Retro Book Review: TITAN: by John Varley

So it seems I’m back once more with a book review. It’s almost funny, as I didn’t think I would have something read so quickly after finishing A Dance with Dragons. Yet, here I was feeling a little out of place without something on my plate to read. Why? Well, months of carrying 5 massive tomes will do that to you. All of a sudden, you’re done and it’s become something of a habit to have it there. I vowed only one thing, the next thing I was to read was going to be science fiction. I wasn’t ready to hand over myself to another fantasy writer just yet. So I looked on my shelf for things that I hadn’t touched, and sitting there was a book that had to have been on my shelf for quite some time; Titan: by John Varley.


A friend of mine actually picked this up for me. At the time he did, Mr. Varley had just put out another book (Rolling Thunder) that Mike (for ’tis my friend’s name) was dying to read. Another in a series of novels that he couldn’t put down. Mike doesn’t rave a lot about books in general. When he does talk about them, Varley seems to be his go-to guy. Many of break time I’ve seen him visiting John Varley’s website looking to see what’s new or coming out. In any case, on his lunch break he went and picked up this new novel (circa 2008) and then spent the 7 or 8 bucks extra to buy Titan. He swore by it, and I figured why not? I smiled gratefully and started reading it that day. I got about 40 pages into it and put it down. I wanted to read this, but there was a preoccupation with sexual overtones that sort of took me back. I don’t mind that sort of thing, it’s just not what I was expecting. It sat on my shelf since as I buzzed around other stuff. I felt badly about that. It wasn’t a lack of interest, but waiting for a time when I needed something to change up the palate. Low and behold, I found that the time was right.


Titan came out in 1979, which is why I call it a retro-review. If I give the plot away to people, you’ve had 33 years. I think I’m safe, but I’ll still be gentle for those that might get interested. The story is based around the crew of the DSV Ringmaster, commanded by Capt. Cirocco “Rocky” Jones, on their way to do reconnaissance of Saturn. More specifically they were to do recon on its rings. As they approach the moons, they find one that’s never been discovered before, which is quick named Themis. Unfortunately for the crew, they get captured by many cables that shoot out from the wagon wheel shaped moon and are taken inside. Cirocco reemerges, naked and with some faults in her memory and starts to search for her crew mates. Slowly she becomes acquainted with her new surroundings. After meeting some of the indigenous lifeforms, and finding her crew little by little, she decides to travel the land in search of the builders of what they’ve come to suspect is a ship; a ship named Gaea.


What I liked about Titan was that the world itself opened up beautifully. The landscapes were rich, and Varley made sure you got the fullest detail of what was there. Rocky was a great POV character in the sense that she was doing an impossible task, but was still so unsure that she’d be able to pull through it. The idea that when the characters were pulled into this world, that something changed them just a little (or in one or two cases a lot) added a lot to characters that weren’t nearly as interesting as their captain. By the end, you might come to like the others a little better. The Titanides (creatures of Gaea) are fairly interesting too. I like the explanation of the centaur types, the “Smiler”, and the Angels. My favorite creatures in this are the blimps. They’re giant floating creatures who allow you to ride harmlessly in their stomachs. One that you come to know a little is Whistlestop, one of the larger (if not largest) of the blimps. It’s almost a shame that there wasn’t more investigation on these types of creatures.


What was bad for me was the fact that it did start out with so many sexual overtones. Again, it’s not that I particularly mind it, but it’s not the first thing I was thinking of when I started to read. The reasons behind it were sound, so it’s not as if it were an afterthought. The other thing that got to me after awhile was the sheer measurements of everything. They broke so much down into meters, centimeters, kilometers, that it sometimes would make things a bit dizzying. When I put the book down to think about that notion, I realized that they were all still NASA pilots, so in the long run it wasn’t without merit that they would do this sort of thing. When I look at the rationals on things that were done, it makes perfect sense. It doesn’t always add up to the most page turning of reads, but that’s what Gaea truly is about. The exploration of lands and finding of new species. In all, I would think this is what happens when you mix Ellen Ripley from Alien into Star Trek.


When I got to the ending of this book, I actually had my brain sort of stabbed. Not because there was some mind-altering thing going on, but because of theme switch from the example I just gave. To give something of an explanation, the Titanides have a very interesting language. It’s a singing language that Cirocco was programmed to know by this mysterious land. In short, music plays an important role in this story. While going on towards the end, it had this weird Wizard of Oz meets the Phantom of the Opera thing going. More Oz than Phantom, but it’s the first thing that sprang to mind. When I was reading it, my brain was trying to figure out if I actually liked this or not. It turns out, I actually did more than I could have imagined. I suppose after the journey that Cirocco had taken to get to this point, I was expecting a little more Temple of Doom versus what I got. Not to say that there wasn’t something dangerous there, but it has all the ear marks of “don’t pay attention to that man behind the curtain.” Now that I think on it, that may not be completely correct either. It may actually be, look and see the person behind the curtain, but don’t be surprised at what you find.


Do I recommend this book? To answer that, I’ll simply say that sometime soon I’ll be picking up book 2; Wizard. I’m interested to see what I didn’t get to in this story. It’s a world building book, sometimes I’m not sure it propelled the story nearly as much as it could have. Still, I kept with it because there was an inherent beauty to it and the fact that Cirocco was pretty interesting. I can see how others may have used her for inspiration to create their own female heroes.


Out of 5 stars, I give this a 3. It was good, plenty of room for improvements. Then again, he doesn’t need my approval on this. It’s a Locus Award-winning book and also nominated for a Nebula and Hugo for best novel. There is something there that does draw you in. Obviously this book isn’t for children. Still, I think a high school or college kid who wanted to read something different than the normal offerings could find something here.


Until the next book…