During an exploration expedition to the planet Saturn, Cirocco "Rocky" Jones--captain of the space vessel, Ringmaster--and her crew encounter an anomalous satellite revolving around the planet. The closer they get to the anomaly, the more they begin to realize that it's actually a habitat of some sort. While trying to report their findings back to NASA, they are pulled into the satellite. The Ringmaster is destroyed, and Cirocco and her crew are rendered unconscious.
After spending some time in darkness, with no idea of how much time has passed for them in that unconscious state, the crew wakens naked, hairless, and separated (at first) in this strange habitat. The descriptions used during their time unconscious and their eventual awakening sort of seems to be some analogy to birth. However, their time in the darkness is terrifying for them, and instead of coming into this new world innocent, they still have much of their personality and memories in tact.
The planet has changed them, though, and some of them learn this faster than others. Many of them learn, they are able to communicate with various intelligent species that live on the planet. Cirocco learns that she's able to communicate with a centaur-like race called Titanides who speak a music based language. The Titanides are locked in a bitter war with a race of winged creatures called Angels. They don't know why they fight. They only know that when they're close to one another they're compelled to fight.
Cirocco learns about a controlling deity called Gaea from the Titanides. She takes a journey to confront this being.
Gaea is an interesting paradox. She really is something of a goddess to the planet. She is capricious and curious, and she uses her powers to satisfy her whims. She programmed the Titanides and Angels to fight for practice. She has a keen interest in humanity and knows that one day, because it's in our nature, we will declare war on her. She doesn't know how to fight, and fears that, even though she is powerful, she still would not withstand an attack from humans. She feels that humans are better prepared and better tacticians than she will ever be.
Because she doesn't have the knowledge to prepare for war, she hopes that her warring races will be able to create the things--strategy, tools, and knowledge--needed for war through their own struggle.
However, she is facing another obstacle that complicates things. She's going insane, and her "children" are rebelling. Here we have a being who is essentially a god whose "mind" has started to fracture into parts. She acknowledges that she is losing control of herself. There are other intelligent godlike beings on the habitat, beings that she spawned and calls her children--one of whom she considers her most rebellious and volatile, the one she blames for Cirocco's crash.
This book wasn't quite what I expecting. The first pages was all about the sex life of the crew, and I started wondering what I'd gotten myself into. Then, it settled into a more serious tone, but continued to throw me for a loop throughout the story. One minute, they're having a very technical talk about a subject and the next they're gawking at seeing their first centaur penis, which I'll admit had me chuckling like a 12-year-old, but that's what I liked about this book. While there is plenty of science for the sci-fi lover, Varley also incorporated mythic fantasy and quite a bit of humor into this story. He played around with the idea of gods, their relationship with their creations, and how fickle they can be.
This story challenged gender, race, and sexuality roles. Given the period it was written, when I compare it to some other science fiction books written around the same time and how they handled similar subjects, Varley's stands out as being a bit more progressive and imaginative than most. I'd complained about another popular science fiction writer from that same period not knowing what to do with the women in his books and the distasteful direction he took with sexuality. So, I was a little afraid that this might be the same.
I really appreciated that Varley was able to write this book and realize that the hang-ups that people had about various social issues at that time probably wouldn't matter much in the year 2025. He didn't erase the issues or try to make everyone seem so PC about everything. There are moments when ignorance rears its head, but mostly, these issues are not taboo.
Of course, this book didn't do everything right. There were times when it felt a bit too childish, campy, and kitschy. I could see where this book might annoy someone who wants a strict hard science/first encounter type story. It may be be a bit too whimsical and fantastic in scope for some science fiction readers. Personally, I didn't like how one of the character's eventual sickening and evil actions were explained and sort of pitied, for lack of better word, because it was easier just to blame the planet for his actions.
If you like science fiction stories that heavily blend science and fantasy, this book is worth checking out.