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The Martians by Kim Stanley Robinson (HarperCollins Voyager, £17.99, 400 pages, hardback; published 19 April 1999. Mass market paperback, £6.99, 457 pages, published 3 April 2000.)

The Mars Trilogy: three fat future history novels about the colonisation and transformation of Mars, crammed with the kind of detail and sheer, staggering knowledge that you would expect from Kim Stanley Robinson.

And still, there was more...

cover scan The Martians is a collection of short fiction, "docufiction" and poetry that spans the series, both within its fictional chronology (stories set in the Red, Green and Blue periods) and the actual sequence of its writing: two stories dating back to the early 1980s; others that probably have their origins in out-takes from the novels; and others that must have been written afterwards, the author unable to leave Mars alone, unable to stop exploring.

The obvious question is: should he have bothered?

The answer is unclear. On the back of a successful series like the Mars trilogy, there's certainly an audience for a book like this, and there is enough in this book to make it worth the money, but despite its strengths this is the weakest book I've read by this author.

Most of the stories in The Martians are vignettes -- even the longer stories are little more than vignettes: long slices of Martian life, with little in the way of incident. There are too many trivial snippets, too many talking heads and anecdotes, too many internal monologues...

And there's not enough of the rich and powerful fiction that we're so accustomed to Robinson delivering.

But it's not, by any means, a bad book. Just a bad Kim Stanley Robinson book.

There's a difference.

Inevitably, the stories, such as they are, are crammed with high quality prose, strong on believable detail and atmosphere and sheer sense of place. The characterisation is excellent, as ever, although there's a certain sameness about a lot of the protagonists, as they all tend to be wholesome outdoor types who like hiking and climbing and worry about their planet for the best possible reasons.

The Martians might appear to have all the right ingredients: one of our finest authors writing fiction at a length where he produces some of his best work, in the setting of a series that's given him his greatest critical and commercial success.

But it's a big disappointment: a writer indulging himself, a writer being indulged.

For the good material (for "Green Mars" and "Exploring Fossil Canyon" and "Michel in Antarctica") this is a book worth reading, a book worth your patience. But only just. When Robinson's good, he's very very good; when he's bad he's still, well, kind of, interesting and engaging.

Review by Keith Brooke.

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© Keith Brooke 12 June 1999