REVIEW by J’aime: Titan by John Varley

Titan is first in Varley’s epic Gaean Trilogy. It was finalist for both Hugo and Nebula awards.

Gaea is a world within a world – impossible, bizarre, an endless landscape inhabited by creatures out of legend. Gaea is a goddess, sometimes whimsical, sometimes malign and always terrifying. But she is also three million years old and her powers are increasingly capricious and uncertain.










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About the Book

by John Varley

Gaea Trilogy Book One

Science Fiction


Publication Date
April 15, 1987

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J’aime’s Review

Titan is a vintage sci-fi first published in 1979. I liked the tough and sympathetic woman protagonist, an interesting early depiction of a female ship captain. I also enjoyed the way the feel of the book turns from a typical science fiction tone in the first half – a crew exploring the solar system – to almost an epic fantasy tone in the second half – an adventuring party on a quest, in a setting where the technology might as well be magic.

The setting really captures the “sense of wonder” that science fiction and fantasy people talk about. The aliens are varied and some of them are wonderfully original. I especially loved the “blimps.”

I was less enthusiastic about the detailed descriptions of the world, and found them hard to follow. I eventually just skimmed over them, and gave up on trying to picture the exact structure of Titan/Gaia. Maybe other readers would have better luck.

There’s also a way in which I think the book hasn’t aged well: its take on sexual liberation feels distinctly 1970s. Rather than actual representation of gay or lesbian characters, the book just finds repeated Important Plot Reasons why two hot girls have to kiss, even though at least one of them is straight. (Always two girls. Never two guys.) The first sex scene between two women is so awkward I expected the point of view character to write a Dear Penthouse letter afterward: “I’ve never done this before, but…”

I’ll issue trigger warnings for an abortion scene and a rape scene, and another for “author’s creepy obsession with the sex organs of the aliens he has invented.”

The back cover of my edition says that Varley has been compared to Robert Heinlein, which seems apt. Varley is another writer who spins a great science fiction tale, while at the same time revealing a bit more than we need to know about his own sexual fantasies.

I recommend Titan for fans of science fiction and fantasy who are patient with detailed descriptions and don’t mind glossing over some dated ideas about sexuality. You’ll be rewarded by getting to explore a very cool setting with some great aliens. It is a complete story that doesn’t end in a cliffhanger, but it is still obviously the first installment of a trilogy. In spite of my criticisms, I’ve already started the next book.

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“Rocky, would you take a look at this?”

“That’s Cap’n Jones to you. Show me in the morning.”

“It’s sort of important.”

Cirocco was at her wash basin, her face covered in soap. She groped for a towel and wiped the greenish goop away. It was the only kind of soap the recyclers would eat.

She squinted at the two pictures Gaby handed her.

“What is it?”

“Just the twelfth satellite of Saturn.” Gaby was not entirely successful at hiding her excitement.

“No fooling?” Cirocco frowned from one picture to the other. “Just a lot of little black dots to me.”

“Well, yeah. You can’t see anything without the comparometer. That’s it right there.” She indicated an area with her little finger.

“Let’s go take a look.”

Cirocco rummaged through her locker and found a pea-green shipsuit that smelled as good as any of them. Most of the handy Velcro patches were peeling.

Her room was at the bottom of the carousel, midway between ladders three and four. She followed Gaby around the curving floor, then pursued her up the ladder.

Each rung was a little easier than the last until, at the hub, they were weightless. They pushed off from the slowly rotating ring and drifted down the central corridor to the science module: SCIMOD in NASA-ese. It was kept dark to make the instruments easier to read, and was as colorful as the inside of a jukebox. Cirocco liked it. Green lights blinked and banks of television screens hissed white noise through confetti clouds of snow. Eugene Springfield and the Polo sisters floated around the central holo tank. Their faces were bathed in the red glow.

Gaby handed the plates to the computer, punched up an image-intensifying program, and indicated the screen Cirocco should watch. The pictures were sharpened, combined, then rapidly alternated. Two minuscule dots blinked, not far from each other.

