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.

Battle Beyond the Stars: A Forgotten Gem

 

Battle Beyond the Stars came out in 1980, riding the coattails of Star Wars.  Every studio was scrambling to find an equivalent franchise after SW hit the movie scene like a nuclear bomb.  Roger Corman, the king of low-budget schlock, slapped together this movie in short order.

The results were . . . surprisingly, not too bad.  Subtle?  Not so much.

Battle is essentially a remake of The Magnificent Seven in space.  Seven was also a remake of Akira Kurosawa‘s Seven Samurai.  So it’s a remake of a remake.  Which sounds terrible, but the initial premise is still strong and Battle has decent actors and production values.

A wholesome couple and their android.

The setting is the far future planet Akir.  Akir is inhabited by peace-loving space Amish . . . or something.  Anyway, the Akira (a nod to Akira Kurosawa) get a visit from an unpleasant character called Sador.  (Yes, Sador.  A subtle name.)  Sador (John Saxon) packs a giant battleship, an army of mutants and a “stellar converter” that can blow up planets.  Not having an army or experience in fighting, they send out Shad (Richard Thomas) to look for help.  Richard at this point had just come off playing “John-Boy” on The Waltons for five years.  I suspect he was attempting to find any role that would break out of that typecasting.

See? Boobs.

Shad flies off in an intelligent ship with a sarcastic personality named Nell.  And the ship has boobs.  Seriously, the ship is stacked.  Through various encounters, Shad manages to dig up a group of fighters who are willing to defend Akir.

He loves it when a plan comes together.

First is Nanelia (Darlanne Fluegel) who doesn’t bring any weapons except a battle computer, however she is Shad’s love interest.  Second is Space Cowboy.  Yes, his name is Space Cowboy.  Did I mention this film isn’t subtle?  Space Cowboy (George Peppard) doesn’t have much of a ship, but has plenty of ground weapons to fend off troops. 

Typical college life these days.

Nestor, a group-mind of clones, volunteer for the fight because they’re bored with their sameness.  Next comes Gelt (Robert Vaughn), an assassin whose success has made him too many enemies.  All he wants is a place to live peacefully, without watching his back.  Vaughn essentially plays the same character he did in The Magnificent Seven, only with a spaceship. 

Next is Saint Exmin (Sybil Danning) from the race of Valkyries.  She shows up in a tiny, super-fast ship and wants to fight because she comes from a warrior race and loves it.  For you younger folks, Sybil was the go-to sexpot in every B film in the 80s.  She’s wonderful eye candy in this.

She can carry my spear. Rowwr!

Finally we get a lizard alien named Cayman (Morgan Woodward).  Yes, he’s named Cayman.  Just let it go.  Cayman has a massive warship and wants to fight because Sador destroyed his race.  Although unrecognizable in his makeup, you might know Woodward from Cool Hand Luke, and two appearances on the original Star Trek series.

The group of fighters meet Sador in battle and . . . well, you can guess how this goes if you’ve seen The Magnificent Seven. 

I enjoyed the hell out of it as a kid and when I rewatched it recently, it held up pretty well.  It doesn’t hurt that you have real actors and decent special effects (by none other than James Cameron).  The spaceship designs are nifty and John Sayles‘s script is damn solid.

I am eeeevil!

It has since become a bit of a cult favorite among aficionados.  It still pops up from time to time in pop culture references.  If you’ve ever played the classic PC game Master of Orion II, you’ll recognize the “stellar converter” technology reference.

If you like science fiction and have never seen this, I recommend it without reservation.

The whole movie’s available on YouTube.  You’re welcome.

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The Star Fox is Iron Man? A Poul Anderson Great.

The Star Fox (1964) is a favorite novel of mine from the late, great Poul Anderson.  Like a lot of Poul’s novels, there is a political undertone to it.  Poul wrote a lot of Libertarian themed fiction, like several of his contemporaries (such as Heinlein.)  This novel is both political and a precursor to today’s modern military science fiction.  After re-reading it again, however, I also realized that it was a kind of precursor to 2008’s Iron Man movie.

