concern, creating what could eventually become tiny hazards to navigation.

Along the way, Gibson gets to know the crewmembers, and finds that he has a surprising personal connection to one of them. Things get a bit “meta” again as the coincidence is described as “an outrageous violation of the laws of probability—the sort of thing that would never have happened in one of Gibson’s own novels.” But it gives Gibson a chance to reevaluate his past, and his life so far, a life that will soon become very different. It turns out that, after a short, failed relationship in college, he has lived his life keeping emotions and commitments at arm’s length.

Ares is diverted to the Martian moon Deimos instead of Phobos, the first indication that Earth authorities are not aware of everything afoot on Mars. There is a description of the planet, as seen from the moon, which matches the best knowledge of the time. For some reason, astronomers thought Mars was without mountains. They also thought the planet had vegetation, as there had been changes in coloration detected as seasons changed. They thought the atmosphere thin and not at all breathable, which turned out to be largely correct, although they underestimated how thin.

Buy the Book

The Jinn Bot of Shantiport

The Jinn Bot of Shantiport

Gibson and the crew fly down on a winged reentry rocket, and when they land, Gibson assumes the large crowd awaiting them has gathered for him, the acclaimed author. But it turns out they are waiting for Doctor Scott and his precious medical supplies, and Gibson, though he immediately understands, is chastened. Gibson meets “Chief” Hadfield, the administrator of the Mars colony, who from the start sees him as someone who can help them sell their efforts to bureaucrats back on Earth, and obtain more resources and funding. Unlike other colonists, Hadfield was allowed to bring a young daughter to the moon with him. Thus, she is about the only person on Mars who is the same age as young Ares crewmember Jimmy Spencer, and unsurprisingly, romance ensues.

The rest of the book involves a series of mysteries and revelations about Mars and its colonists, and I will avoid spoilers by not revealing them all here. Along the way, Gibson begins to identify with the colonists, and starts to feel a sense of belonging that he had previously lacked. He learns more about Martian plant life, and sees there are native plants that can produce oxygen. He goes on a trip to another colony, only to have his aircraft downed by a storm where its jets ingest far too much sand. During their struggle to survive, the crew makes an exciting discovery. And when Gibson returns to the main colony, the secret of the colonial research project on Phobos is revealed, and it is something that will transform the future of the planet Mars itself.

I very much enjoyed Sands of Mars. The prose, as throughout Clarke’s career, is serviceable without being flashy. The characters are realistic, although often thinly drawn. Technological and scientific issues, on the other hand, are addressed with enthusiasm and in great detail. The science is compelling, and there are surprisingly few details that have been overtaken by subsequent technological advances, considering the fact that the book was written over seventy years ago. The big surprise is the level of emotion we find in the character of Martin Gibson, who ends up being a surrogate for Clarke himself. Perhaps Clarke felt he revealed too much, because I don’t recall another of his books where he wore his heart on his sleeve quite so openly.


Final Thoughts

I may not have read Sands of Mars in my youth, but I wish I had. It is exactly the type of book that inspired my lifelong interest in science fiction, and in traveling to other worlds. Some might call the character Martin Gibson a Mary Sue for Arthur Clarke, and see the book as a kind of wish fulfillment, with a science fiction writer living out the dream of seeing other worlds. Personally, it makes me wonder, after long years where hope seemed lost, if some science fiction author living now will get to do exactly that.

And now I turn the floor over to you. I’d love to hear the thoughts of those of you who have read Sands of Mars, and would like to hear about your other favorite tales from the early days of science fiction.


Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.

About the Author

Alan Brown


Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.
Learn More About Alan
Notify of
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments