Titan

by John Varley

Cover image

Series: Gaea #1
Publisher: Berkley
Copyright: March 1979
Printing: December 1985
ISBN: 0-425-09282-8
Format: Mass market
Pages: 309

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Cirocco Jones is the captain of a manned NASA space exploration vehicle on an extended mission to Saturn's moons Iapetus and Rhea. But as they approach the system, they discover a previously unknown moon in an unstable orbit. On closer examination, it's clearly artificial: a rosette of panels held together with cables, spinning for gravity, and capturing external light with windows and mirrors. The crew diverts from their mission to investigate further and is seized violently by what might have been a docking system, pulled into the interior, and left to explore and attempt to determine what this construct is. If this all sounds vaguely reminiscent of Ringworld, you're drawing the right conclusions.

Before getting farther into the book, though, I have a tone and focus complaint about something that permeates it. Titan follows the female protagonist, Cirocco, throughout, and a surprising amount of the preliminaries on the exploration ship are about sex and relationships, including a zero-G sex scene. Varley then has the world digest all the clothing of his protagonists before spitting them out on the surface, leaving them wandering around naked for the beginning section of the story. Another female crew member develops an over-the-top crush on Jones, for poorly explained artificial reasons, and spends the rest of the book panting after her like a love-smitten puppy. This eventually culminates in a repeated but mostly off-camera lesbian love affair.

And it's not just this sub-plot. Titan struck me as weirdly obsessed with sex in ways that kept derailing the story. A supposedly professional NASA space crew seems to build most of their personal relationships around who's sleeping with or pursuing whom. There are incestuous lesbian clone sisters as major characters (seriously), an ugly rape scene, and the somewhat inexplicable observation that none of the vaguely human-modeled natives of Gaea wear clothing. And the last is not just a point of description; the characters notice and remark on the displayed genitalia and sexual practices of the natives they encounter, occasionally in places where I would have preferred they not.

Titan was originally written in 1979, when dealing with sex explicitly in SF was still a bit more cutting-edge than it is now. I suspect both the sex and the drug references are intended to reflect a more realistic and humanized look at how people react under stress. But while reading Titan, it came across at times more like a skeezy and not particularly entertaining sex fantasy. I don't believe it truly is such a fantasy, and I think Varley had a different goal in mind, but for me it didn't work and was distracting throughout.

Sex aside, Titan hews close to a standard model for Big Dumb Object exploration novels, bearing considerable resemblence to Ringworld, Rendezvous with Rama, and other famous predecessors. This is the primitive version, where the protagonists are stripped of most of their technology at the start and have to make their way across an alien world by raft and cooperation with natives. In an additional twist, they've all been mentally messed with by the world in different ways, which among other things is used as a solution to the communication problem. Several of the protagonists get full knowledge of the language of one of the native races, along with some sort of emotional affinity for them. That adds a bit to the otherwise expected and tedious scenes of survival techniques, scavenging materials for exploration, fighting dangerous beasts, and getting injured without adequate medical supplies that experienced readers have read innumerable times before.

That lack of originality was the primary problem that I had with Titan. While the specific details of biology, scenery, or object construction are new, and Varley adds the expected set pieces to emphasize how huge everything is, everything had a vague feel of being a retread of something I'd read before. It's possible that if I'd read it when it came out, rather than 30 years later, it would have seemed fresher and more original, but I doubt it. Unless one is fascinated by the details of construction or artificial biology, I think Titan is an easy book to get bored of.

Without spoiling the ending, I think I can say that Varley does try to go somewhere original with it, and unlike some of its predecessors we do get a (mostly) satisfying explanation for what's going on. The nature of that explanation is not a usual one for this type of novel, which helps on the originality front, but it still reminded me too much of classic Star Trek episodes. The ending is surprisingly unserious, giving me the feeling that Varley was trying to walk a tightrope between grandeur and bathos. I think he deserves credit for the attempt, but in my reading bathos won, undermining whatever sense of grandeur he'd built.

Without the oddly pervasive sex obsession, I think Titan is a mostly unoriginal Big Dumb Object exploration story with a strange concluding twist and an unusual tone. I wouldn't seek it out, but it was an adequate adventure story. With the uncomfortable sexual commentary added in, though, I think it's best avoided. It's either aged poorly or was originally overrated; my guess is the former.

As a final note, Titan once again confirms that any book with a cover quote like "an adventure more dazzling than any since Dune!" will suffer badly in comparison to whatever classic work is named. That comparison is particularly odd, since Titan is nothing at all like Dune in setting, theme, or character. I wonder what Berkley was thinking.

Followed by Wizard.

Rating: 4 out of 10

Reviewed: 2010-01-31

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21