“There it is,” Gaby said proudly. “Small proper motion, but the plates are only twenty-three hours apart.”

Gene called to them.

“Orbital elements are coming in,” he said.

Gaby and Cirocco joined him. Cirocco glanced down and saw his arm go possessively around Gaby’s waist, looked quickly away, noting that the Polo sisters had seen it and were just as careful not to notice. They had all learned to stay out of each other’s affairs.

Saturn sat in the middle of the tank, fat and brassy. Eight blue circles were drawn around it, each larger than the last, each in the equatorial plane of the rings. There was a sphere on each circle, like a single pearl on a string, and beside the pearls were names and members: Mnemosyne, Janos, Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, Dione, Rhea, Titan, and Hyperion. Far beyond those orbits was a tenth one, visibly tilted. That was Iapetus. Phoebe, the most distant, could not be shown on the scale they were using.

Now another circle was drawn in. It was an eccentric ellipse, almost tangent to the orbits of Rhea and Hyperion, cutting right across the circle that represented Titan. Cirocco studied it, then straightened. Looking up, she saw deep lines etched on Gaby’s forehead as her fingers flew over the keyboard. With each program she called up, the numbers on her screen changed.

“It had a very close call with Rhea about three million years ago,” she noted. “It’s safely above Titan’s orbit, though perturbations must be a factor. It’s far from stabilized.”

“Meaning what?” Cirocco asked.

“Captured asteroid?” Gaby suggested, one eyebrow raised doubtfully.

“The proximity to the equatorial plane would make that unlikely,” one of the Polo sisters said. April or August? Cirocco wondered. After eighteen months together she still couldn’t tell them apart.

“I was afraid you’d see that.” Gaby chewed a knuckle. “Yet if it was formed with the others, it ought to be less eccentric.”

The Polo shrugged. “There are ways to explain it. A catastrophic event in the recent past. It would be easy to move it.”

Cirocco frowned. “Just how big is it, then?”

The Polo–August, she was almost sure it was August–looked at her with that calm, strangely unsettling face. “I should say about two or three kilometers. Possibly less.”

“Is that all?”

Gene grinned. “You give me the numbers, I’ll land on it.”

“What do you mean, ‘Is that all’?” Gaby said. “It couldn’t have been very much bigger, not to have been sighted by the Lunar scopes. We would have known about it thirty years ago.”

“All right. But you interrupted my bath for a damn pebble. It hardly seems worth it.”

Gaby looked smug. “Maybe not to you, but if it was a tenth that size, I’d still get to name it. Discovering a comet or an asteroid is one thing, but only a couple people each century get to name a moon.”

Cirocco released her toehold on the holo tank strut and twisted toward the corridor entrance. Just before she left she glanced back at the two tiny dots still flashing on the screen overhead.

Bill’s tongue had started at Cirocco’s toes and was now exploring her left ear. She liked that. It had been a memorable journey. Cirocco had loved every centimeter of it; some of the stops along the way had been outrageous. Now he was worrying her earlobe with his lips and teeth, tugging gently to turn her around. She let it happen.

He nudged her shoulder with his chin and nose to get her turning faster. She began to rotate. She felt like a big, soft asteroid. The analogy pleased her. Extending it, she watched the terminator line crawl around her to bring the hills and valleys of her front into sunlight.

Cirocco liked space, reading, and sex, not necessarily in that order. She had never been able to satisfactorily combine all three, but two was not bad.

New games was possible in free-fall, like the one they had been playing, “no hands.” They could use feet, mouths, knees, or shoulders to position each other. One had to be gentle and careful, but with slow bites and nips anything could be done, and in such an interesting way.

All of them came to the hydroponics room from time to time. Ringmaster had seven private rooms, and they were as necessary as oxygen. But even Cirocco’s cabin was crowded when two people were in it, and it was at the bottom of the carousel. It took one act of love in free-fall to make a bed seem as limiting as the back seat of Chevrolet.

“Why don’t you turn this way a little?” Bill asked.

“Can you give me a good reason?”

