Ruby Sparks

ruby-sparksRuby Sparks is a brilliant 2012 romantic fantasy. Both a comedy and a drama, it never falls into the genre of romantic comedy, but blazes its own original, fantastic trail.  Written by Zoe Kazan and directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the film has a single, organic arc that shoots into the sky like a brilliant firework, ultimately exploding into fragments that all make perfect sense.

Young writer Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) has tasted success early. His first novel is now considered a modern classic.  Since its publication, he has struggled to write a follow-up, instead publishing short stories and a novella.  Worshiped by adoring fans, he has retreated into his house and placed himself under the care of a psychiatrist, Dr. Rosenthal (Elliott Gould) who advised him to get a dog (Scotty) to help with his loneliness.  He takes Scotty for walks and works out with his brother Harry (Chris Messina), but he just can’t write that next novel.

After Calvin complains that Scotty is afraid of people and pees like a girl, Dr. Rosenthal gives him a writing assignment: to write something about someone who might like Scotty. Calvin dreams of meeting a beautiful, enchanting girl, Ruby Sparks (Kazan), and then begins to create her on the page.  The more he writes her, the more he falls in love with her.  While visiting Calvin, Harry and his wife, Susie (Toni Trucks), discover women’s underwear in his house, but Calvin thinks that Scotty must have dragged them in.  He shows Harry his draft about Ruby, but Harry thinks that the character is too idealized, not realistic enough to be a real woman.

With a sizable manuscript in hand, Calvin is ready to bring it to his agent when suddenly Ruby appears in his kitchen. The underwear is hers and she believes she has been living with him for some time.  Calvin freaks out and thinks he is going insane, but no matter what he does Ruby is still there and totally perplexed about his behavior.  She follows him into public where he is meeting a young fan, Mabel (Alia Shawkat), who wants to bed him.  Ruby sees them and gets terribly upset.  When Mabel apologizes to Ruby, Calvin realizes that he is not the only one who can see and hear her.

Harry thinks that Calvin is having an episode until Calvin brings him home and he actually meets Ruby in person, but he still can’t believe that Calvin has written her into existence. They go up to his office and writes, “Ruby speaks French.”  Immediately, of course, Ruby begins speaking French to them.  Harry thinks that Calvin should use this to his advantage, say by giving her bigger boobs, but Calvin decides to stop writing Ruby and start living her.  He gives up his control over her.

At first, they are very happy, but when Calvin’s mother invites them up for a weekend at Big Sur, he tries to get out of it. Ruby, worried that he doesn’t want her to meet his family, gets depressed and finally Calvin relents.  His mother, Gertrude (Annette Bening) is a free spirit and her boyfriend Mort (Antonio Banderas) is a wood sculptor.  Calvin is in rebellion against their free-wheeling lifestyle and spends most of the weekend reading while Ruby has fun and makes friends with his family.  He is jealous and resentful.

Ruby begins to resist the way they live, the way he keeps her closeted away from others, and wants to have a life of her own, so he encourages her to take an art class, but he is jealous of her being in any part of the world but his. He has become dependent on her and is now powerless to control her.  When she becomes deeply depressed, he finally returns to his typewriter and makes her more cheerful.  This begins a series of edits where he tries over and over to make her into the perfect woman she was at the beginning and kicks the movie to a whole new level.

Kazan’s script is so original and creative that it alone carries the movie, but her performance as Ruby is at the heart of its comedy. Her Ruby is so lovable that one identifies with Calvin completely.  His desires and frustrations seem so real that the film takes on a level of drama underneath the comedy that pushes it forward relentlessly.  Dano gives a striking performance as Calvin and he keys the drama.

Part of the charm of this movie is the behind the scenes relationship. Dano and Kazan were a couple long before she wrote the script and she wrote it with him in mind to play Calvin, so the script was tailored to the two of them.  Also, the directors, Dayton and Faris, are a couple and have been longtime friends with Dano and Kazan, ever since they did Little Miss Sunshine with Dano in 2006.  Without the participation of these four, the film may not have been nearly as successful as it is.

Movies like this don’t come along very often. Creative, funny, dramatic, original, with great performances by an ideal cast, Ruby Sparks should be seen by everyone!

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Jayne Mansfield’s Car

jayne mansfields carThis 2012 dramatic film, written and directed by Billy Bob Thornton, looks at the effects of war on two families. Set in 1969 in the little town of Morrison, Alabama, the film revolves around the death of Naomi Bedford.  A fascinating woman with a wanderlust, she was first married to Jim Caldwell (Robert Duvall) and had four children with him, Jimbo (Robert Patrick), Skip (Thornton), Carroll (Kevin Bacon), and Donna (Katherine LaNasa) before running away to England, where she married Kingsley Bedford (John Hurt), who had two children of his own, Phillip (Ray Stevenson) and Camilla (Frances O’Connor).

Before her death, she had requested burial in Alabama, so the Bedfords come to Morrison for the funeral. Jim, the Caldwell patriarch, has hated Kingsley from afar without ever knowing him and the relationship between the two families is quite chilly until Kingsley faints at the funeral and is rushed to the hospital because his children believe that he’s had a heart attack.  Seeing the old man so defenseless opens Jim up and he begins a tentative friendship with Kingsley centered on their similar experiences during World War I.  That friendship is cemented further when their opinions on the hippies protesting the Vietnam war coincide.

Jimbo, Skip, and Carroll all served during World War II, but Jimbo never saw any action and has no medals. Skip was a pilot who was shot down over Guadalcanal and Carroll also served in the Pacific.  Both are well-decorated, but both are sympathetic to the war protesters.  In fact, Skip has grown his hair long, takes drugs, and is a leader in the protests, which angers their father.  Skip is currently urging his own son, Mickey (John Patrick Amedori) to get into college so he can avoid the draft.  Jimbo’s son, Alan (Marshall Allman) is still living at home, but sympathizes with the protesters and wants to begin using drugs.

Donna’s husband, Neil (Ron White) a loud-mouthed former football player who own several car dealerships in Atlanta, stays for the funeral, but then returns home, leaving Donna to flirt with Phillip. Skip, a loner, finds himself attracted to Camilla, partly because of her beauty, but partly because of her English accent.

This is the palette that Thornton uses to create a deep, sensative meditation on the effects of war and violence. The heroism of Jim, Kingsley, Skip, and Carroll is held in sharp contract to that of Phillip and Jimbo.  Phillip had also served in the Pacific during World War II, but his unit was taken by the Japanese and he spent his time trying to survive as a prisoner of war.  Kingsley sees this as cowardice and rips his son on it, yet that survival was a war in itself that the older man can’t understand.  Jimbo, serving in supply, never saw action and always feels himself less of a man than his father and brothers.

There is a scene between Thornton and O’Connor where he tells her about how he was shot down and received burns over 90% of his body that is one of the most gripping I’ve ever seen. Thornton’s honey southern drawl undercuts the raw action of unbuttoning his shirt for her, slowly revealing the billowing burned flesh underneath.  It is brilliant and beautiful all at once.  Thornton has another amazing scene where he confronts Duvall over his father’s lack of love as he grew up and he is wearing his medals pinned directly to his naked chest.

Although there are a few moments when I thought the film might be taking itself too seriously, overall it is a taut, compelling movie. Every single performance represents a little bit of acting perfection.  Duvall, Hurt, Thornton, and Bacon give amazing performances, nuanced, and full of depth–and all of the supporting actors are excellent.

The script, by Thornton and Tom Epperson is deep and moving. It hearkens back to the splendid southern dramas of Tennessee Williams, where you find deeply hurt old men, passionate young men, and steamy women all coming together into a kind of psychological gestalt.  And there is some humor, although it could use a little more to break up the drama.

When this movie was released in 2012, most reviewers completely missed the beauty of it. That is one serious issue with writers having to see a film once and sit down and write about it without having the patina of time to allow the nuance to fully sink in.  This is a movie that should age well, like old bourbon and taste even better in the years to come.  It certainly should mark Billy Bob Thornton as a master filmmaker, a terrific writer, a fine director, and a great actor.

If you haven’t seen it–and you like film drama–this is a must see movie!

Penelope

ricci_penelopePenelope is a fun and well-made modern fairy tale.

The wealthy Wilhern family has a curse on it. Generations ago, a Wilhern son fell in love with a servant girl and wanted to marry her, but when the family found out, the engagement was broken.  The poor girl then killed herself, but her mother, a witch created a spell so that the next Wilhern daughter would be born with the face of a pig.  The only way to break the spell would be for her to marry “one of her own,” that is a man from a wealthy family with long bloodlines. 

For generations, the family only had boys, but finally, poor Penelope (Christina Ricci) was born and there was the snout, right where her nose should have been. Her parents (Catherine O’Hara and Richard E. Grant) seek the advice of a plastic surgeon, who informs them that–amazingly–the girl’s carotid artery runs through the nose, making a fix impossible.  In an attempt to hide her from the world, they fake her death and Penelope grows up living in her luxurious room reading, studying, and entertaining herself with plants and animals, with virtually no contact with the world outside.  Indeed, she becomes a fascinating and charming young woman, quite beautiful… except for her nose, that is.

When Penelope becomes a young woman, her parents hire a “matchmaker to the rich and famous” to try to find someone to marry her, but alas, she always insists on showing herself to the prospective mate and they always run away. The latest in this line is Edward Humphrey Vanderman III (Simon Woods), a spoiled idiot of a man, who runs away screaming, claiming that Penelope has vicious fangs and is horrible looking, which is simply not true.  He hooks up with Lemon (Peter Dinklage), a reporter who lost an eye to Mrs. Wilhern when he tried to get a picture of baby Penelope years ago.  He is determined to get a picture of grown up Penelope and gets Vanderman to help him.  What they need is some blueblood down on his luck that they can bribe to be a prospective husband who can surreptitiously take photos of her.

They find a man that they believe to be Max Campion (James McAvoy), a rich, handsome young man with a severe gambling problem and they hire him to join the list of prospective suitors. Penelope watches him behind a one-way mirror and as they talk, they begin to like each other.  She decides not to show herself to him, but asks him to come back the next day.  She sees him trying to steal one of their rare books and it piques her interest further.

Of course, they’re going to fall in love, but there is a reason he can’t marry her and break the curse and there are a great deal of hijinks between this circus of characters, especially when Penelope decides to run away from home, hiding her snout with a scarf. She makes friends with a bike messenger, Annie (Reese Witherspoon), who becomes her first real friend.  Witherspoon also produced the movie!

The movie is great fun. Ricci is fantastic as Penelope, bringing just the right amount of wistfulness, charm, and intelligence to the role.  O’Hara and Dinklage are always funny, McAvoy is very engaging as the love interest.

The make-up for the pig’s nose is really amazing, but it caused a problem for me, too. It really doesn’t make Ricci look ugly.  Even with the pig nose, her own beauty shines through.  I thought that was a good thing, but it didn’t make sense that all the suitors run away when she really didn’t look that bad.  It’s a dilemma.  I can understand why director Mark Palansky made the decision, but it does detract from an otherwise charming film.

The movie isn’t overly long and is truly entertaining. A fun evening!

Sunshine Cleaning

Sunshine CleaningSunshine Cleaning is a delightful comedy and drama, with a great cast, a strong script by Megan Holley and crisp, clean direction by Christine Jeffs. Although it hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves, the two performances at the center of it by Amy Adams and Emily Blunt really propelled the two actresses to the acclaim they so richly deserve.

In Albuquerque, NM, Rose Lorkowski (Adams) is a single mother in her thirties, a former cheerleader who dated the captain of the football team, Mac (Steve Zahn), and was thought to have a bright future, yet she works as a house cleaner and is looked down on by all of her former classmates. She is still having an affair with Mac and he recommends that she could make a lot more money doing crime scene cleanup.  Enlisting the help of her frustrated sister, Norah (Blunt), she dives in with no knowledge or understanding of the business.

