A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
When I was perusing titles from 1938, in preparation for our latest theme week, I stumbled across this amusing short story and couldn’t resist reviewing it, though I don’t read much sci-fi. Written when Clarke was just starting out and published in the last issue of Amateur Science Fiction Stories magazine, it shows flashes of his later brilliance.
The story is set in the future (1952) when the President of the Snoring-in-the-Hay Rocket Society is recounting the trip to Mars that he and five associates accidently found themselves making when their rocket’s power exceeded expectations. It’s their most advanced model yet, 30 meters long, made of “bakelite with crystallux windows” and a door sealed with chewing gum, it was launched on April First. After more than 3 days flight, they land in a mountainous desert on Mars. Soon, multilingual Martians, with long beards and white robes, arrive to greet them and transport them to a large city square, where they are interviewed by the Martian press corps. Then it’s a week of tours, fancy meals of unidentifiable foods and various entertainments. The Martians share knowledge and plenty of rocket fuel before they return to earth. There is plenty of humor sprinkled through all of the pseudoscientific data, mainly names of people and places and the tone is that of a precocious older child.
I would’ve liked more details of their time on Mars, but the narrator promises to reveal more in his upcoming book “Mars With the Lid Off”, making me wonder if Clarke planned a sequel. Some of the wonders of Mars that were mentioned, such as moving walkways and atomic generators, eventually became reality on this planet.
What I found most interesting is the benign view of aliens. I’m used to the malignant interpretation of today. But here we have the Martians welcoming their visitors, bestowing gifts and even helpfully refueling their rocketship for the journey home. Only 7 months later, Orson Welles was terrifying Americans about invading Martians with his Hallowe’en radio broadcast of War of the Worlds. Granted, H.G. Wells had written it 40 years before, so perhaps there were two prevailing schools of thought on just how friendly Martians and other aliens were? With the exception of “E.T.”, beings from outer space in modern times are most often threatening creatures, so it was startling to find such friendly ones in Clarke’s tale.
When I was telling my sister about this story, she mentioned the contrast of how people thought about space exploration in the past, compared to nowadays. What had originally been considered scientific expeditions are now being revamped as thrill rides for the wealthy, in much the same way as dangerous sea journeys metamorphosed into cruise ship vacations.
In any case, this almost whimsical short story was entertaining as well as insightful and one doesn’t have to be a sci-fi fan to enjoy it.
Originally published March 1938 in Amateur Science Fiction Stories magazine, reprinted in The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke, appropriately enough in Feb. 2001