He showed her one, and she gave him a little more than he had asked for. Then she found herself with a little more than she had asked for, but as usual, he knew what he was doing. She locked her legs around his hips and let him do the moving.

Bill was forty, the oldest of the crew, and had a face dominated by a lumpy nose and jowls that could have graced a bassett hound. He was balding and his teeth were not pretty. But his body was lean and hard, ten years younger than his face. His hands were neat and clean, precise in their movements. He was good with machinery, but not the greasy, noisy kind. His tool kit would fit in his shirt pocket, tools so tiny that Cirocco wouldn’t dare handle them.

His delicate touch paid off when he made love. It was matched by his gentle disposition. Cirocco wondered why it had taken her so long to find him.

There were three men aboard Ringmaster, and Cirocco had made love to them all. So had Gaby Plauget. It was impossible to keep secrets when seven people lived in such a confined space. She knew for a fact, for instance, that what the Polo sisters did behind the closed doors of their adjoining rooms was still illegal in Alabama.

They had all bounced around a lot, especially in the early months of the voyage. Gene was the only married crew member, and he had taken care to announce quite early that he and his wife had an arrangement about such matters. Still, he had slept alone for a long time because the Polos had each other, Gaby didn’t seem to care about sex at all, and Cirocco had been irresistibly drawn to Calvin Greene.

Her persistence was such that Calvin eventually went to bed with her, not just once, but three times. It didn’t get any better, so before he could sense her disappointment she had cooled the relationship and let him pursue Gaby, the woman he had been drawn to from the first. Calvin was a general surgeon trained by NASA to be competent as ship’s biologist and ecologist as well. He was black, but attached little importance to it, having been born and raised in O’Neil One. He was also the only crew member who was taller than Cirocco. She didn’t think that had much to do with his appeal; she had learned early to be indifferent to a man’s height, since she was taller than most of them. She thought it was more in his eyes, which were soft and brown and liquid. And his smile.

Those eyes and that smile had done nothing for Gaby, just as Cirocco’s charms had not interested Gene, her second choice.

“What are you smiling about?” Bill asked.

“Don’t you think you’re giving me enough reason?” she countered, a little breathlessly. But the truth was she had been thinking of how amusing the four of them must have looked to Bill, who had stayed out of the shuffle of bodies. That seemed to be his style, to sit back and let people sort themselves out, then move in when it began to be depressing.

Calvin had certainly been depressed. So had Cirocco. Whether from preoccupation with Gaby or just inexperience, Calvin had not been much of a lover. Cirocco thought it was a little of both. He was quiet, shy, and bookish. His record showed he had spent most of his life in school, carrying an academic load that left little room for fun.

Gaby just didn’t care. The Science Module of Ringmaster was the finest toy a girl ever had. She loved her work so much she had joined the astronaut corps and graduated at the top of her class so she could watch the stars without an annoying atmosphere, even though she hated to travel. When she was working she noticed nothing else, did not think it odd that Calvin spent almost as much time in SCIMOD as she did, waiting for the chance to hand her a photographic plate or a lens cloth or the keys to his heart.

Gene didn’t seem to care, either. Cirocco sent out signals that could have drawn her five to life if the FCC had known about them, but Gene wasn’t receiving. He just grinned with that boyish, tousle-haired Aryan ideal face and talked about flying. He was to be the pilot of the Satellite Excursion Module when the ship reached Saturn. Cirocco liked flying, too, but there came a time when a woman wanted to do something else.

But eventually Calvin and Cirocco got what they had wanted. Soon after, neither wanted it anymore.

Cirocco didn’t know what the problem was with Calvin and Gaby, neither of them talked about it, but it was obvious that it worked only passably at best. Calvin continued to see her, but she saw Gene, too.

Gene had apparently been waiting for Cirocco to stop chasing him. As soon as she did, he began to sidle up and breathe heavily in her ear. She didn’t like that much, and the rest of his technique was no better. When he was through making love, it almost seemed he expected to be thanked. Cirocco had never been easily impressed; Gene would have been astonished to learn where he fell on her scale of one to ten.