As they work their way through a series of gross cleanups, they meet Winston (Clifton Collins, Jr.), who runs a special supply store and he helps them to become more professional. During one cleanup of a dead woman’s house, Norah finds a fanny pack filled with pictures of the woman’s child, Lynn (Mary Lynn Rajskub) and she sets out to find her.  When she does, she can’t bring herself to tell Lynn what happened, but the two develop a friendship.  Rose wants Mac to divorce his wife and marry her, but he balks.

The sisters were both children when their mother committed suicide and Rose, as the eldest, has strong memories of the event that traumatized both of them.  Their father, Joe (Alan Arkin) has a series of money making schemes that always seem to fail, but he has a great relationship with Rose’s son, Oscar (Jason Spevack). He helps by babysitting the boy, who also develops a friendship with Winston.

Adams and Blunt provide both comedy and drama, showing a great range acting. Adams manages to be both very strong and very vulnerable at the same time, while Blunt is brilliant as the troubled little sister.  All of the supporting roles are very well acted.  The script is tight and lean, wasting no time on things that don’t matter.  Everything ties in well.  The directing and editing are terrific.

It is an extremely entertaining and well made movie. I highly recommend it!

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

In Cold Blood - Hickock and PerryIn Cold Blood is a fictionalized account of a real mass murder that took place on November 15, 1959 on a family farm near Holcomb, Kansas. Although this account is as factual as it can possibly be, Capote shapes his characters and the action much in the way a fiction writer would approach a novel.  He creates scenes, writes dialogue, and gets into the minds of the principal figures in the killing and that is part of what gives this book such raw power.

The film Capote, starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman, is based on Truman Capote’s journey in the creation of In Cold Blood, from generating the idea to traveling to Kansas with his research associate, young novelist Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird) to research it, through meeting the killers to actually writing it.

Herbert Clutter was a successful farmer, a Methodist who lived in a nice farmhouse with his wife, Bonnie, and two teenage children, Nancy, 16, and Kenyon, 15. Two older daughters no longer lived there.  A former farmhand, Floyd Wells, while in prison, told two other prisoners, Richard “Dick” Hickock and Perry Edward Smith, that Clutter kept a safe in his house that contained a large sum of money.  Out on the street in Kansas City, Hickock decided that he and Perry should rob the farm and take off to Mexico with the cash, so the two drove across Kansas to Holcomb to commit their robbery.

When they discovered that there is no cash in the farmhouse, they murdered the four family members and fled. The next day, the bodies were discovered.  Mr. Clutter’s throat had been cut and he had been shot in the head and the other three each died from a shotgun blast to the head.  The cold, brutal nature of the killings was part of what attracted Capote’s attention.  Nothing was stolen, there were no signs of struggle and each family member was found in a separate room, all of them but the father in bed.  Alvin Dewey, Jr. of the Kansas State Patrol was the key investigator in the case, but the solution came from Floyd Wells.  The man who had given Hickock the information that initiated the murders was also the man who named the killers.  Hickock and Perry were arrested in Las Vegas on December 30, 1959 and returned to Kansas for trial. Between March 22 and March 29, 1960, they were tried at the County Courthouse in Garden City, Kansas.  Although both men pled temporary insanity, the jury brought in guilty verdicts within 45 minutes of deliberation and were sentenced to death by hanging.

While the killers were in the Kansas State Penitentiary in Lansing, Kansas, Capote visited them many times, especially Perry, who opened up to him. As Perry talked about his family and his past, Capote worked to get the real story of the murders.  Hickock had maintained all along that Perry had done the four killings himself, but Perry only claimed two, saying that Hickock had killed both women.  However, when asked to sign a confession to that statement, Perry refused and took the full blame himself.

