1979’s Titan is the first novel in John Varley’s Gaea trilogy.
Ringmaster is the first crewed spacecraft to visit distant Saturn. The crew discovers a twelfth moon of Saturn, the first discovered in the six decades since Janus and Epimethius were detected in the 1960s1. What at first appears to be a small object turns out to be huge, over 1300 kilometres in diameter2. By rights, any moon that large should be spherical and comparable in mass to our Moon. This object, which the astronauts initially call Themis, is a torus of low mass which is spinning rapidly enough that any object on its surface would be flicked off into space. The obvious conclusion is that the object is artificial, possibly an alien generation ship.
When Ringmaster approaches the object, they discover something else about Themis. It knows that Ringmaster is nearby and is able to reach out and tear the spacecraft apart. The crew — Cirocco Jones, Bill NLN, April and August Polo, Gaby Plauget, Calvin Greene, and Gene Springfield — are grabbed by immense tentacles and borne off into the depths of the vast moon.
When she regains consciousness, Cirocco is naked, entirely bald, altered in certain other ways, and all alone. Although the organic components of her suit have been destroyed, the suit radio still works well enough to allow her to locate and join Gaby. One by one, the crew manages to gather. The lone exception is April, much to the distress of her clone sister August. Like Cirocco, some of the crew now possess abilities they did not have before being abducted. It’s not clear if the exceptions to this transformation really are exceptions — or if the circumstances needed to reveal their new abilities simply have not yet manifested.
The toroidal habitat is an ecosystem with intelligent natives. Most of them are friendly; none of them are responsible for abducting the crew. The natives know who is the abductor: the great god Gaea within whom they live. Gaea’s consciousness resides in the vast habitat’s hub. Determined to get answers from their host, Cirocco sets off to confront Gaea in person. She is accompanied by an infatuated Gaby and the seemingly harmless Gene.
There are only two catches. While Gaea is only about 700 kilometres away, those are 700 vertical kilometres. And harmless Gene? Isn’t harmless at all.
Strong female leads weren’t that common when this book was published. Cirocco Jones, the lead, is also uncommon in not being conventionally pretty (or so she claims). Jones suspects she got the job of commander in part because she is not petite or pretty; if she had been a conventionally pretty size one, her (male) bosses would have ignored her skills. Her assessment of her own charms may be skewed, as it seems that pretty much every human she encounters (save for the Polo sisters, who only have eyes for each other3) wants to have sex with her4.
I had completely forgotten that Freff did the interior illustrations in the MMPB edition I own. You may know Freff as the fellow whose cooperative venture with Phil Foglio lasted for an entire issue or you may know him as Connor Cochran, famous for another matter entirely.
I thought I could come up with my own Watsonian handwavium to explain how it is that an Earth civilization able to send a crewed spaceship to Saturn by 2025 (only seven years off now) managed to overlook the dozens of moons we have discovered in the four decades since this book was published. The problem, I thought, was the focus on crewed spaceflight. Perhaps this alternate reality didn’t have our space probes and enhanced telescopes because all the money went to sending tinned apes into space. Alas, there’s a reference to lunar telescopes so that cannot be the answer.
The true explanation is probably a Doylist one. Either Varley was unaware that small bodies are likely to be much more common than large ones or he simply didn’t consider this fact as it related to Saturn’s moons. The result is a book that got March of Scienced very quickly. Three more moons were discovered in 1980, with many more to follow.
By chance, Titan is at the intersection of the sub-genres of my two previous Tears reviews. Like Worlds , it’s a story about the glorious world of spaceflight that the early 21st century would surely have created by now. Like Orbitsville , it is a story about a Big Dumb Object. There are some significant differences: A) Cirocco ventures farther into space rather than visiting troubled Earth and B) the Big Dumb Object is actually not dumb at all, although it is having some problems with age-induced dementia.
As one would expect from a Varley novel of this era, there’s tons of sex in a variety of configurations (although not, IIRC, ever male on male: this is a heterosexual-male-gaze vision of sexual liberation). Most of it is consensual, assuming “acting on urges induced by PTSD” and “eventually giving into the incessant nagging of a lesbian stalker” count as consensual. The one rapist who appears (whose whiny justification sounds astonishingly like today’s “incels”) receives a cathartic beating from his victims before being punted out of the plot. I could very easily have lived without the rape plot, but at least it ties into Titan ’s grander themes of consent.
This volume is about as upbeat as the series gets, I believe. Titan ’s Earth is troubled but making gradual progress. Gaea is showing her three million years but doing her best to embrace coping mechanisms. Varley’s view of humanity would get darker over the next few years and so too would his Gaea series. Judging by Slow Apocalypse and his Thunder and Lightning series, it’s an irreversible process.
1: Although they were not recognized as distinct objects until 1978.
2: I don’t want to get into it here, but there is an explanation as to why an object that big is hard to observe from Earth.
3: The Polo sisters don’t quite embody the Bury Your Gays motif but they sure don’t get a happy ending. Poor Gaby manages to make to the end of this installment but has what appears to be a “will likely die a very motivational death later in the series” sticker on her forehead.
4: You may be wondering if there are references to Heinlein in Titan . Yes. Yes, there are.