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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 and spends way too much time writing about it.


  1. Wow, Billie, I just found your Varley reviews! If you thought I was long-winded before... ;-)

    Seriously, I have been reading sci-fi my whole life but I didn't discover Varley until about 5 years ago (doing a Hugo/Nebula reading list). I also tended to prefer hard sci-fi and I almost never read fantasy. My first Varley book was "Titan", which I took to immediately. I tend to go for plot first, and the plot keeps moving--but along the way I discovered that I really liked Rocky and Gaby as characters, perhaps because they are strong but also because they are noble and trying to make the best of a bizarre situation...

    I don't find this to be too much on the fantasy side, myself--but perhaps I am mellowing as I grow older. I guess the fact that we have a 'god' here allows for more fantastical plot elements, although the physical description and parameters of Titan seem scientifically accurate. I am also hooked on Lois McMaster Bujold's Chalion series, which I would call true fantasy (although very well done, especially "The Curse of Chalion")...

    I really enjoy the Titan series, although initially I felt the 2nd and 3rd books were not as good--especially the 3rd, which felt very different in the way it was presented (all the allusions to film). However, as I read them again (and again) I had less complaints about style because I liked the characters so much. I'll admit that Chris, Robin, and especially Conal took a while to warm up to--but now I like them a lot too...

    I have since read most of Varley's work, but the Titan series is my favorite. For whatever reason, I bonded with those books and not as much with his other works. I do like "Steel Beach" but I should read it again before I talk about it in detail. In fact, I don't think I'll comment in detail on "Titan" until I read it again, when it is fresh in my mind (probably in a couple of months)...

  2. Hey, Keith -- I love hearing from another Varley fan. And I'm not surprised that Titan is your favorite because I've gotten a strong impression that it's a favorite of most of his readers. While I enjoy the Eight Worlds stuff the most, I think my heart belongs to Louise Baltimore, his lead character in Millennium. I really, really wish the movie they'd made out of it had been a good one.

  3. Hi Billie. I read Millenium when when I was on my Varley kick after reading the Titan trilogy a few years ago. Right now, I could not tell you what it was about--which is an issue I've been having lately. I don't know if it's because I read so many sci-fi books, or my memory is failing--or both--but if a novel doesn't click with me I tend to forget it rather quickly. That doesn't mean it was bad, or that I hated it, just that it didn't make a strong enough impression for whatever reason. On the other hand, if I really like a book I will reread it and that helps store it in my long-term memory. Ah, the joys of aging... :-(

    So I'm putting Millenium on my reading list and I'll give it another try. Then I'll add a comment on that page...

    As for the film version of Millenium, I don't know anything about it--which is rather odd. I usually know of a sci-fi film, even if I never saw it, but this one draws a complete blank. Well, according to Wikipedia and your review it's a stinker, so I guess I didn't miss much...

  4. Hi, Keith: I think the reason why Millennium is my favorite is that it's a time travel story. It was also written in 1983 and it's a bit dated. That might be why you don't remember it.

  5. Hi Billie. I read Millenium a few years ago, but I was reading a lot of Varley (and other sci-fi novels) at that time and perhaps it just never made it to long-term memory...

    Time travel stories can be fun, but the hard science rating has to go down for any time travel to the past--at that point it becomes more fantasy than science fiction, at least given our current understanding of physics. Of course theories do change, but the paradoxes which would result are difficult to reconcile. I think the best that could be done would be traveling to an earlier analogous time in a parallel reality, as is proposed in the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics (Crichton used this in Timeline, which gets points for the science but wasn't a memorable novel otherwise)...

    In any case, it's difficult to write a non-multi-world time travel novel without paradoxes. Perhaps I am more sensitive to potential paradoxes than others, but I find myself searching for them whenever I read a time travel novel. I started reading Millenium again last night, and I see that Varley is trying to avoid them, but I have to get a bit farther to see if he can really do it. Right now, I have some open questions... :-)

  6. Keith, I guess I should qualify my earlier statement and say that I love hard science fiction *and* time travel. :) I like thoughtful, fanciful stuff like Jack Finney's Time and Again. But the most recent time travel novel I read (like a couple of weeks ago) was Split Second by Douglas E. Richards, and it's more of a scientific exploration of a certain possible aspect of time travel than actually a novel about time travel. I think it manages to fall into the hard SF category.

  7. Hi Billie. Nothing wrong with time travel novels--sometimes I am too much of a scientist. ;-) I guess it's more of a classification issue than anything else. Another example is alternate history, such as The Yiddish Policemen's Union. Not much sci-fi there, in fact almost no science at all--just the fact that one event happened which changed history. To me, that's at the fantasy end of the "hard sci-fi <--> fantasy" spectrum. The whole spectrum is fine, I just have my own opinion on where things should be on that spectrum...

    I hadn't heard of Richards before, but it seems his work is fairly recent and he hasn't been nominated for a Hugo or Nebula Award (which is often how I choose my books). He seems to really be cranking out a lot of novels in the last few years. It would appear that he's in the Crichton mold, being someone who has a hard science degree writing science fiction. I may have to check him out. Thanks for the tip! :-)

  8. I have read most of John Varley's stuff. I read Titan back when it came out as paperback in the 1970s. Of all his works, Persistence of Vision is my favorite story. I have the 30 Years Reader, and that book has some really great stories. Titan was good, and the following two were less good, IMHO. Steel Beach is a book worthy of many re-reads. I used to email Mr. Varley years ago, and as a fellow writer, he gave me a good look at how he writes. The man is an enigma.


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