Basic setup is as follows:

It’s a far future space opera setting.  Earth has expanded its domain outward and put out colonies.  During this expansion they’ve come upon a militaristic and expansionist alien empire called the Aleriona.  After an ‘accidental’ attack on the human colony of New Europe, the Aleriona make peace overtones.  Everyone on New Europe is supposedly dead, so the war-wary human government doesn’t push the Aleriona claim to New Europe.

Bow before my awesomeness!

Enter the protagonist Gunnar Heim.  He’s a wealthy industrialist and navy veteran who thinks the peace talks with the Aleriona are a smoke screen for them to consolidate their position.  Then along comes a survivor of New Europe who swears there are still millions of survivors on New Europe.  When he goes to the Earth government, he isn’t believed.  Turns out the government doesn’t want to know of survivors, as it would derail the peace process.

Less military discipline is needed by privateers.

Through clever maneuvering, Gunnar manages to get a Letter of Marque from the French government, who despise the peace talks.  (Yes.  The French want war.  It’s fiction.) Through his massive fortune, Gunnar gets a battleship outfitted and crewed to wage a guerilla war against the Aleriona blockading New Europe.  Most of the book (originally three stories) details Gunnar’s escape from Earth authorities and his journey to acquire, equip and arm his ship, the Fox II to become a raider.  Most of his opposition from the Earth government and the ironically named “World Militants for Peace”.

I’ve read the book several times, but only recently did I get the parallel between it and Iron Man.  In both cases, a wealthy industrialist sees injustice done and takes it upon himself to take up arms against the guilty when his government fails.  The difference being that guilt motivates Tony Stark by the use of his weapons to harm the innocent.  In The Star Fox, Gunnar is motivated because he can see that the Earth government’s pacifism will allow the Aleriona to push Earth until resistance is untenable.  The temporary peace is bought at the cost of millions of innocent colonists.

Don’t let me repulse you.

Both have strong Libertarian undertones and a spirit of individualism which endear them to me.  Might be why I enjoy hearing of the Flying Tigers in pre-WW2 China.  The only sour note is that Poul meant this as his statement on America’s involvement in Vietnam.  Namely, his fear that the communists wouldn’t stop at Vietnam.  In hindsight, maybe not the neatest allegory.  The story in Iron Man is bit tighter and more ideologically ‘pure’.  Plus, it has Robert Downey Jr. playing my favorite comic character of all time.

Still, it’s a solid, enjoyable novel.  Check it out.

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Dahak Series: A Grand Concept

The first of David Weber’s Dahak Series, Mutineers Moon, came out in 1992, preceding his lucrative Honor Harrington books by a year.  The series consists of a mere three books, but they’re not bad.  Tightly written with a grandiose and outrageous idea.  I enjoyed the hell out of them.

In this setting, Earth’s moon isn’t a moon–it’s a ship.  A gigantic, intelligent warship with an AI named “Dahak”.  Dahak is a ship of an ancient galactic empire (The “Fourth Imperium”) and has been orbiting the Earth disguised as a moon for 50,000 years.  It turns out the entire population of Earth are descendants of the crew of Dahak.  An ancient mutiny happened and both the loyal crew and mutineers escaped to Earth, where the outnumbered loyalists were hunted and killed.  The ship was sabotaged and couldn’t stop the mutineers or aid the loyalists.  It took many decades to repair the damage, and by then all the loyalists were dead or unable to contact Dahak.  With conflicting sets of priorities in its last orders, Dahak disguises itself as a moon and waits.  For fifty thousand years.

Wild enough?  There’s more.

The mutineers reduce the surviving loyalists to the Stone Age.  They lose knowledge of their origins and begin the long climb back to civilization.  Essentially, the entire history of mankind comes from cosmic castaways.  The story begins at a near-future point where Lieutenant Commander Colin MacIntyre flies a spacecraft around the moon to map the far side.  When he goes out of radio contact, Dahak sends out remote ships to capture him and fake his death.  Using twisty logic, Dahak declares that the indigenous life of Earth are considered the descendants of the loyalists.  Therefore, he puts Colin in command of the moon-sized ship.