The actual reasons for the killing may never be known. There was certainly a degree of panic on Hickock’s side when he discovered there was no money to steal and he may have incited Perry to do the shooting.  Perry was introverted, with a tortured personality.  He chewed aspirin relentlessly.  He remains an enigma, claiming to feel great sympathy for the victims, but absolutely cold about the killings.  Regarding Herbert Clutter, he said, “I didn’t want to harm the man. I thought he was a very nice gentleman. Soft spoken. I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat.”  Cold blood.

The title is so apt. Some might call it cliché, but it is simple, to the point, and so utterly descriptive of the act.

Capote’s writing is beautiful to read. He layers everything in perfectly and builds his characters with depth.  The first time I read this book, I felt myself grow from worry to pure terror.  I remember reading it in bed and getting up to walk around the house double checking the locks and the windows.

The structure of the book is part of what makes it so compelling.  Even though you know what happens, you can’t turn your eyes from it.  Like coming upon a spectacular car crash, you just can’t look away.  When the killings occurred, I felt so sick at heart that I didn’t really want to know the details–and Capote withheld them.  After the killing, when you would think the excitement is over, Capote builds his book all over, getting inside Perry and finally revealing the details, but through Perry’s own cold blood.

On April 14, 1965, Hickock was hung by the neck, suspended from a gallows for nearly 20 minutes before being pronounced dead at 12:41 AM. Then Smith’s execution followed and he was pronounced dead at 1:19 AM.  Four deaths, plus two deaths.  More and more death.

Whether you consider it a novel or nonfiction, it is truly great writing.

American Hustle

american-hustle-posters-sonyLoosely based on the FBI ABSCAM sting operation, this 2013 film was written by David O. Russell and Eric Warren Singer and directed by Russell of The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook fame.  Bringing along Christian Bale and Amy Adams from The Fighter and Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence from Silver Linings Playbook, he has created a brilliant sting comedy that takes place at the height of disco mania, 1978.  It was nominated for ten Academy Awards, including all four major acting categories.

Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a good man at heart. He has a home in New Jersey, a wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), and he has adopted her son, Danny, whom he loves.  But Irving is a small time hustler and he makes his money off of people about to under financially.  When he meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), herself a small time hustler, they fall in love and she joins in his financial fraud scheme, posing as Lady Edith Greensly, a wealthy Englishwoman with connections.

Their secret life goes very well until they are caught in an FBI sting, led by agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). Although technically they only have Sydney on the hook, Richie uses Irving’s love to get him to agree to a deal.  If they help him make four busts, he’ll let them both go scott free.  Thinking they’ll just be bringing down small time hustlers, Irving is all for doing the deal, but Sydney just wants to run away with him (she’s even willing to take his son Danny with them).  She is certain that something stinks about the deal and that if they do it, they’ll have to have an ace in the hole, but Irving is insistent.  Sydney tells him that if that’s what he wants to do, she’ll distance herself from him and get close to Richie instead.

Irving proposes using a friend of his posing as a sheik to sting some hustlers he knows, but Richie and the FBI have different ideas. They want to go after Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) of Camden who is looking for investors to help revitalize Atlantic City.  Irving thinks the deal has now become too big for them and Richie’s boss Stoddard Thorsen (Louis C.K.) is also against it, but the FBI wants to do it.  In setting it up, Irving becomes friends with Carmine.  Seeing that he is also basically a good man, Irving tries to find a way to keep Carmine out of it, but things are beyond his control.  When he brings Rosalyn to a dinner with Carmine and his wife, she sees a chance to improve her own lot.

Carmine brings this unlikely group of people to a casino to meet the Mafia, led by Victor Tellegio (Robert De Niro), right-hand man to Meyer Lansky. Richie is posing as the sheik’s interpreter, but it turns out that Victor actually speaks Arabic and the whole plan falls into jeopardy.  This begins a hilarious series of plot twists and turns that lead to the conclusion of the movie.

Christian Bale turns in one of the best performances of this new century as Irving. He has crafted a character both deep and shallow, so well-layered in nuance that Bale himself completely disappears in the character.  Typically, he carries the film.  Adams, Lawrence, and Cooper are all very good, but pale beside the brilliance of this one truly great American actor.

