Friday Fiction: John Varley’s Titan, Wizard, and Demon

One of the great things that happens when a SF/F classic is adapted to the big or small screens is that there is a renewed interest in their works. Sales of JRR Tolkien’s Middle Earth stories skyrocketed when Peter Jackson finally brought The Lord of the Rings to cinemas, a book a lot of folks thought couldn’t be filmed. Unfortunately this exposure often comes long after the author is around to enjoy the experience due to our unfortunately mortal condition. But for the first installment in our “Please Not Another Dune Movie,” series we are fortunate to have the writer still with us, proud son of Austin John Varley and his SF trilogy Titan, Wizard, Demon.

Varley could be rightfully considered the hippy version of Robert Heinlein. Both authors shared a canny ability to describe the previously unforeseen, from technology to sexual relations. But while Heinlein, who gave us Starship Troopers as well as Stranger in a Strange Land veered between authoritarian and libertarian themes and some pretty creepy misogyny, Varley has always grounded his fiction in the liberation philosophy he learned at the corner of Haight and Ashbury in 1967.

Spoilers Below… You Have Been Warned

Titan, published in 1977 was the first of the trilogy. The story begins with a scientific expedition to Saturn aboard the ship Ringmaster. Commanded by the delightfully named Cirroco “Rocky” Jones and crewed by astronomer Gaby Plauget, the clone twin physicists April and August Polo, pilot Eugene Springfield, physician Calvin Greene and engineer Bill (just Bill,) the Ringmaster discovers a strange object in orbit around the ringed planet. A Stanford torus habitat. Before they can report their findings to Earth their ship is captured and the crew rendered unconscious and separated. They awaken inside the structure and are confronted with a surreal landscape, an entire alien ecosystem contained within the object.

Rocky and Gaby are reunited fairly quickly and begin exploring in hopes of finding the rest of the crew. When they find Calvin they confirm their suspicion that something or someone has altered the crew members while they were unconscious. Calvin has been gifted with the ability to communicate with the enormous hydrogen filled creatures called Blimps that float through the “sky” inside the habitat. With Calvin and the blimp Whistlestop they find the rest of the crew save for April, who remains missing.

Eventually they discover the dominant species on the planet, the centaur like Titanides, and become embroiled in their war with the Angels, winged humanoids who swoop down from their homes in the “spokes,” that connect the rim to the hub of the structure, pulled taught by the centrifugal force of the structure. From the Titanides they learn that the artificial world they are on has a controlling intelligence named Gaea who dwells in the Hub, 600 kilometers above. Gaby, Gene and Cirroco undertake to make the perilous climb. There’s some serious trigger warning shenanigans on the journey and Gene becomes more and more unstable, sexually assaulting both women.

Eventually Rocky and Gaby reach the summit and encounter Gaea, who appears in the form of a dumpy but charming middle aged woman. Gaea claims to be millennia old and has been observing Earth ever since TV signals reached her habitat. A movie addict, Gaea has created all of the species the crew have encountered. In fact she started the war below in order to prepare herself for the eventual encounter with humans, having watched how warlike we are. What’s more, Gaea’s own regional intelligences, located below each of the spokes, have begun to rebel, it was one of them that captured the Ringmaster. In exchange for ending the wasteful war and freeing the Titanides and Angels from their compulsion, Cirroco agrees to become Gaea’s representative to the Ring, her Wizard.

The next two volumes deal with what it’s like to live inside an eccentric alien and it’s relationship with both Gaea’s inhabitants and Earth itself. There’s love, rebellion, war, freaky centaur sex and a giant Marilyn Monroe. It gets really really weird.

Titan would bring some great characters to the big screen. Rocky and Gaby are smart, resourceful women. Cirroco Jones is a part that just begs for Charlize Theron to sink her teeth in. It’s primarily a quest against the environment, without a true antagonist other than the landscape (although Gene becomes quite villainous in the end.)

There is definitely some Heinlein like odes to the male gaze in Varley’s work. Pretty much everybody is sexy. The Titanides themselves are all strangely hermaphroditic, with very, very complicated breeding practices based on what’s between their front legs, but their top halves are all beautiful naked women. HBO would be salivating at the amount of boobs they could present the audience.

Titan gets this first nod because it’s one of my favorites, and one of the few works from it’s era that really holds up well to modern sensibilities. Varley is pretty woke for and old white dude. Give him a shot if you can.

Thanks to everybody who responded with suggestions last week. I’m adding a lot to my Kindle queue. Any other suggestions drop me a line!

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