Nobody Callin’ On The Phone
Midnight at the Well of Souls (Saga of the Well of Souls, volume 1)
By Jack Chalker
Midnight at the Well of Souls is the first of at least ten volumes1 in Jack L. Chalker’s Saga of the Well of Souls.
Having reached the stars, most of humanity settled into stultifying conformity. Archaeologist Skander is no conformist; he’s a visionary (and perhaps a little mad). He has stumbled upon a secret that he believes will allow him to liberate humanity by manipulating the (cue megalomaniacal laughter) laws of nature! That secret is found on Dalgonia, a backwater world littered with the enigmatic relics of the long-vanished Markovians.
When Skander discovers that someone else (brilliant mathematician Varnett) has stumbled upon Skander’s secret, Skander does the only reasonable thing he can do: murder every other human on Dalgonia. Or rather, he attempts to do so. Skander and Varnett grapple near a Markovian gate and find themselves teleported away.
Drawn to Dalgonia by a distress call, freighter captain Nathan Brazil finds seven dead bodies. Brazil and his companions (malevolent drug lord Datham Hain, Hain’s drug-addicted victim Wu Julee, and courier
Vardia Diplo 1261) find the same Markovian gate. Like Varnett and Skander, they are all teleported away. Far, far away.
The Markovians littered the universe with their gates, all leading to the same destination: the Well World! Its entire surface is tiled with 1560 hexagons; each hexagon contains a unique biosphere and each biosphere is inhabited by an intelligent species designed to prosper within the conditions of their home hex. The Well World is a marvelous artifact. A marvelous artifact from which the human visitors cannot return.
The Well Worlders are considerate enough to provide a welcoming committee, in this case former human scallywag Serge Ortega. Ortega may still be a scallywag but he is no longer human. Ortega explains the rules: each of them will be transported by the Well World to a suitable hex (why the Well World considers it suitable is not always immediately obvious; there is an intelligence shaping the world but an inarticulate one), transformed into a native of that hex, and left to their own devices. Nobody will be going home.
The Well World’s criteria for suitability appears to include “just desserts”: Hain is transformed into a female of the virulently misogynist Akkafian species, among the lowest of the low. Brain-damaged Wu Julie is turned into a centauroid Dillian, is quickly befriended, and begins a new life far superior that of an abused sex slave. Vardia wakes as a Czillian, an effectively immortal intelligent plant for whom life is a series of endless intellectual pursuits. Nathan Brazil has the oddest transformation of all: he wakes unchanged, in the hex humans call home2.
All would be fine save for one small detail: Skander and Varnett are free on the Well World. Both know enough to be an invaluable asset to anyone who can force them to serve. Both know enough pose an existential threat to the Well World. To save the Well World and quite possibly the universe, someone will have to find the pair before they can find their way to the Well World’s controls. Brazil and his chums are that someone.
Time is swiftly ticking away. They have only until midnight at the Well of Souls.
The Markovians are essentially Forbidden Planet’s Krell, save that the Markovians were smart enough to consider and account for all the possible failure modes of their miraculous technology. Their eventual extinction is becausethey were smart enough to plan for anything and everything. I wonder if the similarity between Markovians and Krell is proof that Chalker had seen Forbidden Planet. Or is this just another case of parallel development?
Unusually for a 1970s adventure novel, the author doesn’t appear to disapprove of his gay characters (although the same cannot be said of their governments, who dislike any kind of nonconformist behavior). Perhaps more typically for the time, the eventual solution is to turn one of the two lesbians into a man3. Oh well. It was the 1970s! At least neither of them suffered a tragic but inspirational death.
This was Chalker’s second published novel (after 1976’s A Jungle of Stars). It presented readers with what would be mainstays of Chalker’s fiction: physical transformation, adventure, bodily transmutation, heroic heroes, corporeal alteration, villainous villains, and material metamorphosis. Oh, and the characters change from human to alien … and in other ways.
Chalker did not belong to the rubber forehead school of alien design. His aliens could be very alien indeed. They are bizarre, alarming to human eyes, and only occasionally plausible. It is notable that the transformed humans quickly adjust to their new forms, finding them as comfortable (and sometimes far more so) than their human forms4.
Aliens aside, the story itself is a pretty standard megastructure story: explorers (willing or otherwise) find vast alien structure and having done so are forced to travel across it so that all the author’s worldbuilding can be displayed in loving detail. It’s generally a good rule to bring sturdy boots when encountering an alien megastructure. The only sense in which Midnight is an exception is because thanks to the transformation, those boots will not fit.
Revisiting the book, I didn’t love it. The pulp sensibilities were not to my taste, the plot is largely predictable5, and most importantly of all, I strongly dislike Nathan Brazil. Who, of course, would go on to become the series on-going protagonist. I recall that readers loved the book, which memory is supported by the fact there were at least nine sequels. Unpopular books generally aren’t followed by lots of sequels (or used as a basis for roleplaying games; see footnote 1).
Midnight at the Well of Souls is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Barnes & Noble), and here (Book Depository). I did not find it at Chapters-Indigo, which I am inclined to chalk up to their search engine being broken.
1: Plus, a rather dire roleplaying game. That’s a pity; the Well World would have made a great adventure setting for a good game.
2: Or would call home, if the humans native to that hex could still talk. Mistakes were made.
3: Although lesbian may not properly describe the relationship: it’s a case of someone with a conditioned dislike of sex with (most) men falling for someone with single-target sexuality. Bodily form is incidental, which since this is a Chalker novel is probably for the best.
4: Strangely, despite having a wealth of weird and wonderful aliens to put on their covers, Midnight at the Well of Souls cover artists seem to have preferred to focus on the alien who has boobs.
5: Except for the bit where a badly injured Brazil has his mind decanted into a deer, a detail I totally forgot. Among other things, this facilitates some deer-on-centaur sex. Take that, Marian Engel!