The script is incredibly well-crafted and the direction is superb.  Russell is emerging as one of America’s finest cinematic minds and he brings all of his talents to bear in this period comedy that never ceases to entertain.  From beginning to end, the viewer is caught up in one bizarre scheme after another as the plot moves through unexpected twists and turns.  As the story gets deeper and deeper, a kind of tension is created behind the comedy that impels the viewer to watch, rooting for Irving and also fearing for him at the same time.

The film is beautifully crafted and should be seen by everyone!

Demon

Demon2Demon is the final book of The Gaea Trilogy and it brings the story to a very satisfying conclusion.  Author John Varley is easily the most whimsical of all science fiction writers for the past 30 years and even though this series begins with its feet on the ground, it ends up tearing a hole in the sky.

For a synopsis of the previous two novels, Titan and Wizard, please click on the links.

In Demon, the planetary brain, 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 <I>Wizard</I> 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 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 reminded of the vitality, the pure wacky spirit that made his early work so much fun to read.

I highly recommend this novel and the entire trilogy.

Wizard by John Varley

 

WizardThis is the second book of the Gaea Trilogy and this review is intended for readers who have already finished the first novel of the trilogy, Titan.  To read my review of that book, click HERE.

Just as Titan begins in a somewhat normal universe and escalates into an absurd universe, so Wizard picks up at the same gonzo level where the first book ended and escalates into something even more absurd.

This book takes place roughly 75 years after the end of Titan and the two main characters return, Rocky Jones and Gaby Plauget. When Gaea made Rocky the Wizard of Gaea, she also gave her certain powers to go with Rocky’s new station.  Rocky can now talk to all of the creatures that live on the wheel, she has been given eternal youth, and she has been made the sole method of ferterilizing the Titanide’s eggs, making her essentially responsible for the survival of the species.  Gaby, in order to remain on Gaea with Rocky, has had a tougher road.  She works for Gaea on a piecemeal basis, project by project, and her principal reward from Gaea is eternal youth, bit by bit.  She must constantly keep re-earning her prize and is none too happy about it.

Most of the novel, however, deals with two new characters and their exploits on the giant living body of Gaea. Both of them are fairly young and both of them have incurable diseases.  It has been Gaea’s policy for some time now to ask certain humans to come to her (she calls them pilgrims) to be cured.  But Gaea likes her good deeds to be a two-way street – you do something for me first and if I find you worthy, I’ll cure everyone who has your disease.  The something that Gaea always demands is an act of heroism (or death trying).

The young man, Chris, has a disability where he temporarily goes insane and cannot recall his actions while gonzo. When crazy, he can harm innocent people and has a bad problem with rape.  He always feels bad afterward, but what can you do?  He finally screws up his courage and decides to approach Gaea.

The young woman, Robin the Nine-Fingered, comes from a Coven of witches which lives in a habitat at the L2 LaGrange orbit of earth. Long separated from other humans, these women have lived in Lesbian harmony for many years and recreated human culture from their own perspective.  All men are insane rapists running an earth where women are kept as sex slaves.  Human literature, which was all written by women, has been co-opted to seem as if it was mostly written by men.  And so forth.

Robin has a disease in which she periodically has intense siezures where she loses all control. She has become a hateful, violent 19-year-old who hopes eventually to have children, if Gaea can cure her.  She comes before Gaea with a serious attitude problem.

These two unlikely characters are joined together with Rocky and Gaby on a cross-Gaean trip hoping to find situations requiring heroism. Those who have read Titan know that opportunities for heroism exist in abundance on Gaea, but so do the opportunities for death.

And death does play a prominent role in this novel. Varley pulls no punches in his descriptions.

Like Titan, this novel is also largely picaresque as the foursome venture around the rim of Gaea, accompanied by four Titanides, one of which has fallen in love with Chris.  The Titanides are truly amazing creatures, created by Gaea because she wanted Centaurs. All communications between them are sung and they a truly unique sexual perspective (they are composed of one frontal sex and two rear sexes.  This novel is strictly for mature readers.  It contains graphic descriptions of Titanide sex and alien-human sex.

