Monday, January 17, 2011

Thoughts on "Midnight at the Well of Souls"

What Makes us Human?

“Midnight at the Well of Souls,” by Jack Chalker is a novel that explores the idea of what it means to be human. Is humanity in this shell we call a body, is it found only in our intellect, or is it a synthesis of the two?

The protagonist of the story is Nathan Brazil, a freighter captain who may have lived too long. When he was younger, humanity was made up of individuals, but most of humanity are now members of a Confederacy. These humans are bred in laboratories and are hermaphroditic or neutered. Most of these humans are cloned from the same couple of original models and all of them are “raised by the state to think as identically as they looked” (p. 6 in my paperback edition).

In my mind, that essential spark or drive that makes us humans has been bred out of these creatures. They are organic robots instead of free-thinking people with wants and desires. In an attempt to “improve” humanity, by covering-up the blemishes of rebellion and vanquishing the dreaded pox of evil, this society has thrown the baby out with the bathwater and leached away everything that made us human in their attempts at creating perfection.

The whole concept reminded me of the asexual clone-based-telepaths humanity has become at the end of Joe Haldeman’s “The Forever War.” Haldeman’s novel was clearly a reaction to the changes in American society regarding sexual norms that took place while he was a soldier in Vietnam. When he left it was Donna Reed and when he returned it was free love.

However, I don’t believe that Chalker’s point was as political or topical in nature. I think his goal was to look at these themes in a broad sense; to compare individualism or existentialism to being a part of a larger whole or a part of something greater than yourself. Nathan is surely the hero of the novel and he embodies a rugged individuality and yet his philosophy has not found him happiness, instead he thinks to himself over and over again that he is “alone and will always be alone.” It is only while he is a part of a grand adventure in the Well World where he has to work with and depend on others that he is able to truly be happy.

Well World

The Well World is a magical sort of world. It is broken up into 1560 hexagons. Each hexagon is 355 km tall and 615 km wide. Each of these hexes is a controlled environment with it’s own planets and animals and unique temperature and atmosphere norms. However, the borders are open, you can step from one hex into another and not notice, just make sure you’re able to breathe the air in the new hex. Oceans, mountains, deserts, and/or forests may stretch across multiple hexes or only one. But most importantly each hex houses a form of intelligent life. One hex holds beings called Dillians that resemble our mythical Centaurs, one holds plant/animal hybrids called Czillians, and another houses man-sized bat like humanoids called Creits.

The catch is that if you stumble into the Well World (there are various planets and points in space where this might happen) you will be forced to become one of these species at random. You will still have your human intellect and your memories, but you will be a beaver (Ambrezans), or a giant flower (Slelcronian), or maybe a sort of elephant with two trunks that walks on its hind legs (Slongorian). “Midnight” seems to suggest that you would still be the same person, but you would also be driven by the needs/desires of the body you ended up in. For example, does the body produce a desire to procreate every day, every month, or only a few times a year or does it reproduce asexually? Does the new body hibernate in the winter? Do you have a sudden urge to fly south during the winter, or swim upstream in order to hatch your eggs in fresh water?

I loved the world of this story and how we only get to see a fraction of the hexes and different races and cultures that inhabit them. My imagination ran wild thinking about what might live in these unseen hexes. Also I liked how no species was truly evil just for the sake of it, they just seemed to be evil due to their nature. For instance, the “savage” Murnies who seemed like senseless monsters the way they would rip a deer apart and eat it raw, but it turned out that they were rational beings with their own sense of honor and right and wrong. It was just not the same values we uphold.

Maps and Mathematics

I did a lot of mathematical calculations regarding the Well World itself. I previously did some calculations of Larry Niven’s “Ringworld” and was fascinated that I was much better able to visualize and understand the distances involved in that story after taking a closer look at it.

780 Southern Hexagons
780 Northern Hexagons
1560 Total Hexagons (p 62)

614.86 km is the length across of each hexagon (p 88)
355 km is the length of a side of each hexagon (p 62)

Area of a Hexagon
½ x (6s) x h
½ x (6(355) x 307) note: h is the radius so it is half of 615
3,269,552^2 Area of a Hex. (This is roughly the size of India)

3,269,552^2 x 1560 (number of Hexes)
510,049,800^2 (projected area of Well World)

Area of Well World is 5.1 x 10^8 km^2 (p 55)
5.1 x 1,000,000,000
or 510,000,000^2
This is remarkable close to the area of the Earth which is 510,072,000^2

Later in the book we are told that the hexes that border the wall that separate the Northern from the Southern Hexes are “two hexes wide and half a hex tall” (p 287). Which may explain why my projected area doesn’t match with what we are told the area of the Well World is.

