Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy is a landmark of science fiction. The books visualizing the terraforming of the red planet from a desert wasteland to a verdant living space, Robinson examines humanity from economic, psychological, political, sociological, and ecological viewpoints, culminating in the most in depth look at colonizing Mars as has yet been written. The quantity of material so great in fact, The Martians was published three years after Blue Mars. Collecting material spilling over in the creative effort, it features short stories published from magazines, cuts from the novels, Robinson’s notes, musings, and others—26 pieces in all. The time and place of the selections scattered throughout the three novels, some fill gaps not explicitly described, some are alternate “histories”, some are just sketches, and some are minor thought experiments. Written in a variety of modes (pure short story, memoir, poetry, technical writing, and constitution included), there seems a little something of everything.
Quality varying significantly, this collection is for the serious fan of Robinson’s Mars universe, only. Without an underlying sub-text to link the whole, each of the individual pieces requires a vested interest in the universe to be appreciated; most of the selections are vignettes featuring familiar settings, few expanding the series in any significant fashion. There are, however, a few threads running through the collection: a couple Michel stories, three featuring Coyote, and two involving Archaean bacteria. Spurious, it’s easy to see why they were cut from the novels.
But for those seeking something fresh and new in the Mars universe, there is some satisfaction. The four stories featuring Roger Claybourne provide that spark. Hearkening back to the exposition of the novels, “Exploring Fossil Canyon”, Green Mars, “What Matters” and “A Martian Romance” are the highlight of the collection and the reason to buy it, if any. Overall, the collection captures the spirit of Mars but lacks the coherence of the novels. But true to its name, The Martians is excerpts of life from the people who call the planet home. (It goes without saying this collection should not be attempted without having read the novels.) The following are brief summaries of the pieces included in the collection:
Pre-dating the trilogy, “Michel in Antarctica” examines the Mars colonization project from a psychological perspective before it left Earth. Stylistically not as strong as the novels (it feels like one of Robinson’s early efforts to sketch out the characters), the basic social dynamics and psyche profiles of the First One Hundred are laid out as Michel is judge and jury for who is mentally competent to be among the group. It is an important back story to the social situations which arise later and one of the better pieces in the collection.
In “Exploring Fossil Canyon” a group of tourists set out on an eco-expedition in Mars canyon land. Set at a time circa Green Mars, it features the student Eileen, her guide Roger, and the group she’s with as they explore the badlands. Though inexperienced with aerology, Eileen comes to terms with the alien, desolate nature of the planet, and in turn providing one of the best shorts in the collection.
“The Archaea Plot” – An extremely short piece about a bacteria revolution, yes, bacteria revolution.
“The Way the Land Spoke to Us” – A brief digression to describe the Martian landscape. (Not a story; more Robinson feeling his away around descriptions of Mars’ surface.)
In a partially alternate, partially “real” history compared to that described in the Mars novels, “Maya and Desmond” is the story of Coyote’s discovery on the ship from Earth by Maya and the moments of their friendship in the decades and century that came. Spurious, it’s easy to see why Robinson eliminated this from the novels.
“Four Teleological Trails” presents four views and times hiking in Crommelin Crater—obviously in the late Blue Mars years or after. Lightly ruminative vignettes on the wonder and potential knowledge of nature, and man.
“Coyote Makes Trouble” – A tiny window into the undercover work Coyote performs for the underground resistance circa early GreenMars.
“Michel in Provence” – Not a retelling of Michel’s return to Earth in Blue Mars, the story is instead an alternate history of what would have happened if the First Hundred were only temporary settlers to be replaced every five years and sent back to Earth. Events are tied into the first story of the collection, “Michel in Antarctica” and provides a different look at Michel’s relationship with Maya.