Bill had happened almost by accident–though she had since learned that few accidents happened around Bill. One thing led to another, and now they were about to provide a pornographic demonstration of Newton’s Third Law of Motion, the one that used to refer to “action and reaction.”

Cirocco had done some calculations on the matter, and had found that the force of ejaculation was not nearly enough to account for the orgasmic acceleration she always observed at that moment. The cause was certainly spasms of the large muscles of the leg, but the effect was beautiful and a little frightening, as though they had become big, fleshy balloons losing air, forced away from each other at the moment of closest approach. They would careen and carom, and finally come to rest together again.

Bill felt it building, too. He grinned, and the hydroponic lamps made his crooked teeth luminescent.







Gaby has settled on Themis as the name for the new moon. Calvin agrees with her, though they arrived at the name from different directions.

Gaby mentions the alleged sighting of (what would have been) a tenth moon of Saturn by William Henry Pickering–discoverer of Phoebe, Saturn’s outermost moon– in 1905. He named it Themis, and no one ever saw it again.

Calvin points out that five of the Saturnian moons are already named after the Titans of Greek myth (which is a special interest of his; see PUB/REL DISPATCH #0009, 1/3/24) and a sixth is called Titan. Themis was a Titan, so Calvin’s mind is appeased.

Themis has things in common with the moon Pickering thought he saw, but Gaby in not convinced he actually sighted it. (If he did, she would not be listed as its discoverer. But to be fair, it seems too small and dim to be seen in even the best Lunar scopes.)

Gaby is formulating a cataclysmic theory of Themis’ formation, the result of a collision between Rhea and a wandering asteroid. Themis might be the remnant of that asteroid, or a chunk knocked off of Rhea itself.

So Themis is proving an interesting challenge for

“–that wonderful gang of idiots you all know so well by now, the crew of the DSV Ringmaster.” Cirocco leaned back from the typer touchplate, stretched her arms over her head, and cracked her knuckles. “Tripe,” she muttered. “Also bullshit.”

The green letters glowed on the screen in front of her, still with no period at the bottom.

It was a part of her job she always delayed as long as possible, but the NASA flacks could no longer be ignored. Themis was an uninteresting chunk of rock, by all indications, but the publicity department was desperate for something to hang a story on. They also wanted human interest, “personality journalism,” as they called it. Cirocco tried her best, but could not bring herself to go into the kind of detail the release writers wanted. Which hardly mattered anyway, since what she had just written would be edited, re-written, discussed in conference, and generally jazzed up to “humanize” the astronauts.

Cirocco sympathized with their goal. Few people gave a damn about the space program. They felt the money could be better spent on Earth, on Luna, and at the L5 colonies. Why pour money down the rat-hole of exploration when there was so much benefit to be derived from things that were established on a businesslike basis, like Earth-orbital manufacturing? Exploration was terribly expensive, and there was nothing at Saturn but a lot of rock and vacuum.

She was trying to think of some fresh, new way to justify her presence on the first exploratory mission in eleven years when a face appeared on her screen. It might have been April, and it might have been August.

“Captain, I’m sorry to disturb you.”

“That’s okay. I wasn’t busy.”

“We have something up here you should see.”

“Be right up.”

She thought it was August. Cirocco had worked on keeping them straight since twins generally resent being mistaken for each other. She had gradually realized that April and August didn’t care.

But April and August were not ordinary twins.

Their full names were April 15/02 Polo and August 3/02 Polo. That was what was written on their respective test tubes, and that is what the scientists who had been their midwives had put on the birth certificates. Which had always struck Cirocco as two excellent reasons why scientists should not be allowed to fool around with experiments that lived and breathed and cried.

Their mother, Susan Polo, had been dead for five years at the time of their births, and could not protect them. Nobody else seemed ready to give them any mothering, so they had only each other and their three clone-sisters for love. August had told Cirocco once that the five of them had only one close friend while growing up, and that had been a Rhesus monkey with a souped-up brain. He had been dissected when the girls were seven.

