Like just about everyone else, I adored the Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson, but I was far less impressed by this pendant, which I reviewed in Vector 206, July-August 1999.
There can be little doubt that one of the most significant events in science fiction over the last decade has been the publication of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy. These three huge books chronicled the slow transformation of Mars from first landing to the moment it started sending out its own pioneers to other worlds. They were books dense with information, packed with political and ecological debate, convincing in their evocation of a raw, unspoilt landscape. They were instantly and justly acclaimed as classics within the field, which is not to say that they were perfect. It was clear, for instance, that Robinson’s real passion is for landscapes barely touched by human hand (immediately before the trilogy he had written about the Himalayas, immediately afterwards he wrote about Antarctica) and the longeurs in the books became more noticeable the more the landscape was tamed. Dramatic moments would drift away without being fully resolved (the assassination of John Boone which opened the very first volume in the trilogy somehow never seemed to acquire the dramatic point it should have had). Characters would tantalise without really taking on form (Coyote, the stowaway, surely warranted far more attention than he got).
Now Robinson has produced a pendant to the trilogy which corrects some of those problems while emphasising others. This is a collection of what, for want of a better word, we shall call stories, though that suggests far more coherence, far more narrative drive, than many of these pieces offer. The full text of the Martian constitution, along with a commentary on that constitution, are the sort of thing only an obsessive really needs; and two stories which are in effect alternate histories of this fictional future seem utterly pointless, especially since they tell us nothing particularly fresh about either the characters or the future. Elsewhere there is a scatter of pieces, some as short as half a page, which read as if they are out-takes from the trilogy; they start in the middle, end not much further on, and out of context are generally meaningless. Occasionally these cast a fresh light on the trilogy — there are a couple of pieces which fill in our knowledge of Coyote, for instance — but even these barely stand as stories in their own right and would have worked far better slotted into their allotted place in an expanded ‘Director’s Cut’ of the trilogy. There is also a selection of poems (curiously the poem that gives its name to this section of the book is not actually included) which serve to show that however talented a wordsmith Robinson may be, he is no poet. All of these pieces are essentially plotless, one reads them only to rediscover Robinson’s Mars, to savour once again his detailed almost obsessive descriptions of hiking, climbing, swimming and sailing in the wilds of the terraformed planet.
What we are left with when all of that is swept aside are two Martian stories that predate the trilogy, ‘Exploring Fossil Canyon’ from 1982 and ‘Green Mars’ from 1985, which are easily the best pieces in here. Two other new stories, ‘Sexual Dimorphism’ and ‘A Martian Romance’, almost capture that quality except that what passes for plot is left dangling at the end, as if Robinson has become so concerned with describing his Mars that he has forgotten some of the basic skills of storytelling. Somehow, even with these stories (the most substantial pieces in the book), The Martians comes across as being all on one level. The familiar characters, brought into sharp focus in these vignettes, seem neither as distinct nor as interesting as they did in the trilogy. The grand sweep of history, one of the real overarching delights of the trilogy, is lost when we dot about in time to brief moments barely if at all located within the chronology, so that the grandeur and tragedy of the Martian endeavour is replaced with isolated incidents that seem of little moment. Robinson’s love of the Martian landscape is undiminished and his descriptions make up the overwhelming majority of what is in the book, but he has told us all this before and here has nothing new to say that doesn’t feel like repetition. Only right at the end, in the aptly-named ‘Purple Mars’ — a delightful little divertissement in which the writer, beset by family interruptions and normal suburban life, types ‘The End’ to his Martian trilogy — does the book change pace and acquire any vigour and liveliness.