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Never Split the Party

Wizard  (Gaea, volume 2)

By John Varley 

18 Dec, 2022

Because My Tears Are Delicious To You


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Wizard is the middle volume in John Varley’s near-future Gaea Trilogy. In stark contrast to industry practice, the trilogy consists of exactly three novels.

Chris Minor and Robin the Nine-Fingered both have genetic diseases that, while quite different, may have the same cure. All the Earthman and spacewoman need do is appeal to God and pray for mercy. Or rather, appeal to a god: Gaea, a 1,300-km diameter living, intelligent torus orbiting Saturn. Having complete command of matters biological—at least within the torus—altering genes is a trivial task for the ancient being.

Convincing Gaea to perform a cure will be trickier.

Seventy-five years after the events of Titan (reviewed here), Gaea has performed sufficient biological miracles that humans have decided NOT to destroy Gaea (as might otherwise be prudent).

Gaea doesn’t cure anyone who presents themself. The half-mad, half-senile, and exquisitely bored god wants to be entertained. Pilgrims to Gaea have do something interesting to engage the god’s attention.

Visitors have tried many stunts, such as climbing from Gaea’s rim to her hub or circumnavigating the rim of Titan. Some have settled in Gaea’s hub, where Gaea maintains them … but without curing them. The status of these Eloi seems hopeless. But it’s not clear that their prospects would be better anywhere else.

Chris and Robin join a circum-Gaea expedition led in theory by the Wizard, Cirocco Jones. In actuality, the group is led by Cirocco’s sidekick/lover Gaby Plauget. After seventy-five years of service to Gaea, the nigh-immortal Wizard has become a seemingly hopeless drunk. Devoted to Cirocco, equally nigh-immortal Gaby has taken up the slack.

Gaea never tires of creating innovative predators to challenge her suitors. Any journey would be hazardous at the best of times. This journey is more hazardous than most. An old foe seeks revenge. Revenge means total party kill.

Any D&D player would counsel the expedition not to separate when travelling across dangerous lands. Naturally unforeseen circumstances scatter the party.

Or at least the surviving members of the party.


When I bought this book (years and years ago) I’m sure I must have been attracted by the author’s name, but I suspect that I also liked the cover. Later covers for later editions must have their fans, but for me, this edition’s cover is the definitive one.

Speaking of preferred editions: this is a case where paper is to be preferred over ebook. The Berkley edition is illustrated by the (in)famous Freff, a prolific Disco-era artist who moved on other pursuits after the early 1980s. Illustrations tend to explode the file size of ebooks.

The series’ setting has changed between Titan(set in 2025) and Wizard (set in 2100). Inexpensive space habitats have been developed. Any group of wingnuts, religious fanatics, and delusional idiots can scrape up enough funds to buy one. Given that wingnuts, fanatics, and idiots may lack the skills to adequately maintain space habits, there is also a thriving market in used habitats. Just throw the corpses of the previous occupants out the airlock, re-establish an ecosystem, and have a virtual Eden in space!

Robin hales from one such habitat, a collective of radical separatist lesbian pagans which has, over the years, become quite extreme in its views (but not extreme enough to hamper the inhabitants’ ability to keep their home functioning). Robin has been taught that the outside world will be full of thuggish men and enslaved women; she finds that this is not completely the case (her enlightenment is milked for humour), but there’s certainly enough misogyny left that an older, wiser Robin can see how her foremothers arrived at the views that dictated a retreat into their habitat.

Readers may find the whole quest as arbitrary as any D&D campaign. Yet arbitrariness is the point. Gaea is bored and more than half-mad; sending people on needless, dangerous quests amuses her. One of the many downsides of living within a god1.

This being Disco-Era Varley, the narrative is positively obsessed with sex in almost every possible arrangement, the main exception being human-male on human-male. Complicating matters is the presence of various intelligent species within Gaea; the centaur-like Titanides have particularly complicated sexual customs. Readers may well lose track of who is doing what to whom. Don’t worry! Varley provided charts.

I found the sex aspect a bit tedious and tended to skim whenever clothes fell off. I also noticed that the author’s gaze is obviously male (boobs!) and that there’s a Bury Your Gays moment towards the end of the book. But that’s from the perspective of 2022 (just three years short of when the first novel was set). When published, this book must have been mind-blowing. At the time, humans were deemed available in just two basic models and SFF sex was usually something done by cis-male humans with cis-female humans (or to cis-female humans). Even now there are readers for whom this sexual phantasmagoria is just the thing.

Readers may remember that this is part of a trilogy. Each book in a trilogy has its own unique challenges and hazards2. Middle books for example often raise the questions “was this volume really necessary?” and “aside from setting up the finale, did anything of note get accomplished?” In this case … I’m afraid that I must report that this book was not necessary and nothing was accomplished except to set up the events of the third novel. Still, the plot moves along nicely and the book won’t consume as much of your time as you may expect from the page count.

Given that Wizard placed fourth in the 1981 Locus Best SF Novel category3 and fifth for the 1981 Hugo Best Novel4, clearly other people rated Wizard more highly than I do now. Perhaps you will as well.

Wizard is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Barnes & Noble), here (Book Depository), and here (Chapters-Indigo).

1: I don’t think we ever learn the origins of Gaea and her kin (unless it was in Titan and I forgot or Demon,which I have not yet reread). Maybe they were an alien solution to the self-sustaining habitat problem.

Speaking of Gaea’s kin: there are other beings of her kind in the Solar System, as well as other star systems. They do not figure into the narrative because they prefer to remain aloof from humans, allowing only carefully vetted scientists to visit.

2: Essay idea!

3: Wizard lost the Locus race to The Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge. It was outranked by Beyond the Blue Event Horizon by Frederik Pohl and The Ringworld Engineers by Larry Niven.

4: Wizard lost the Hugo to The Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge and was outranked by Lord Valentine's Castle by Robert Silverberg, The Ringworld Engineers by Larry Niven, and Beyond the Blue Event Horizon by Frederik Pohl.