Aphelion Issue 295, Volume 28
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The Moon and Mars: Two Classic Sci-fi Vistas with Arthur C. Clarke

by Daniel C. Smith

Originally published in 1961, when the world powers were taking the first tepid steps into outer space, books like A Fall of Moondust only opened wider the eyes of young people everywhere-- the first generation to be born in a world where the sky was no longer the limit.

Arthur C. Clarke's early novel is great science-fiction set in the near future. At its heart is a story that underscores what great fiction (of any type) is all about-- real people in real situations facing obstacles both self-imposed and natural and overcoming these obstacles through character growth. Few writers have mastered characterization as well as Clarke, and his power of description transports the reader to the most glorious of settings, in this instance, the surface of our own moon. And Clarke's talent is able to animate the lunar landscape just as electrically as he does his characters.

Somewhere on the moon's surface, specifically in The Sea of Thirst, on an ocean of the finest dust particles, a tourist bus (the Selene) driven by giant rubber blades which propel the ship through the fine silt just like water, has lost power and is sinking fast. On board are twenty-two people, and no less than the future of humanity on the moon is at stake.

Lunar colonization in Clarke's novel hinges upon successful ventures such as those spawned by tourism and industry-- in other words-- as with any industrial and technological endeavor-- colonizing the moon must be profitable… or it can't and won't be done).

Such is the stage as it is set for a real page turner.

Clarke uses two protagonists to move the story forward: Captain Pat Harris, skipper of the Selene, who is in charge of trying to hold together twenty-two very different and frightened people trapped beneath the lunar surface and Chief Engineer Lawrence who is leading the Earthside team charged with finding the cruise ship in time to mount a rescue under the sea of dust. The ship itself has no power to communicate its position or to recycle the oxygen and the Earthside team has no technology that can readily probe beneath the dust-- time is running out from the first chapter.

Together these two men race to save those aboard the Selene and the future of human settlement on the moon as well. The loss of almost two-dozen tourists would not only be a tragic calamity, but would probably kill tourism on the lunar surface, thus restricting or even eliminating the human presence there.

Published almost a decade earlier, The Sands of Mars is the story of Martin Gibson, a science fiction writer on a real voyage to Mars. Once on Mars Gibson becomes heavily involved with the political strife between the colonization effort (struggling to make Mars as self-sufficient as possible) and the bureaucracy of Earth, millions of miles away. He also discovers life indigenous to Mars and a secret plan to terra-form the Martian surface, allowing the colonists to come out from under the pressure domes.

One of the more interesting aspects behind Clarke's vision of terra-forming was his idea to 'ignite' the Martian moon of Phobos, creating a second sun to warm the planet surface, similar to what was done with one of the moons of Jupiter in his later novel 2010: The Year We Make Contact , providing a second sun for humans to colonize the Jovian satellites. To spark this ignition Clarke imagined a 'meson-resonance reaction', a process to produce low-temperature nuclear reactions, a possibility that has recently been discovered and currently being researched by today's non-fictional scientists.

These books champion the power of human beings to overcome the obstacles nature throws in their way as they enter new and unexplored frontiers. As riveting today as they were almost thirty years ago (at least for me), I believe that they are both must reads, especially for those who want to write speculative fiction.

Of course his name will forever be linked to the phenomenal movie by Stanley Kubrick's-- 2001: A Space Odyssey (based upon Clarke's short story The Sentinel), and probably more than any other film, 2001 brought science fiction movies into the mainstream of pop culture.

But that epic adventure is really just the tip of the iceberg for Arthur C. Clarke, who has not only won all of the awards available in the field (as well as being knighted, which technically makes him Sir Arthur C. Clarke), but the love and respect of everyone who has come to know him as well.

If you are interested in getting to know him better, I highly suggest the five short stories collected in SFWA: The Grand Masters volume II (edited by Frederik Pohl), and the novels Rendezvous with Rama and Childhoods End . The short story collection The Other Side of the Sky is also highly recommended.

But again, these are only starting points.

Trivia Tidbit: Clarke's novel the Sands of Mars is credited with the title for the Jimi Hendrix album First Rays of the New Rising Sun , an album Hendrix died before completing the final mixes, recently refinished and refurbished, repackaged, re-released and well worth the $13.98 list price!

© 2011 Daniel C. Smith

Daniel C. Smith has published over a hundred stories, poems, articles and reviews in venues such as Bare Bone, Tales of the Talisman, The Leading Edge, Star*Line, and Space and Time.

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