Book review: Titan

This is a book review of Titan, by John Varley. Titan is the first volume of Varley's Gaean trilogy.

Set in the near future (2025), Titan is about the seven-member crew of the DSV Ringmaster that crashes on a wheel of a world called Gaea that is orbiting the planet Saturn.

Although the main characters are the Ringmaster's captain, Cirocco Jones, and crew member Gaby Plauget, the real star of the trilogy is Gaea itself. Black on the outside and almost invisible in space, shaped like an immense hollow wheel with six spokes, Gaea is a manufactured world with twelve alternating areas of permanent light and permanent dark on the floor of its inner rim, which is inhabited by strange plants, frozen oceans, and whimsical beings like living blimps and intelligent centaurs.

The first half of the book introduces the crew as they discover Gaea, and then are forced to crash land upon it. They go through a horrifying experience where each is physically changed and ejected onto the interior surface, and then they find their way back together as they explore Hyperion, one of the daylight sections. In the second half of the book, which is by far my favorite part of the entire trilogy, Cirocco and Gaby climb hundreds of kilometers up one of the spokes, hoping to find the answer to what Gaea really is and if its builders still exist.

Cirocco is a good lead. She feels a bit like Sigourney Weaver's Ripley, except that Cirocco is a little nicer and isn't constantly battling aliens. Gaby is less easy to like and her personality is difficult to define; she sort of becomes Cirocco's physical and emotional shadow. Their journey up the spoke reminds me in the loveliest possible way of Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion journeying to Emerald City.

I want to love the Gaean trilogy, but I don't. I do like it, but it's my least favorite of Varley's works. Even though Varley makes this strange world come alive and the edition I have features illustrations, I always have a hard time imagining Gaea itself as I'm reading: the animals, the plant life, the size of the place itself, the twisted cables going up through the spokes, the cliffs up the sides of the rims. Or maybe I find it difficult to relate to the brightly-colored and wildly decorated centaurs (called Titanides). Or maybe it's just that I was always dissatisfied with what Cirocco and Gaby found at the conclusion of their quest, which I won't talk about because it will spoil you. (If you've read the books, more in my reviews of books two and three, Wizard and Demon.)

Maybe the core of my problem with the Gaean trilogy is that it skates on the edge of science fiction and at some point, triple Lutzes into something that feels a lot like fantasy. I've always been a "hard sci-fi" fan, and when you give me magic or swords or maps of a fictional world, I'm immediately turned off. Which is why I have never gotten into Lord of the Rings, the Harry Potter novels or Game of Thrones. I know, I know, I'm sorry, but I can't help it.

If you're a fan of John Varley's and have read all or most of his books, I'd love your opinion of Titan and how you think it compares to his other novels. (And here's my review of book two, Wizard.)

Billie Doux loves good television, especially science fiction, and spends way too much time writing about it.

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