Titan by John Varley (1979) 309 p.

This is possibly the oldest book I own – oldest in the sense that I bought it ages ago and still hadn’t read it, not actually physically old. It’s a cheap paperback reprint that I purchased from Borders on the Hay Street Mall sometime when I was in university, so 2008 at the latest. Borders has long since gone bankrupt and I now live on the other side of the country, but somehow this book followed me to Melbourne, patiently waiting to be read.

Not worth it! Well, it’s not terrible, but it was a very different man who wrote Titan (and The Ophiuchi Hotline, and The Barbie Murders) than wrote The Golden Globe, one of my favourite rollicking sci-fi adventures of all time. Titan is a clear-cut case of a Big Dumb Object story, in which NASA Captain Cirocco Jones and her crew have their exploratory mission to Saturn disrupted by the sudden discovery of an enormous ringlike object (which they later dub ‘Gaea’) in orbit around the planet. Titan was published in 1979, the same year the Pioneer probe entered Saturn’s orbit; I suppose publication predated this, but I found it odd that in the fictional 2025 the book takes place in, NASA has never thought to send an unmanned probe – or even discovered more powerful telescopes – which would have discovered Gaea long before a manned vessel arrived.

In any case, the usual stuff happens upon arrival, with the astronauts exploring the interior of the structure, encountering bizarre creatures and trying to uncover what it is and where it’s from. There is a slightly new twist to the sub-genre, which is only discovered towards the end but is completely given away by my edition’s blurb. This appears to be a recurring problem with Varley books. Don’t read blurbs, ever.

I’m not sure what happened to Varley in the 1980s, but he somehow became a much better writer. Titan’s dialogue and characterisation is clunky and awkward, in direct contrast to the much more polished prose of Steel Beach and The Golden Globe. And the story is flat-out ludicrous, the kind of science fiction you could really only get away with in the 1970s. There are occasional flashes of Varley’s coming brilliance – jokes, wisecracks, amusing similes – but for the most part this novel is indistinguishable from any of the other camp, forgotten paperbacks of the 1970s and 1980s that you’ll find yellowing away in the sci-fi/fantasy section of a second-hand bookstore.

It’s the first part of a trilogy, though, and since I already own the second volume, Wizard, I’ll probably continue reading it.

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