And finally, like Titan, it is a huge, sprawling, comic and yet deadly serious story about survival, godhood, humanity and heroism.  While it is possible to say that it is not quite as good as Titan, it is nonetheless a page-turner and it does amaze and delight.  The scope is huge.  At his finest, John Varley is one of the most challenging, awe-inspiring and shocking science fiction writers of the past thirty years.

This book meets all of those criteria and I highly recommend it–and the Gaea Trilogy–to all mature fantasy/sf readers.

Titan by John Varley

TitanTitan is an amazing science fiction book, the first one in the Gaea Trilogy, and it deserves a place among the 100 best science fiction books of all time.

 John Varley has had my attention ever since I ran into The Persistence of Vision many years ago.  In that collection of short stories I was awestruck with his creativity and unique approach to science fiction.  Each story was challenging with innovation and new ways of thinking about old problems.

Although Titan isn’t so much cutting-edge as some of his more whimsical short stories, it definitely has it’s moments when you have to slam the book closed, stand up, and walk around in a circle laughing.  It is part science fiction, part comedy, part fantasy and part homage to great and not-so-great science fiction of the past.

The book is set in the not-too-distant future of the next 200-300 years.  It tells the story of the Deep Space Vehicle Ringmaster and her crew on a mission to Saturn.

The captain is a woman named Cirocco “Rocky” Jones (an homage to the old serial “Rocky Jones”) who was born in a corporate wandering family that travelled the globe at the beck and call of corporations who actually run Earth.  Brought up by her mother, Jones always wanted to be an adventurer and ended up becoming an astronaut so that she could – hopefully – see things no one had seen before.

Her navigator is Gaby Plauget, a small woman who has been fascinated with space since childhood and really cares for nothing else.  Other crewmembers include a doctor, engineer and pilot (males) and two cloned sisters.  Sex is a rather open prospect on a deep space vessel, both hetero and homo and Rocky has slept with all of the men.

Upon approaching Saturn, they discover a rather large space object that they at first think is a rogue moon, but when they get closer, the object appears to have been built by intelligence.  They scrap their mission to investigate.  In form, the object is like a huge ring with spokes attaching to a hub, but literally hundreds of kilometers in circumference and doing one full rotation per day as it makes its way around Saturn.

Before they can figure out an approach to the object, they are grabbed and the Ringmaster is pulled toward the object, smashing apart in the process.  Rocky then goes through a process where she is aware of sensory deprivation for a very long time before she is finally coughed up from the ground onto the surface of the ring, with the great hub rotating hundred of kilometers above her.  She finds Gaby and eventually the others and meets up with a species called the Titanides, half-human, half-equine.  The crew name objects using Greek mythology, especially derived from the Titan myths and they decide to call the “planet” or “object” Titan.

Titan is full of many wonderful and whimsical creatures, including a kilometer-long blimp-like flying creature that is intelligent, and creatures fashioned to look exactly like angels, flying through the sky.

Rocky decides that she must travel to the hub to discover if there are any builders alive or if there is a radio so she can contact Earth.  Gaby travels with her on a torturous journey up the strands of cable that hold Titan together, discovering along the way that the object is actually a living creature, whom they rename Gaea (mother of the Titans).

 I won’t divulge what happens when they reach the hub – it must be savored by the reader when they actually reach that point and I don’t want to spoil that part.  Let’s just say that it is one of those moments when you must slam the book closed, stand up, and walk around in a circle laughing.

But I will give the warning that the book contains a lot of descriptive sexual relationships, including a detailed description of the Titanides’ sexual construction and the many ways that they may procreate.

 I highly recommend this novel to those with open minds and who appreciate creative and whimsical writing.  If you’ve ever wanted to jump into something that will surprise and amaze you with its creativity, this is a book you will want to look into.  And it’s hard to put down once you get started.