The Gaea Trilogy, John Varley

Berkley, 1979-1984, ???? pages, C$??.?? mmpb, ISBN Various

Titan: Berkley, 1979, 309 pages, C$2.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-425-04998-1
Wizard: Berkley, 1980, 372 pages, C$2.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-425-04828-4
Demon: Berkley, 1984, 464 pages, C$3.95 mmpb, ISBN 0-425-08271-7

In early 1994, I took a chance by buying a hardcover edition of John Varley’s Steel Beach, none too sure that I’d enjoy a 500-pages book by an unfamiliar author. It was one of the first SF novel I bought, and also still one of my favorite. (The killer opening line is: “’In five years, the penis will be obsolete’, said the saleman.”)

Afterward, I read most John Varley’s stories and his other novels (Millenium, The Ophiuchi Hotline), enjoying most of it and wincing at the film adaptation of Millenium. Varley is often brilliant, even oftener shocking (deliberately so) and also pretty fascinating. He took on issues like biotechnology and gender roles, starring most often than not females as strong protagonists.

I bought used copies of Titan and Wizard a while back, but never got around to read them before I finally thought of buying the third volume of the trilogy, Demon. Then I sat back comfortably, and read.

The most shocking thing about the Gaean trilogy is that despite being desperate to shock the reader, it ends up being a very long, somewhat boring and utterly ordinary trilogy. Varley packed more ideas in the slim 200 pages of The Ophiuchi Hotline than his thousand-pages trilogy. Granted, the characters are more fully developed… but was it really worth it?

Probably not.

The trilogy opens on an exploratory voyage to a newly-discovered moon of Saturn. A quick sketch of the characters later, the NASA spaceship Ringmaster is trashed, and our characters are stranded on (or is it inside?) an alien world. Titan is perhaps the most interesting volume of the three, since it has the advantage of being the first glimpse at Gaea. A novel of exploration and discovery, it has a more-or-less satisfying payoff. Unfortunately, Varley throws in more than is necessary, and most of his attempts at shock value smack more of over-indulgence than actually useful plot development. Like most adventure stories, it’s also by times a travelogue of less than gripping interest.

Wizard logically continues the adventures of Cirroco Jones, the protagonist of the Gaean trilogy. A few new characters are introduced, and go through yet more seemingly interminable adventures. More shocking things are introduced and they still don’t feel really unsettling. Again, the conclusion is pretty satisfying, especially if you like the “one-mortal-against-the-gods” kind of story.

While Demon acceptably conclude Cirroco Jones’ personal evolution, this third tome nevertheless feels disjointed compared to the rest of the series. Perhaps this is a result of the four-year-break between Wizard and Demon, or maybe the sudden emphasis on movies in-jokes that permeates this final book. Even then, the book feels overlong despite the nice character development, and the conclusion feels empty more than would be the norm for the conclusion of a trilogy.

Even confirmed Varley fans might want to think twice before attempting the Gaean trilogy. It’s not that it’s a particularly horrendous work; technically, it’s pretty good despite its length (somewhat compensated by the character development and the easily-readable prose). However, in a world where there are so many good books and so little time, it wouldn’t be unfair to say that better books should be read before the Gaean trilogy.

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