Visions of Paradise

Saturday, April 09, 2005

The Martians

I should begin this review by stating that Kim Stanley Robinson is one of my very favorite science fiction writers, and has been so since his wonderful debut novel The Wild Shore, so anything I say here has more than a tinge of prejudice to it. His fiction combines the precise blend of literature and thought-provoking sense of wonder that I enjoy reading.

The Martians is a companion collection to his acclaimed Mars TrilogyRed Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars. If you read that series, then you already know if you want to read The Martians, so anything I say here is superfluous. But if you have never read the Mars Trilogy, or even Kim Stanley Robinson at all, then read on

The Martians consists of 39 stories and story-fragments, ranging from the novella "Green Mars" to several one-to-two page scenes. It features characters who appear in the much longer trilogy, some of them major characters, others walk-ons. Some stories are background information to various characters’ lives, while others fill in the gaps between scenes of the trilogy. And some are alternate history versions of what might have happened differently in the trilogy but did not.

Overall, this collection demonstrates the strengths of Robinson’s novels with virtually none of the weaknesses that his longer works sometimes exhibit. It is written in typical Robinson style, very dry, matter-of-factly, with no stylistic flourishes at all, and virtually no emotional displays. While this lends itself to slow, careful reading, its careful pacing also lends itself to depth of characterization, time to enjoy visual splendor, and depth of philosophical thought. And when something important happens, it tends to be more striking because of the deliberate fact-filled manner in which it is shown.

The book opens with "Michel in Antarctica" which shows the original 150 or so finalists for settling Mars being winnowed down during a year spent living in as Mars-like conditions as Earth can produce. We meet many of the important characters in the trilogy, and learn a bit more about them away from the plot machinations of Mars itself. This story resumes over a century later in an alternate history story "Michel in Provence" in which we see how the Martian colonization might have been different than it actually was. In the two stories we view the unfolding relationship between Michel and Maya.

Maya also appears in a connected group of 6 stories examining her relationship on Mars with Desmond, the coyote. These stories then split off into two solo stories about Desmond’s political days, "Coyote Makes Trouble" and "Coyote Remembers." Together this sequence provides a close and informative look at the political passions dividing the Martian settlers.

The highlights of The Martians are the three related stories "Exploring Fossil Canyon," "Green Mars," and "A Martian Romance." The first two are reprints from Robinson’s early career, the third a coda to the story begun in them. Together they give wonderful looks at the natural beauty of Mars, including fossil climbing, mountain climbing, and iceboat sailing. They also examine the relationship between Roger and Eileen, who in the first story have a love affair as a pair of twentyish youngsters. In the latter two stories they are two hundredish oldsters who, due to medical life extension, are still robust and active. But, like all near-immortals, they have learned that nearly all people have limited memory capacity, so that at age two hundred memories of events at age twenty are basically nonexistent. Except for sports like Roger who remembers everything about his young romance with Eileen while she does not even recall who he is. Together these are the most emotionally-satisfying stories in the book. The fact that Robinson’s emotions are dry and careful make them all the more real and less like the machinations of a writer.

One trait which separate Robinson from other “serious” writers is his killer sense of humor. His collection of novellas Escape From Kathmandu was oftimes hilarious–especially the cameo from Jimmy Carter which I’ll never forget!–and he displays that humor in the story "Arthur Sternbach Brings the Curveball to Mars." The story is precisely what the title claims, another in the long tradition of science fictional baseball stories, this time regaling how a group of Martian natives take up the national pastime, and one Terran immigrant realizes none of the Martians have ever seen a curveball although one of them throws a natural curve that just might come in handy in a game someday. A funny and delightful change of pace from the seriousness of other stories.

The book also contains some non-fiction sections describing the scientific and political background of the Martian trilogy, as well as thirty pages of poetry, and a brief concluding section entitled "Purple Mars" which chronicles the author’s satisfaction when the entire trilogy was finally printed out and mailed to his publisher.

Obviously a book with such a variety of story types will appeal to different readers in different ways, but overall I found it a worthwhile companion to the Mars Trilogy for somebody familiar with Robinson’s opus. However, the Roger and Eileen trilogy and baseball story are all excellent stand-alones, so even those unfamiliar with the Mars Trilogy should enjoy them enough to get their money’s worth out of the paperback edition. And it might encourage you to go read one of the finest science fiction trilogies every written as well.


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