Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Book Review: "Midnight at the Well of Souls" by Jack L. Chalker

Midnight at the Well of Souls by Jack L. Chalker (Del Rey, 1977)

Fellow Neffer and avid Chalker fan Patsy Williams recommended I read Midnight at the Well of Souls, the first of five books in Chalker’s Saga of the Well of Souls. I am sure glad I did. The novel reminded me more of Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld series than Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama or Larry Niven’s Ringworld, though they’re all slightly adjacent, similar to the hexagonal ecosystems that compose the world explored by the protagonists. Chalker’s book is a little more outre, occasionally downright bizarre, reminding me of some of the looser countercultural sf written in the ’60s. And it’s largely a morality tale, albeit a light-hearted and far from heavy-handed one, offering some advice and insight on human nature, the purpose of human existence, as well as some speculative cosmology and theology.

Spacer Nathan Brazil—a heroic character with depth whom I’d love to read more about if there ever was one—diverts his route to respond to an emergency signal, finding evidence of a vicious slaughter of those populating a scientific outpost. Once there, he and other passengers are drawn through a mysterious portal to what seems to be a distant planet or pocket universe. There, they pass through another portal, transformed into another form—various alien races—and assigned to an appropriate subsection of the world, each with a climate and features appropriate for its respective alien race.

Brazil proceeds to track down two of the people sent to the world—one evil and one who might be misguided—who are interested in using mathematics to unlock the secrets of the Well of Souls and gain what they expect and imagine to be unlimited power—the power of a god. The group ends up reconvening, and they learn more than they bargained for once they reach the Well: about the world they’ve been exploring, about the nature of reality, about the purpose of life itself, and the intended role of love. That’s where the moral aspect comes into play, and you can sample some of the ideas communicated by Chalker in select quotes posted in my blog at It’s thought-provoking stuff.

While the scientific and technological aspects of the book are slightly prone to hand waving, the philosophical elements of the book are compelling. So are Chalker’s various alien races, ecosystems, and societies that populate the world around the Well of Souls. There’s plenty more of that world to explore, should the need arise. Chalker also incorporates some narrative aspects addressing the nature of addiction and the abuse of others, and sex plays a fun and functional role in the story.

So thank you, Patsy, for the recommendation! Chalker is an author I’ll return to. As my friend Stevyn “Iron Feather” Prothero said online when he learned I was reading Chalker, “He created many interesting universes. Fascinating series. I recently discovered he wrote follow-up books about some of those characters and worlds. Great stuff. Enjoy.” I most certainly will.

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