The novel “Titan” by John Varley was published for the first time in 1979. It won the Locus Award as the best science fiction novel of the year. It’s the first novel of the Gaea trilogy.
In 2025 the starship Ringmaster commanded by Captain Cirocco Jones is approaching the Saturn system. There the crew discovers the existence of what initially seems a satellite still unknown but after some careful observation turns out to be a giant wheel-shaped artificial habitat.
When the Ringmaster approaches the mysterious habitat, what seem tentacles protrude from the inside and capture the starship and its crew without them being able to react. Cirocco Jones spends a period of unknown duration in a semi-comatose state from which she emerges to discover that the habitat is populated by strange creatures, some of them intelligent. After finding some members of her crew, she goes in search for the intelligence that controls the habitat, called Gaea.
“Titan” is sometimes considered a fantasy novel because the huge artificial habitat explored by Cirocco Jones hosts a variety of species looking like centaurs and angels and the adventures of the characters resemble certain quests typical of fantasy novels. In my opinion this is a misconception because surely John Varley also uses elements typical of traditional fantasy stories however he puts them in a fictional world that totally belongs to science fiction.
Cirocco Jones and her crew reach the habitat using a spaceship, not magic, and the creatures that live in it were created through genetic engineering. Today we’ve become used to reading science fiction stories on the theme of genetic manipulation but “Titan” is a novel of the ’70s, when that issue was still a novelty.
John Varley doesn’t go into details when he explains the birth of the habitat – it’s indeed a living being – and the many creatures that inhabit it. Again, the author uses some elements useful to the novel but doesn’t really go deep with them because they’re tools just like the fantasy elements.
In “Titan”, John Varley mixes those elements apparently so different to create the huge artificial habitat in which we can read the adventures of the crew arrived with the starship Ringmaster and in particular of its Captain Cirocco Jones.
Here you can see some elements typical of John Varley, as the characters are far from the Earth and arrive in another closed world. Cirocco Jones chose space travel because she’s an independent woman in search of adventure and space was the only frontier available. When she was forced into the habitat she decided she had to make a long and tough journey to find the central intelligence.
Another typical element of John Varley is intertwined with the others because the protagonists, but especially Cirocco Jones, are trying to regain control of the situation in which they found themselves. The search for the intelligence that controls the habitat is an adventure but Jones wants an explanation for what happened to her.
In “Titan”, the sexual component is very strong and at times also heavy. Inevitably this may discourage some readers and in fact sometimes it seems a little gratuitous, almost a sexual fantasy of the author which reflects on the characters.
The character development is difficult to judge because when they’re captured they spend a period in which they are changed. When they awaken, not only they must try to adapt to an environment alien to them but somehow they must also rediscover themselves.
“Titan” is told from the point of view of Cirocco Jones, though it’s narrated in third person. Inevitably, she’s the best developed character. Today, strong and independent female characters have become normal but in the ’70s they weren’t common. If you watch the movie “Alien” after reading this novel you get the impression that Ripley is partly inspired by Cirocco Jones.
Overall, “Titan” is a great adventure in which many different elements are mixed with great imagination and for this reason it’s already become a classic. If you don’t mind a story with a strong sexual connotation I recommend reading it.