John Varley's new novel Rolling Thunder, about the adventures of a Martian military brat, will hit bookstores in early March. But for those of you who aren't enjoying an advance copy like I am, I recommend you kick back this weekend with a classic Varley novel from 1979: Wizard, the second in his Gaia Trilogy. It's a quest tale set inside a vast, ancient cybernetic creature known as Gaia who houses several ecosystems and many species in her habitat-like body. Humans discover her in the Saturn neighborhood, and quickly start to immigrate — especially when they find out that Gaia is willing to heal sick people she deems worthy.
The main characters in Wizard are all pilgrims on a quest to be healed, and their interactions as they come to know one another are almost as fascinating as the alien world itself. A lesbian witch with epilepsy joins forces with a schizophrenic who just wants to find love as a unified personality, and they're joined by a host of others — including a native Gaian creature called a Titanide.
The Titanides are one of Varley's greatest creations: a combination of whimsy and vast social experiment engineered by Gaia. They are centaurs with three sets of genitals who can reproduce in a seemingly-infinite variety of combinations: everything from self-fertilization to 12 parents is possible, and Varley includes a handy chart at the back of the book with every possible combination.
But Titanide sexual politics are merely one feature of Varley's strange world. For Gaia herself is a character, and she's been slowly going insane. And the crazier she gets, the more demented and intriguing her bioengineered creations. If you love world-building, Wizard is a treat. All the more so for its compelling characters, whose relationships and hardships you'll genuinely care about by the end of the novel. Pick up a copy at your local beloved science fiction bookstore, or find it here.
And if you love Wizard, you can go back and read the space-operatic, lesbian love-story prequel, Titan; and check out the sequel, Demon, which is the batshit crazy tale of Gaia at war with herself.