The Lost Lessons of Titan
Initially, this column was simply to be a celebration of the reissue of a classic piece of science fiction – John Varley’s Titan. And, indeed, it will be. But first a digression, prompted by the recent announcement of the finalists for Locus magazine’s annual reader’s poll. The complete list is here. Go check it out. I can wait.
It’s a solid list. You could do worse. Reading any or all of these books gives you a good sense of the year. Given that more people participate in the Locus Awards than in the Nebulas and Hugos combined, this list may give a better sense of the situation on the bookshop floor than those two better known laurels. So go back and look at the list again. Focus on the top three categories, the ones about novels. What do you notice? Do you find it disturbing?
I’m not talking about content of the books, nor the color of their skins. Look at who is writing the novels that get recognized. A hint: this particular “Kim” isn’t female. Apparently, 2005 was yet another year in which women didn’t write any decent science fiction. Only Lois McMaster Bujold penned some decent fantasy and only Elizabeth Bear had a noteworthy first novel. My goal is not to slight the books on the list -- I am sure they are worthy competitors all -- but to decry the lack of gender (and, since we’re at it, racial) diversity that the finalists represent. Surely I’m not the only one who finds this troublesome, especially in a genre that preaches endlessly about inclusion and better futures and related whatnot? (An aside: I find it interesting as well that the YA category is dominated by females. It appears that girls can only write for kids. Weird.)
I’m not sure what I should do with these observations, other than to point them out and hope that others can see them, too. Even though discussing such things as “feelings” is generally frowned upon in boys’ clubs, this batch of Locus finalists make me feel like the genre has pulled a good old fashioned bait and switch, where we were promised a more equal playing field but instead received a nice pat on the head and a gentle reminder of where we belong. And this is where 1980’s Locus Award winner Titan comes in.
Titan kicks off Varley’s Gaean Trilogy, a series that concerns a sentient space habitat that may or may not be batshit insane. Humanoid and other folks live in Gaea, the name that the habitat calls itself, and Varley’s dazzling imagination and inventiveness about these critters is one of the hallmarks of the trilogy. His rampant creativity alone makes the books worth picking up.
But Titan, the first book, has a special place in my reader’s library because of Varley’s choice of a main character. In Titan we meet Cirocco Jones, the captain of the first ship Gaea has contact with. Jones is an expert commander, one who is both decisive and humble. Jones also happens to be female and is forced to deal with the fact power inequities still exist even in an advanced, space-faring age. In the future, we may have the technology to build ships that can make it to Saturn, Varley proposes, but we still can’t leave hundreds of years of history behind.
It’s refreshing, really. Rather than construct a brave new world where people are essentially equal despite their differences in plumbing, Varley uses science fiction to poke at contemporary issues like chauvinism and misogyny. Jones doesn’t have an easy go of it. She is always painfully aware of how her actions may be perceived when reflected against her sex. Still, she does the best she can in an imperfect world, simply because she is confindent in both in her abilities and her validity as captain. Her struggle is the heart of the book. All of the SF gee-whizness of Gaea herself, which is admirably detailed, is what Jones’ journey is set against.
It’s not a perfect book, certainly. At worst, Varley can be accused of trying to tackle too many of the challenges that women face, both on a professional and personal level. No hot button goes unpunched here. There are rapes. There are abortions. There are boneheaded men. There is an overwhelming sense of continual vulnerability that verges on cloying. But I’d rather see a writer reach farther than he (or she) comfortably can rather than read yet another exercise in the familiar.
That willingness to continually push at the limits of both the norms of society and the limits of his skills has marked Varley’s work over his long career. In his books from the 1990s -- Steel Beach and, my favorite, The Golden Globe -- Varley continues to toy with conceptions about gender and starts to find his stride as a writer. More recently, his work has taken on a political bent. Red Thunder celebrates a can-do, geek-fueled spirit for space exploration that bitch slaps the U.S.’s current programs. The just published sequel Red Lightning has been called by Cory Doctorow “the book Heinlein would have written if he lived in George Bush’s America.”
As much as I enjoy these recent titles, Titan always pulls me back in but not because of skillful prose or high-concept artsiness – both of which it lacks. Titan, in so many ways, is a book that offers hope to girls who wonder when the world will finally change, simply by assuring them that it won’t unless they suck it up and take charge.
Ace books is rolling out reissues of the Gaea trilogy, complete with snappy new covers. Varley himself has penned a plea for readers to buy the new issues. Personally, I could never give up my dog-eared, slightly mangled copy. Call me sentimental.