Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Arthur C. Clarke

Arthur C. Clarke is far too technical.

Okay, maybe I'm just a bit too much of a romantic in that I prefer a bit of story with my science fiction and writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs and H.G. Wells. Arthur C. Clarke's Sands of Mars, while entertaining in parts, made for a long read. For a book that I expected to finish in a week, I certainly didn't think I'd take almost three. But its done and I should back-track a little. As anyone following this knows, I took a break from the Decameron because its Medieval and dense. Having finished the Sands of Mars, I still have no desire to return to the book. Especially because Sands of Mars was technical and dense. What I'll probably do is start on the collection of Oscar Wilde's works that I have on the list. My plan is to read a day of the Decameron and then cool my brain off with one or two of Oscar Wilde's writings. (Maybe five if I'm working on the poems.) Otherwise I'm just going to have to abandon the book, and I'd really hate to do that so early in the project. (We'll see about later.) Because I'll be multi-tasking I will post about both books, but they will be treated separately. If that means two short posts on them once in a while then so be it.

But to stop digressing, let me talk about this book. The Sands of Mars was Arthur C. Clarke's first novel, written in the 1940s. The version I purchased was not the same as Joe's, which was published in 1952 and wouldn't have had the introductions that mine did. My version was published in the late '70s and contained two introductions from Clarke that explained the type of novel it was, apologized for the science in it, and explained that the science was based on what people thought at the time. Yes, from the introductions I probably should have been sufficiently warned that this book would be what it was. However, I went into it with a excited mind, ready to see what an, unknown to me, sci-fi writer would imagine about a colony on Mars.

The science was mildly absurd, I just want to point that out now. I'll get to it later. The book is about Martin Gibson, a famous science fiction author who is offered the chance to go to the new colony on Mars to introduce it to Earth. They say write what you know, right? Well, the first half of the book is dedicated to the trip to Mars and the second half is dedicated to Gibson's experiences there. As far as storyline, the book is a bit flat. But before I get into my criticisms, I would like to point out what Clarke did well. For one, there are his descriptions. Although on the technical side, Clarke didn't make the descriptions hard for readers to understand. Which I have to commend him for because that is a tough skill to master. In fact, it was very easy to imagine the ship he flew to Mars in, the planet, the colony, and even the plants there. (Yeah there were plants.) Like all science fiction, there are small pieces of foresight in the book that apply to today. For example, this article in USA Today about landing astronauts on Mars. Just like in his book where the Earth kept threatening to cut off funding to the Mars colony, funding is an issue for expeditions today. Also Clarke's main characters were relatively realistic, if not easy to relate with.

Other than that, the story is borderline cliche. If this wasn't a science-fiction, and Clarke didn't have the technical stuff I would be incredibly bored. In the story Gibson finds that he is actually traveling on a ship in which his son is crew, a son he never knew he had. Their relationship is a backdrop for the adjustment that Gibson is making to life on Mars. Its probably an attempt to make Gibson more relate-able but is really just a distraction for the bigger story of the secret project that the colonists are hiding from Earth. They turn the moon Phobos into a mini sun using nuclear reactions, by blowing it up without blowing it up? I'm not very good with physics but I'm pretty sure that's not how that works. Added on to this story's defunctionality is the constant foreshadowing that Clarke does throughout the book. Its like he doesn't think that the reader will remember what Gibson just discovered is important in the next few pages, so he decides to point out it is important immediately. Towards the end, when they just kept piling on top of each other, it got to the point of being annoying. And then after placing it in his reader's minds that it's an important point, he barely deals with it and spends only a sentence or two on the reveal. And although he details the most minute workings of a machine, he can't bother to detail a single important aspect that deals with the characters of the story.

But this is starting to turn into a rant so I am going to back off now.  Overall I was left with rather mixed feelings about the story. The ending, sad to say, disappointed me immensely. It didn't feel finished, but I can forgive that because colonizing never is and given the subject its acceptable. However, it felt flat, just flat. This book was flat, that is the best description I can think of for it. Flat. (Oh no, ranting is too easy... must stop... thinking about... flaws... Starting... over...)

I have mixed feelings about this book. I really think that's probably where I should leave it. I will point out that some of the ideas were really interesting. The science was awesome and although I know that Mars is nothing like what Clarke described, part of me kind of wishes it was. The book does speak to a desire to (to paraphrase Star Trek) seek out new life and new civilizations, go where no man has gone before. As for my ancestors, I'm definitely starting to see where I get my own love of science fiction. My brother's obsession with science and all things related makes a lot more sense after this book. I also feel slightly justified in my mixed feelings of Clarke's first novel. After all, there's only one Arthur C. Clarke in the list of books  compared to at least 8 Wells novels. ;P