Kim Stanley Robinson has come up a couple of times on this blog lately. I recently reviewed his latest novel, Aurora, and of course his Mars Trilogy came up in my thoughts about The Martian by Andy Weir. The Mars Trilogy was at the back of my mind the whole time I was reading the short story anthology Old Mars—I wasn’t sure how I’d react to retro Planetary Romance-style stories about the Red Planet in a post-Robinson world.
I have Robinson on my mind.
I find myself reconsidering my stance on him. I’m beginning to question whether he should remain in my personal pantheon of favorite SF authors.
Because here’s the thing: Other than the Mars Trilogy, I haven’t been all that impressed by most of what he’s written (speaking here of his novels—he’s one of the best short story writers in the genre and has been since the ’80s). His California Trilogy isn’t all that good, his Science in the Capital series is honestly pretty bad, his stand-alone novels range from good to very good… but not many can be accurately described as great and some aren’t good at all.
If we leave out his Mars Trilogy, we’re left with an SF author whose novels are good, but not great overall, and whose output is disappointingly inconsistent.
Without the Mars Trilogy, I don’t think anyone would consider Kim Stanley Robinson a giant of the genre. He’d be a decent author with a sizable readership, but not much more.
And so I wonder: Should I continue to esteem him so highly for one trilogy he wrote 20 years ago and hasn’t come close to matching since?
Then I think: But that Mars Trilogy, though! It’s so astounding, such a nearly perfect work, he could write complete bunk for the rest of his life and still have a legitimate claim to true greatness. It’s so good it continues to re-convince me, over and over again, that he must be a brilliant writer. *
Even if I am somewhat less impressed by much of what he’s written since.
If nothing else, Robinson’s Mars Trilogy was a watershed moment in the history of SF. Before his trilogy, you could still get away with writing Burroughs / Bradbury-esque fantastical Martian tales. After his trilogy, not so much. There were authors before Robinson who had begun to write about Mars from a scientifically realistic perspective, but his work marked the apotheosis of that evolution. It attained a level of realism that was revolutionary for its day.
Kim Stanley Robinson will remain a seminal figure in the history of SF for this influence, if for nothing else. And that’s more than enough.
(* I should note that I don’t consider The Martians a legitimate entry in the series.)