The Well of Souls. Midnight. Be there.
Posted May 10, 2011on:
Midnight at the Well of Souls, by Jack Chalker
published in 1977
where I got it: husband’s collection
why I read it: cuz it’s damn fun!
The far flung future of humanity isn’t a pretty place. Having colonized over 500 planets, many governments have turned to utopian totalitarianism, extreme forms of socialism, cloning, and forced equality through genetic engineering. Nathan Brazil isn’t the only freighter pilot who’d rather live alone on his ship than ever settle on one of those hellholes, where everyone is exactly the same. Wonderfully antisocial, Nathan happily goes decades without speaking to another human. Old enough to remember the good old days before the stagnation of humanity, these days it’s just freight, freight, more freight, and the occasional passenger run.
While ferrying a few passengers, he makes an unplanned detour, and hears a distress call from the non-inhabited planet of Dalgonia. One of the original planets of the Markovian race, Dalgonia is nothing but ruins these days, a favorite dig spot for archaeologists. The Markovians, an ancient race, possible the first race to populate our universe, left no writings behind, no artwork, nothing to identify what they might have looked like. The planets they colonized spanned the universe and all had massive, planet-wide computers living just under the surface. Nathan and his passengers investigate the impossible distress signal, only to fall through a gateway that shouldn’t exist.
No one will be reaching their destination. except for Nathan, who might just finally be at the right place.
Not so much a gateway, as a well, Nathan and his passengers land in the Zone of the Well World. The massive planet known as the Well World contains a hexagonal biome for every race living on it, over fifteen hundred of them. Some humanoid, mostly not. The Well World accepts anyone who wakes up there, and once you pass through the Gate, you are forever turned into a randomly assigned race found on the Well World, there to forever live out your days, be they measured in hours, or decades. And on it’s equator, a place mythically referred to as The Well of Souls. And he who controls the Well of Souls controls the creation and recreation of the universe.
The Well World may be populated with every kind of creature you can imagine (and some you can’t), but most of these people have something very human in common: greed. As the new “entries” and their knowldge about the workings of the Well World are exposed, it becomes a race against time to reach the Well of Souls. But something fishy is going on. Too many things are falling into place just right, too many people know who Nathan is, and he can’t remember anything. As his memories come flooding back, he realizes everything too late.
Insect based, plant based, silicon based, and everything in between, Chalker’s creations for the races of the Well World are some of the most imaginative you’ll run into. Some hexes are high tech, some low tech, some are carnivorous sea mammals, others the creatures myths were born from. Heavy on the dialog, Midnight at the Well of Souls is a light scifi adventure on the surface, but Chalker has subtly hidden some very timely and thought provoking criticisms of religion, education, government, and where humanity might be headed. Fair warning, there is a bit of religion at the end, but trust me, it’s not what you’re expecting.
Although perfectly functional as a stand alone, Midnight at the Well of Souls is the first book in a series of five (or seven, depending on who you talk to). An incredibly fun read filled with highly imaginative aliens, I read the whole thing about 10 years ago and it’s worth the read (and re-read), especially if you’re looking for something lighter, a break from the literary heavyweight doorstopper epics that seem to be all the rage right now. Perhaps influenced by the Well World series, now I’ve got a craving to re-read Sheri S Tepper’s SideShow, about another planet that is home and testing ground for multiple races and cultures.
I’ve been on a Doctor Who kick lately, and when my husband saw me reading this, he mentioned that some people have made connections between the Markovians and the Time Lords. Eh, I don’t really think so, but Midnight at the Well of Souls certainly feels a bit like a Doctor Who style story: a character who doesn’t (or can’t) die, alien races of all shapes and colors and cultures who can be just as violent, greedy, and vindictive as humans, the idea of a race that’s been around since the beginning of the universe and left only their mistakes behind. I’m sure I’m reading way more into this than I should be, but it’s still a fun exercise. You all must read this book so we can discuss!!