From there it’s discovered that many of the original mutineers are still alive.  After the mutiny, there was a schism between the mutineers.  One group was fine with the status quo and the other regretted the decision.  They’ve been secretly warring with one another throughout human history.  The original mutineers are led by Engineering Chief Anu and the rebels are led by Missile Tech Horus.  Whole mythologies sprung up around the conflict.

Anu’s people dwell beneath Antarctica, protected by a force shield so powerful that it would take Dahak’s main guns to punch through.  This, however would destroy most of the life on Earth.  Ergo, Dahak cannot act.  Colin and the rebels have to figure out how to take them down without Dahak’s direct help.

That’s right people.  We’ve got an Ancient Alien Conspiracy.  Moon sized ships.  Godlike alien infiltrators.  A goddamn Antarctic base!  Oh yeah, baby!

But wait!  There’s more.  The original purpose of Dahak and ships like it was to fight off a fleet of extra-galactic extermination ships.  The fleet periodically reappears every few millennia and destroys all technological civilizations.  And they’re about due to pay another visit. And that’s just the beginning of the story!  The original books were Mutineers Moon, The Armageddon Inheritance and Heirs of Empire.  All of the books are collected in the compilation Empire from the Ashes.

World-smashing ships!  Alien supermen!  Cosmic mysteries!  Invading fleets!  Dead empires!  Ravening beams of force! This is basically a homage to E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman books.  I don’t say that as criticism.  Smith would have loved these books.  I know I did.

Weber’s later books become preachy and political.  Not these.  Lean, exciting stuff.  Go pick up a copy and enjoy.

My First Science Fiction Series: Flinx and Pip

The Flinx and Pip series by Alan Dean Foster appeared on my radar screen in the late seventies.  I was ushered into this series via Foster’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye and Alien movie adaptation.  Before that my experience with science fiction had been movies and comic books.  Although my mom read War of the Worlds to me as a kid.  I only understood parts of it.  Yes, my mom read a turn-of-the-century H.G. Wells novel to me as a young nipper.  My mom is awesome.

Alan Dean Foster got a bad rep in the seventies and eighties because of all of his movie adaptations.  He did a lot of them.  I don’t criticize him, because I’m happy for any writer making good money.  Good for him.

Anyway, I saw his name on a book: The Tar-Aiym Krang.  That title just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?  Still, I rather enjoyed it.  So I got the rest in the series: Orphan Star and The End of the Matter and Bloodhype.  Mind you, Bloodhype is an oddball entry in the series.  It was written second, but comes in . . . I’m not exactly sure where it fits in the chronology.  More on that later.

Basic premise of the series is nothing radically new.  Far future space civilization (The Commonwealth) with multiple worlds and alien civilizations.  The fun part is the dual civilizations of human and Thranx (which are mantis-like alien insects).  Foster sets up the framework for all his Commonwealth books in this series.  It’s a setting every bit as rich and interesting as anything created by Isaac Asimov, Poul Anderson or Larry Niven.  (None of which I had read as a young teenager.)  It has lost alien civilizations, cosmic threats and alien artifacts.  Meat and drink to the science fiction or space opera genre.

The main character in this series is Flinx.  He’s a psionic orphan who grows up poor and becomes a thief and (sometime) con artist on the planet Moth (named because of wing-like rings).  His “sidekick” is a flying alien snake with deadly and acidic venom.  It’s also empathic and “links” with Flinx.

The unlikely duo runs into various adventures, usually because of Flinx’s precognitive flashes that lead him into strange situations.  He also later discovers that he was genetically engineered by a secretive group to give him his abilities.

The series continued after that, but the strongest ones were the first ones.  Bloodhype is the oddball one because Flinx and Pip are background characters, rather than the main ones.  It’s still a very good book, but go into it understanding that it’s only marginally a Flinx and Pip book.

Later books take place after The End of the Matter and just before or after Bloodhype.  Sort of.  There’s a pretty big event that happens in Bloodhype that changes Flinx a lot and . . . well, it’s complicated and a bit confusing. Essentially, Foster wrote himself into a corner in Bloodhype but people still wanted Flinx books, so . . . there you go.

