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Midnight at the Well of Souls by Jack L. Chalker

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Midnight At The Well Of Souls is, in my opinion, Jack L. Chalker's best book. That may not exactly be a controversial opinion, as most people probably don't remember him and those who do know him mainly from this novel. However, this isn't about stirring up shit on the internet, but about giving you my honest to goodness opinion. And even after all these years I still enjoy this book.

First published in 1977, the book begins at an archaeological expedition on a distant planet. Not only does this sequence set up the main drama of the story, it also helps to establish the universe our characters live in. The book came out while the Cold War was still going strong, so of course the dystopian future we find ourselves in involves worlds that have become socialist nightmare. People have number designations instead of names. They are genetically programmed to do their jobs, and to be happy with that. There are individualist holdouts though, as we discover when we move to our hero Nathan Brazil. He is a space freighter pilot who has been rejuvenated so many times that even he doesn't remember how old he really is.

Nathan is carrying a load of grain headed for a planet in the middle of a famine. He also has three passengers on board. There is the sleazy Datham Hain, who it turns out is a peddler in a super-addictive drug called sponge. Hain is part of a syndicate which gets important people or their relatives hooked on sponge, then threatens to withdraw the supply if they don't do as they are told, leading to a painful and humiliating death. Travelling with Hain is his "niece" Wu Julee, who is revealed to be a victim of sponge and goes along as an example of what happens to addicts. There is also Vardia Diplo 1261, a courier from one of the socialist planets.

Nathan and company answer a distress call from the archaeological site from the introduction and end up getting caught in the gateway to the Well World. Set up by the ancient Markovians, the Well World is basically a laboratory and proving ground for new species of intelligent life. The whole planet is broken up into hexagrams, with each presided over by whatever species has been assigned to it. Each new arrival has to go through processing and is transformed into a new species and delivered to the appropriate region. Any illness or deformity is erased, which gives Wu Julee a new chance at life.

She is transformed into a centaur creature, while Datham Hain has become a giant insect. Vardia is a plant creature. a species whose society its pretty well with her socialist viewpoints. Nathan comes out as a human, the last on the Well World that hasn't succumbed to a biological attack which left the species more or less intellectually incapacitated. As it turns out though, there is more going on than just shape changing and getting to know their new friends on this planet. Two scientists from the intro have also come here, and they are figuring out the secrets of the Markovians and the Well World, which will allow them to destroy or remake the universe.

It becomes a rac against time as different factions recruit the newcomers to get to te Well of Souls frst for whatever their ultimate aims are. There is also the secret of who or what Nathan Brazil really is. Nathan doesn't get through the entire book unchanged, as there are a couple of transformations in store for him as well. The travelers encounter friendly and hostile species on their way to the Well. It being the 70's there is a weird sex scene involving two members of different species. There are some good action scenes and a lot of pseudo-religious mumbo jumbo (again, it was the 70's). Overall, it is just a fun, trippy book, and a setup for a series of books which are never quite as good as this first one.

© 2022 Gracchus Gruad

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