Varley’s Titan is a nice capstone to the ‘70s because...well…because it rips off half the books and films of the past decade.
In the twenty-first century, a ship from Earth called the Ringmaster is exploring Saturn’s moons. The ship has a seven person crew – three men and four women (two of whom are incestuous female clones – we get a lot of details on the characters’ sex lives from the first few pages on). They discover a floating object that’s too perfect to be natural, and it attacks them suddenly when they approach. They awaken in underground isolation tanks but wake up, manage to reconnect (well, most of them), and begin to explore the strange world inside the satellite. They meet centaurs, angels, and flying gas bags while dealing with the strange psychological side effects of their captivity. Most of the novel focuses on the female captain, Cirocco Jones, and we get an exciting final act wherein she undertakes a harrowing quest to find the satellite's creator.
Titan can be a bit slow-going at times, but it also has some very exciting bits, and it really does pick up near the end. It’s well-written, and the characters are interesting enough. The real problem here is that it’s a bit of a pastiche of recent sf ideas. This becomes especially obvious when you’ve been plowing through these books in chronological order. The horny astronaut characters are straight out of Heinlein. The strange alien object in our solar system reminded me of Rama. It’s shaped like a small Ringworld. The characters have to explore after waking up in an alien environment as in Riverworld. Eventually, Varley starts to tip his hat by explicitly referencing his influences – we’re told that Ringmaster looks like the Discovery from 2001, The Wizard of Oz features prominently (and even gets a couple of musical shout-outs), and even Dune and the Death Star (from that one movie) are mentioned by name.
I get that Varley is having a conversation with his influences, but it took me out of the novel every time. And there’s just not enough original and exciting material here to hold the homages together – in the end, it just feels derivative. Maybe the sequels are better? I’d definitely take Fountains of Paradise over this one.