Kim Stanley Robinson is a writer of ideas, feelings, landscapes, and characters, and these are all things which fade from your mind. For a book series as complicated and lengthy as KSR's Mars trilogy, spanning centuries from Red Mars to Green Mars to Blue Mars, this is doubly so: over time, it too becomes just as hazy as Mars during a dust storm, the characters and names jumbled and tossed about chaotically, and yet only touching lightly upon the wanderer in the sand. This is a defining feature of whether one should read his companion book of a collection of short stories, The Martians, which
Some of the short stories are brilliant, such as climbing the titanic mass of Olympus Mons, or unsettling in the way in which the world of Mars could have been different, if human colonization did not go ahead like how it did in KSR's main series. The very first story in the book, even if it doesn't take place on Mars, is one of my favorites for this: Michel in Antarctica, which shows life in an isolated station on the edge of the world, in harsh conditions, showing the harsh beauty of the Antarctica landscape - and the struggle of a scientist having to choose between his heart and what he was convinced are the facts. Others have images which rest sunk into the mind after reading it, like an arcing baseball rocketing up into the purple sky, flying to the horizon of a small planet, the sheer sense of scale and freedom of this alien image.
Others just strike one as odd, like the poems that KSR put at the end of the book, esoterism, to the extreme even for KSR. The book is a thoroughly random collection of stories and ideas, and so you get things like discussing the Martian constitutions, Martian folklore, canal names, and some feel like a drag of either incomprehensible esoterism (without KSR's characters and ideals to liven them up), simply lost, or a slog or to be skipped over in the case of the non-story, technical chapters.
Assembling a general theme from these scattered collection of stories and ideas is terribly difficult. But a common refrain from the numerous chapters on if Mars was different, on alternate history (from KSR's established history of his Mars series), is to me a sense of unease - of just how easy it would have been for an entire world, full of people, full of life, full of dreams, full of hope, to never have come into existence. What if bacteria was found on the surface? What if it was decided that it was too psychologically difficult to have an isolated, long-term colony, cut off from the outside world? It is haunting to read the stories which happen afterwards, such as for Michel and Maya, and to realize that life went on for them - that it was emptier, sadder, less fulfilling, but that they had no way of knowing. What has passed us by too, what stones have been left unturned with jewels beneath, what tragedies do we remain in ignorance of?
It makes for a book which is by far best read just after finishing the main series, so that its thoughts and events are still in mind, before they can fade away to nothingness like the landscape of Red Mars, before the planet became green and blue - or maybe even, as some of the last stories point out, white, with only the red peaks of the mountains still preserving what Mars once was. If it lacks the grandeur of the great arc which Robinson brought forth in Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars, it is still a fascinating, sometimes disconcerting, haunting, and ambitious series of snapshots of Mars, what could have been, what would be, and the people who lived it.
© 2021 Ryan C Thomas