“I don’t want to make it sound too brutal,” August had said on that occasion, a night when some glasses of Bill’s soybean wine had been consumed. “Those scientists were not monsters. A lot of them behaved like kindly aunts and uncles. We had just about anything we wanted. I’m sure a lot of them loved us.” She had taken another drink. “After all,” she said, “we cost a lot of money.”

What the scientists got for their money was five quiet, rather spooky geniuses, which is just what they ordered. Cirocco doubted they had bargained for the incestuous homosexuality, but felt they should have expected it, just as surely as the high I.Q. They were all clones of their mother–the daughter of a third-generation Japanese-American and a Filipino. Susan Polo won the Nobel prize in physics and died young.

Cirocco looked at August as the woman studied a photo on the chart table. She was exactly like her famous mother as a young woman: small, with jet-black hair and a trim figure, and dark, expressionless eyes. Cirocco had never thought Oriental faces were as similar as many Caucasians found them to be, but April and August’s faces gave nothing away. Their skin was the color of coffee with lots of cream, but in the red light of the Science Module August looked almost black.

She glanced at Cirocco, showing more excitement than usual for her. Cirocco held her eye for a moment, then looked down. Against a field of pinpoint stars, six tiny lights were arranged in a perfect hexagon.

Cirocco looked at it for a long time.

“It’s the damdest thing I ever saw on a starplate,” she conceded. “What is it?”

Gaby was strapped to a chair on the other side of the compartment, sucking coffee from a plastic bulb.

“It’s the latest exposure of Themis,” she said. “I took it over the last hour with my most sensitive equipment and a computer program to justify the rotation.”

“I guess that answers my question,” Cirocco said. “But what is it?”

Gaby waited a long time before replying, taking another sip.

“It is possible,” she said, sounding detached and dreamy, “for several bodies to orbit around a common center of gravity. Theoretically. No one’s ever seen it. The configuration is called a rosette.”

Cirocco waited patiently. When no one said anything, she snorted.

“In the middle of Saturn’s satellite system? For about five minutes, maybe. The other moons would perturb them.”

“There’s that,” Gaby agreed.

“And how would it happen in the first place? The chances against it are tremendous.”

“There’s that, too.”

April and Calvin had entered the room. Now Calvin looked up.

“Isn’t anyone going to say it? This isn’t a natural arrangement. Somebody made this.”

Gaby rubbed her forehead.

“You haven’t heard it all. I bounced radar signals off it. They came back telling me Themis was over 1300 kilometers in diameter. Density figures all cockeyed, too, making it less dense than water by quite a bit. I thought I was getting screwed-up readings because I was working at the limits of my equipment. Then I got the picture.”

“Six bodies or one?” Cirocco asked.

“I can’t tell for sure. But everything points to one.”

“Describe it. What you think you know.”

Gaby consulted her printout sheets, but obviously did not need them. The figures were clear in her mind.

“Themis is 1300 klicks across. That makes it Saturn’s third largest moon, about the size of Rhea. It must be flat black all over, except those six points. This is by far the lowest albedo of any body in the solar system, if that interests you. It’s also the least dense. There’s a strong possibility it’s hollow, and a good chance it’s not spherical. Possibly disc-shaped, or toroidal, like a donut. Either way, it seems to turn like a plate rolling along its edge, once every hour. That’s enough spin so nothing could stay on its surface; the centripetal force would overpower the force of gravity.”

“But if it’s hollow, and you were on the inside . . .” Cirocco kept her eyes on Gaby.

“Inside, if it’s hollow, it would be equivalent to a force of one-quarter gee.”

Cirocco looked her next question, and Gaby couldn’t meet her eyes.

“We’re getting closer every day. The seeing can only get better. But I can’t promise you when I could be sure about any of this.”

Cirocco headed for the door. “I’ll have to send what you have.”

“But no theories, okay?” Gaby shouted after her. It was the first time Cirocco had seen her less than happy with what she’d seen through a telescope. “At least don’t attribute them to me.”

“No theories,” Cirocco acknowledged. “The facts ought to be plenty.”






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