So, in honor of the recent landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars, let me start by recommending Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy, starting with Red Mars.
Robinson wrote his epic about the colonization of Mars, and its gradual transformation to a world with a viable ecosystem for humans, in the early nineties, just before the first Mars rover missions, so the book's science is no longer quite up-to-date. But Robinson does put the science in science fiction here, drawing extensively on the many sciences (physical and social) that would come into play in colonizing a new planet: geology and climatology and material science, medicine and engineering, psychology and architecture, sociology and ecology and politics. And while you'll learn as much about the Martian regolith as you ever wanted to know, or more, you're also reading a novel of genuine epic sweep: the three books together make a kind of interstellar War and Peace.
It's also, nearly twenty years on, remarkably prescient in its lefty politics and its grim predictions about the direction international capitalism was likely to take after the Cold War. Every novel about Mars is really a novel about Earth; Robinson's Mars novels, which take the physical reality of Mars more seriously than any of the hundreds of Mars novels before them, could have been written from the heart of the Occupy movement except that they were written two decades earlier. They are books about occupying Mars, in every sense of the phrase.
In a perfect world, this post would end with a link to one of Ray Bradbury's beautiful stories from The Martian Chronicles. He's only recently left us, and it was Ray who first demonstrated the truth that fictions about Mars are fictions about Earth, with his indelible sense of poetry, at the close of that book. But the Bradbury stories available on-line are all pirated, one way or another, and I don't want to begin this little series by picking a dead man's pocket, even for a dime.
So, if we can't have Bradbury, I'd like the recommend the next best thing: Kelly Link. She, like Bradbury, is the great short-story fantasist of her generation, and like Bradbury, one of her generation's handful of genuinely great short-story writers. If Bradbury was Poe in a cheerful mood, Link is Poe with most of the tricks hidden in her sleeve, doing her magic with sly misdirection and deadpan comedy. She is what Bradbury might have been if he had been able to grow up reading Ray Bradbury: funny, allusive, evocative, and sexy.
Link also (generously, shrewdly) puts a few of her stories on-line for free. So, courtesy of the author, here is a link to one of her first published stories, and one of my favorites, "Flying Lessons" from the collection Stranger Things Happen. It begins like this:
I. Going to hell. Instructions and advice.