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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Review of The Gaea Trilogy by John Varley (Titan, Wizard, Demon)

Spoiler Alert! There are detailed plot elements revealed in the following review.

John Varley is easily the most whimsical of all science fiction writers for the past 30 years and the Gaea Trilogy is his most ambitious undertaking and, even though this series begins with its feet on the ground, it ends up tearing a hole in the sky. It is huge, bizarre, and full of amazing creatures, wonderful characters and outrageous twists and turns. It is destined to take it’s place among the best science fiction trilogies of all time.

I highly recommend this trilogy!

Titan begins with the crew of the Deep Space Vessel Ringmaster nearing Saturn when they encounter a previously unknown planetoid. As they approach it, the form clearly indicates intelligence. The planetoid destroys the Ringmaster and eats the crew, who continue to exist inside the body of the planetoid, aware of their existence, but undergoing complete sensory deprivation. Eventually, the body ejects each of them onto the surface.

The planetoid, initially called Titan and later revised to Gaea, is a giant ring, with spokes that lead to a central hub. Life abounds along the inside of the ring and the two central characters, the Captain, Sirocco “Rocky” Jones and her navigator Gaby Plauget, decide to travel up one of the spokes to find the intelligence at the core of the body. What they discover is that the planet is actually a living being, a female entity who is 3,000,000 years old and has been watching life evolve on earth, eventually becoming addicted to television and old movies. Although she is the brain of the planet, Gaea can take any physical appearance and she chooses to appear to Rocky and Gaby as dumpy old potato-head woman.

Gaea asks that Rocky remain and become her Wizard on the wheel. Gaby, who loves Rocky, volunteers to stay with her.

Wizard, the second book in the series, takes place 75 years after Titan and focuses on two new characters, a Witch named Robin the Nine-Fingered, who comes from a Coven that lives on a space station in an L2 orbit, and a fragile man from Earth named Chris. They both suffer from diseases: Robin has uncontrollable seizures and Chris blacks out and acts crazy. They come to Gaea to see if she can cure them. But Gaea wants heroes and she tells them to travel her wheel and if they can find something heroic to do then she will cure everyone who has their particular disease.

The Wizard (Rocky Jones) and Gaby have both been granted eternal youth by Gaea. Rocky is given it because she is the Wizard, but Gaby must earn it again and again by performing certain acts for Gaea, such as supervising the construction of the Trans-Gaea Highway. Over the years, Gaby has become extremely disillusioned with Gaea and wants to foment a revolution among the twelve sections of Gaea to overthrow the mother brain. For this act of insubordination, Gaby is killed, yet rises to exist as a consciousness inside the hub of the wheel.

Out of revenge, Rocky travels to the hub and assassinates the dumpy potato-head version of Gaea, who is, of course, not really dead.

In Demon, Gaea has reconstituted herself as a 50 foot tall image of Marilyn Monroe. She has created new subsets of creatures designed to serve her needs as a movie studio, moving about the countryside, scouting locations, milling timber, building sets and so forth. There are even small creatures called Bolexes and Panaflexes that can film events as they happen. So Gaea now has a roving studio moving across the wheel making movies.

Gaea has also started a war among the powers on Earth and as the number of nuclear explosions mount, it becomes apparent that Earth is going to destroy itself. Gaea helpfully begins evacuating humans to her wheel and using them in many insidious ways. Among the bizarre creatures that Gaea has created, there are religious zombies, which attack anyone at any time.

Rocky has become Gaea’s enemy and lives by hiding, moving from place to place, making allies among the creatures on the planet, such as the Titanides, a centaur like race whose sex is determined by front sexual organs, but who also have both sexes in the rear. The Titanides are the exact opposite of humans and possess all the skills to have a peaceful and loving civilization, but they have become caught up in the struggle against Gaea and are strong allies with Rocky. Chris, who became romantically involved with a Titanide female in Wizard is now turning into a Titanide himself, gradually. Robin, who returned to her Coven, returns now with a grown daughter (Chris is the father) and a baby boy. Through some genetic trick, Gaea has somehow managed to make Chris the father of Robin’s new baby boy, Adam. They were both immaculate conceptions.

Also, Gaby’s spirit has returned to help Rocky in her war against Gaea, who is now clearly insane. Rocky sets about raising an army from the destitute humans arriving from the ravaged Earth and the battle is pretty well set up.

It should be clear from much of the synopsis above that John Varley writes great, big and vibrant female characters. This is also a feature of his bizarre and wonderful short stories.

But the most prominent aspect of his writing is the creativity and whimsy that he brings to the art. When he exploded on the SF scene in the late seventies, he was a tremendous breath of fresh air in a field that had become a little stagnated. More recently, after gaps in writing, he has produced fun SF that hearkens back to the early days of SF, while still keeping it modern and entertaining.

In reading this trilogy, however, it is great to be reminded of the vitality and pure wacky spirit that made his early work so much fun to read.

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