Jack Chalker’s Well World Books

The Well World books are . . . different.  Jack Chalker was an oddball writer.  Not a bad writer, but an odd one.  All of his books had an overriding theme: bodily change.  Well World is probably the ultimate example of this.

The basic theme of Well World goes thusly: an ancient progenitor race (The Markovians) created another universe–“our” universe.  They reached a “dead end” in their own universe and wanted to create a new one.  Within the new universe, they wished to have a race which would supersede their own.  To help implement this, they created the Well World.  It’s an artificial world consisting of 1560 “hexes”, each with their own environment.  Within said hexes were 1560 different artificial races.  Essentially, Well World is a giant laboratory for the Markovians to perfect their inheritors.

Humans (and other races) from “our” universe can get into Well World through teleportation gateways.  Once within, however, the only way to get out of the entry point is by teleporting into one of the hexes.  When you do, the Markovian super-computer turns you into one of the natives of the hex.

Moreover, every hex has its own physical rules.  Some have high technology, others have moderate and others have none.  The computer controls the physics within each hex.  Some are so odd that they have “magic” or something resembling it.  The hexes in the southern hemisphere are all carbon-based, oxygen breathing types.  The hexes in the northern hemisphere are so alien that they are separated from the southern hex by a giant equatorial wall.  The wall is also where one may access the computer.  The wildly different environments makes both travel and conquest hard–although not impossible.

Why the hell would you want to go to Well World, you ask?  Within the stories there are plenty of reasons.  One of the primary ones is that if you can gain access to the Well World computer, you can literally reshape reality.  In fact, once during the series the entire universe is “rebooted”!

If that sounds weird–you’re correct.  It’s really weird.  However, it’s not as unreachable as it sounds.  Chalker manages to personalize even the weirdest characters and makes even the oddest scenarios palatable.  The series has the highest technological level I’ve ever seen, but he keeps the stories and characters approachable.

The series takes place over a vast expanse of time.  And I do mean vast.  Epochs.  The only recurring characters are Nathan Brazil and Mavra Chang, who are essentially immortal. The rest consist of a rotating cast of characters.

Chalker’s penchant for reshaping characters like clay is in full flower here.  He warps, twists and reshapes everyone.  No one is safe.  Sexes change.  Species change.  Universes change.  You go from human to centaur to sentient plant and so forth.  Also, minds get altered, enhanced and enslaved.  I can’t recall any Chalker book where this does not take place.  In Well World it’s an absolute staple.

The staggering scope of the setting and some of the ennui which crops up can be a little overwhelming from time to time, but I would still heartily recommend these books.