Book review: Demon

This is a review of Demon, the third book in the Gaean trilogy, written by John Varley. There are minimal spoilers. Although a review of the third book of a trilogy will by its very nature spoil events in the first two books.

Again, decades have passed. Cirocco Jones, who is more demon than wizard now (hence the title) is determined to bring down the insane god called Gaea, with the help of her human friends, the inhabitants of the human city of Bellinzona, the entire race of Titanides, and a strangely powerful ghost.

(For ease of reference, as I did in my previous review, I'll refer to the god as Gaea, and the world she controls as the Wheel.)

While I was reading Demon this time, I was thinking hard about what it was that has never worked for me. I can guess what Varley was going for (although maybe that's presumptuous of me): a discussion about the meaninglessness of tragedy and death carried out in the name of any god, made even less meaningful with the worship of cinema thrown in for good measure. Here, Gaea has chosen to appear as an all-powerful fifty-foot-tall image of Marilyn Monroe, and she has become so completely obsessed with movies that she has built an immense multiple studio headquarters called Pandimonium and even designed living creatures that create, shoot and process film.

This is the longest of the three books in the trilogy, and like all of Varley's works, I find it fun to read. The strongest bits are the outlandish religious symbolism: the immaculate conception of an all-important holy child named Adam; zombie priests named after the world's most famous historical religious leaders; Cirocco Jones as a John the Baptist figure, living on food very like wild locusts and immersing herself in something that much resembles honey.

Demon explores the value of human life in comparison to the immortality of art, and suggests that when we create war, we are becoming the worst of gods ourselves. In fact, humans don't come off well in this book. Gaea has caused a devastating nuclear war on Earth (ending the human habitation of Earth is something Varley often does in his novels), and the human refugees on the Wheel are living in a ghetto called Bellinzona which is a violent free-for-all of warlords, gangsters and rampant human slavery. In contrast, the centaur-like Titanides are consistently shown as way better than human, and their survival as a race is the prize in this contest between Cirocco and Gaea.

But as clever and imaginative as it is, Demon delves so far into fantasy that it stops making sense to me. It is so fanciful and ungrounded that, while I can appreciate it, this novel zips through my read-only memory and I tend to forget about it when it's over. Seriously. I'd read this trilogy twice before (okay, years ago, but still) and I honestly had trouble recalling how it ended. Although the ending does make sense, when you look at the trilogy as a whole.

So this is it. I have now reviewed every novel written by my favorite science fiction writer, and maybe it was a mistake to leave my least favorites for last. As a fan of "hard" sci-fi, I can't recommend the Gaean trilogy -- unless you're into fantasy. Maybe.
Billie Doux loves good television, especially science fiction, and spends way too much time writing about it.

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