The color referring to the politics inherent to the story rather than the planet’s ecological condition, the novella Green Mars is the centerpiece of The Martians, the reason to invest, and is not to be confused with the novel of the same name. The story of a climbing expedition to the top of the universe’s largest volcano, Olympus Mons is the setting, the time is post-Blue Mars, and the retired Red named Roger (from “Exploring Fossil Canyon”) is the main character. A brilliantly realized mountain climbing story, Robinson guides Roger and the reader up the face of the Olympus Mons escarpment, his opinion of the environmental/political state of Mars mirroring every zig and zag upwards—the volcano’s 26 km height not the only challenge. Robinson reflective while reveling in the geological and technical details of team climbing, the story is as much personal as it is triumphant. This coda to the Mars trilogy is the highlight of the collection, a must for anyone who ever envisioned climbing such a massive mountain, and scratches the itch of those who were looking for more Mars material.
“Arthur Sternbach Brings the Curveball to Mars” is a fun one-off about Martian gravity and baseball.
“Salt and Fresh” is part II of the Archaean revolution.
“The Constitution of Mars” – Exactly as the title states, this five page document, otherwise known as the Dorsia Brevia agreement, is what Art, Maja, Nirgal, and the others came to an agreement on in Green Mars. It details the political, judicial, environmental, and all other –als of Mars—a delight for the trilogy’s connoisseur.
“Some Worknotes and Commentary on the Constitution by Charlotte Dorsa Brevia” – Footnotes to the constitution.
“Jackie on Zo” is the story of Zo early years from Jackie’s point of view.
“Keeping the Flame” – In BlueMars time, Nirgal encounters two First Hundred-ers on one of his Forrest Gump-esque long runs. Friends of Phyllis and supporters of UNTA, the two men offer a differing view to the “green Mars” perspective Robinson sticks to throughout the trilogy. Right wing to say the least, the Cimmeria reference is an interesting touch.
“Saving Noctis Dam” is a man’s recollection of precisely the story’s title, nothing more, nothing less.
The oddest story in the collection, “Big Man in Love” is about the future of organ transplant—in the euphemistic sense.
“An Argument for the Deployment of All Safe Terraforming Technologies” – Despite the technical sounding title, this vignette of surfing on Mars has its tongue in cheek.
“Selected Abstracts from The Journal of Areological Studies” – Though fictional, this piece is exactly as the title purports, and is the “real” scientific documentation Sax and the others ever delved into in their work and research. (The last journal entry is a nice little joke related to the other entries in the collection.)
“Odessa” – Living in idyllic bliss on Mars, sometime post-Blue Mars…
“Sexual Dimorphism” – A scientist studying paleogenomics (the DNA present in fossils) has a relationship problem with his girlfriend of many years. A life/work problem, Robinson resolves the issue in Mars fashion.
In 18 th century America fashion, “Enough is as Good as a Feast” is a story of Martians settling the land post-Blue Mars. Lebensraum in abundance, Robinson focuses on the domestic aspects—home architecture, organic horticulture, enology—all in hippy community style.
A third story featuring Roger, “What Matters” is a run-in with Peter Clayborne (little relation) and the evening which results at a café on the water.
The third and final story featuring Coyote in the collection, “Coyote Remembers” is the old-age recollections of the Martians he held closest to his heart and why.
“Sax Moments” – A collection of windows into Sax’s life. (Feels like material which fell to the cutting room floor in the process of editing the novels.)
“A Martian Romance” - The fourth and concluding story in the Roger sequence, this novelette starts with a reunion of the team who climbed Olympos Mons in Green Mars (of this collection). Heading out an ice sailing trip, the group witnesses the environment of Mars come full circle. Despite the title, this is one of the best stories in the collection.
“If Wang Wei Live on Mars and Other Poems” – Exactly as the title states, this is a collection of poems inspired by Wang Wei but set against the background of Mars rather than Tang dynasty China. (For the record, most of the poems truly capture the tone and spirit of Wang’s poetry.)
“Purple Mars” – Not quite sure what this piece is. Not quite fitting the Mars universe, it seems more an act of catharsis by Robinson than fiction - and perhaps a deserved one given the time and effort spent in its creation.