Retro-Hugo 1939, Best Short Story

“How We Went to Mars”

Arthur C. Clarke

Amateur Science Stories, March 1938


Fellow nominees:

  • “Helen O’Loy” by Lester del Rey
  • “Hollerbochen’s Dilemma” by Ray Bradbury
  • “Hyperpilosity” by L. Sprague de Camp
  • “The Faithful” by Lester del Rey

Imagine, if you will, man’s first interactions with an alien society. How do they appear? How do they communicate? What might we learn about this foreign presence? These are questions that scientist and writers alike hypothesize and ponder every day. With our first short story, “How We Went to Mars,” we’ll learn about Arthur C. Clarke’s ideas on these long-held questions.

“How We Went to Mars,” Arthur’s second published work, tells the tale of one particular adventure that transpired for members of the Snoring-in-the-Hay Rocket Society in 1952. Our unnamed narrator recounts this adventure, much like a journal entry or a research report, of his team meeting envoys of the Martian race. His account comes off nonchalant as he gives the reader a small glimpse into a society that only many people could imagine existing. He even writes about a further analysis of the events in a forthcoming book.

My forthcoming book, ‘Mars with the Lid Off’ should be out in the spring and will be published by Blotto and Windup at 21/-.

– unnamed narrator

The aspect I found most intriguing was that the Martians the team encountered are unlike those we’d imagine. These are not the shapeshifting Green Martians from the DC Universe nor are they the technological cephalopods from H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. No, these Martians are uncharacteristically human. They live in an oxygen-rich environment and speak the English tongue. When allowed to explore the Martian city, the team found little to note in terms of scientific advancement. The Martians even play very human-like games such as poker and a four-dimensional version of chess. These extra-terrestrials are nothing like what we’d imagine for life out in the universe. Why are they so mundane? Was Arthur still such a novice writer? Or, do we have our narrator to blame?

Photo by asoggetti on Unsplash

The story begins with the note that “all characters in this story are entirely fictitious and only exist in the author’s subconscious.” Now it’s easy to say the author in this instance is Arthur himself, but what if it’s talking of the other author, the narrator. Remember, Arthur wrote this story as if it were a published work. Perhaps we as the reader need to doubt the narrator, maybe everything they are describing is not as it seems.

My take on this story is that we’re reading a young child’s make-believe version of an alien encounter. Perhaps they’re playing by themselves, or maybe other kids in the neighborhood joined them and are blasting around off together. The first thing I noticed was the absurd sounding company name, “Snoring-in-the-Hay Rocket Society.” It sounds like something with which a kid makes up, perhaps a kid living on a farm. If you recall from the Arthur post, he grew up on a farm enthralled by science fiction magazines. Perhaps, he was channeling more from his childhood than at first considered.

That’s not the only clue to the hidden story that I uncovered. Later in the story, we find the narrator floating helplessly in space. In an attempt to recover from their precarious position, they reach into their space suit’s pouch a pull out several random things, including a safety pin, a double-headed penny, and a ticket to the Russian ballet. This imagery takes me back to my youth when I used to store all the random things I found while out playing in my pockets. It reminds me of getting home, and your parent is pulling things out of your pocket like a party magician.

Photo by Josh Hild on Unsplash

I enjoyed this story’s simplicity, whether or not the Martians within it existed. I prefer the idea that this is taking place within a child’s imagination, as it speaks to a commonly shared feeling. It’s the feeling of utter fascination for what exists out there in the cosmos and the adventure we all yearn for as children. In a time of saturated with nostalgia, it’s nice to find something that isn’t so blatantly nostalgic, and yet, garners that emotion some of still crave.


So, what did you think? Have you read “How We Went to Mars” before? Did it deserve its Retro-Hugo win? I’d like to hear your thoughts and comments, so please leave them in the space below.

Until next time!


The version of “How We Went to Mars” I read came from The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke (ISBN: 0-312-87860-5), purchased from Half Price Books online. Published by Orb in 2002, this collection collects much of Arthur C. Clarke’s short fiction (including several other Hugo award-winning short stories) together in one book.

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