My edition of “Midnight” didn’t include a map but Ben from the Classic Science Fiction Message Board provided me with a copy. However, if his map is to scale the border hexes look like they are the same size as the other hexes just cut differently. I can extrapolate from that map, assuming the rest of Well World follows the same pattern as the pictured area, that there are 128 of these border Hexes, but I still can’t be sure of their shape because the map and the text in the novel contradict each other.

19 comments:

  1. I deliberately skipped this post, John, because I wanted to re-read the book first. But I didn't get it done. Well, I remember it pretty well, certainly well enough not to worry about spoilers! :)

    I loved the Well World itself. Like you, my imagination ran wild thinking about the possibilities. And I love books with multiple alien species, anyway. My imagination is always caught by the possibilities of other intelligent life.

    I was less impressed by the beginning of the book, the description of galactic society. A lot of it didn't seem to make much sense to me. I guess I didn't think much about how that fit into the theme of the Well World (certainly not the first time I read the book, and I really didn't get very far this time).

    Another great post, John! Nice job!

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  2. Well, in a lot of stories the "real world" serves no purpose but to emphasize how different the fantasy world is. At the end of Well World though, Nathan sends several of the characters back into the "real world" hoping that they can improve the situation and be sort of ambassadors of individuality. I don't know if any of the sequels explore how successful this ends up being, but I hope they do.

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    1. There was a sequel written my chalker in the 90's 3 three books

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    2. Actually there 5 more sequels.

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  3. Wonderful series of books! I have been carrying around my copies for many years and I have had to replace the entire set at least twice. That is getting costly now since the death of Jack Chalker and the fact that some of his books have gone out of print. I really wish someone would look at the series for either a movie or an MMO. What a wonderful gaming experience it would be to get to visit the Well World!

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  4. Yeah I haven't seen any other Well World books at used book shops so far, but I see a lot of Chalker's other novels. Thanks for reading my review. And like you said Well World has such potential for a video game or a role playing game.

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  5. I first started reading this series in the late 70's, when a ex-girlfriend left the first book behind. I was instantly hooked, and purchased book. I still have them, although paperbacks tend to fall apart. This was one series I would have gladly bought in hard bound if it was available. Great synopsis Dave. This is one set of stories that really got your brain to visualize the printed word. I always wondered if Hollywood would ever catch on to this series.

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  6. I'm glad you like the series and my review Carl and thanks for signing up as a follower of my blog.

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  7. I have a question. I am re-reading the series, and was wondering how The Rel got into the south from the embassy. It would seem impossible.

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  8. The north and the south trade information and goods via their respective Zones. So the Rel could have transported to the Zone in the north and then transported to the Zone in the south. Then I forget what the rules regarding getting from the Zone to a certain hexagon are.

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  9. I got that part, but there is no way out of the zones except for the gates and one goes to the other pole and the other is the gate that they put entries though. They specifically point that out in the second book (No Southerner has been to the North). It made me think back the the Diviner and the Rel.

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  10. I don't know, you're right that it should have been impossible.

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  11. The Diviner has ... powers. See the third book, Quest for the Well of Souls, to see how it was done.

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    1. Thanks for the heads up. I keep meaning to read more of the books in this series.

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  12. As a man who always secretly wanted to write, it wasn't until I read this book in the early 80's (As well as all of the rest of the series.) that I decided to take it as a challenge for myself and I have done re-markedly well. I have written a lot of things for private clients and now am working on a book which will be a huge nod to The Well World as well as Mr. Chalker himself.

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  13. BTW, I'm not Hira. Whomever that is.

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  14. Would you happen to know how to reach the person or persons who hold the intellectual rights to the Well World series? You mentioned in one of your texts in this blog that the Well World would make an excellent MMO or an RPG. I'm currently working on a Well World RPG and would like to get ahold of whom ever owns the rights to discuss acquiring those rights to publish my game. Any suggestions?

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    1. I imagine his wife if she's still alive. Or his two children. Or the company that published all the books Del Rey.

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    2. I'd love to see the RPG. A Well World RPG sounds like it would be really fun.

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