This series was my introduction into reading science fiction and I don’t feel cheated.  Still good stuff and I still like Alan Dean Foster a lot.  Although his fantasy is a mixed bag at best.  His Spellsinger series is awful.  I did like Into the Out Of, but I’d call that horror.  I would strongly advise checking out his The Damned series.  It’s great.

Honestly, the Flinx and Pip series would make a great movie or television series.  It’s straightforward, but with plenty of room to expand a universe.

Go check out the series.

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Star Command/In the Fold: 90s Cheese

For many years I tried to find Star Command somewhere on the web.  The difficulty lay in the fact that I couldn’t actually remember the name of the damn thing.  Until recently, I had only seen it once–20 years ago.  However, thanks to the wonder of YouTube, I tracked it down and re-watched it.

I kind of liked the thing back in 1996 with the original viewing.  I feared it would become awful with two decades under my belt.  Did it?

Umm . . . yes and no.

First, a basic rundown.  Star Command is meant to be a pilot for a series on UPN.  Written by Wild Cards and Next Generation veteran Melinda M. Snodgrass, it feels a lot like a Heinlein or perhaps David Weber story.  That’s not a quality judgment, merely a thematic one.

It’s a space opera setting where humanity splinters between Terrans and colonists.  As best I can deduce, the colonies formed their own government and broke away from Terran control.  Not a new space opera concept, but not the worst I’ve seen.  Both sides claim a rare Earth-like planet while they scramble for resources and war is brewing.

The story follows the crew of a corvette named Surprise with a training crew.  The Surprise flies into the disputed system for a scouting mission but gets ambushed by the rebellious colonist government, during which the senior officers all die–and rather quickly.  The ship is crippled but managed to land on a frozen moon and fake its destruction.  This leaves the cadets to stop the five enemy cruisers with their one corvette.

The good:

The writing isn’t bad.  Plenty of time-honored science fiction novel ideas are here which rarely make it onto television or movie screens.  Cliches become cliches for good reasons.

Melinda does her best to incorporate hard science fiction elements.  The ships have lasers and missiles–instead of phasers and shields.  Radiation screws up things.  And so forth.

The acting is passable.  It won’t win any awards, but I’ve seen worse.

The setting is interesting enough I wouldn’t mind more.  It certainly feels a lot more classic sci-fi than most science fiction movies and television.

Morgan Fairchild looks pretty good in this, even though she’s in her mid-forties.

The bad:

The special effects have not aged well.  They were passable for 1996, but . . . ugh.  Computer graphics have a short shelf life and these weren’t cutting edge in 1996.

The sets look like Babylon 5 rejects.  Actually that’s unkind to Babylon 5.

The costumes are . . . well, I’m not sure what they are.  The uniforms appear to be a combination of Next Generation and something from a 1960s Heinlein space navy promotional poster.

Morgan Fairchild dies very quickly.

The ugly:

The robot in it is like Johnny 5’s retarded cousin.  I get that they were trying to have a robot that looks like a robot, as opposed to a guy in makeup, but don’t try it without a budget.  Just don’t.

Overview:

So how does it stack up with my memory?  Better in some ways but worse in others.

I’ve noticed a lot of hate in several internet spots, but I don’t quite get it.  Sure, this jalopy is rusty and clunky, but not worth the disdain.  Perhaps I enjoy it more because I can see the designs and intentions behind the flaws.  This could have been a passable series.  Suppose Babylon 5 or Next Generation had been judged solely by their pilots? (shudders)

Is it cheesy?  There’s a bit of Cheddar.

Flaws?  Goddamn right.

Bad costumes?  Yes.  However, I did enjoy the miniskirts for graduation.  However, I enjoy miniskirts for virtually any occasion.

Honestly though, I’d rather watch this than a polished turd like Independence Day or its ilk.  I’ve had worse times.

Watch it and judge for yourself.

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Warstrider Series: An Unappreciated Gem

The Warstrider series entered by consciousness way back in the early 90s.  I only became aware of it because the author, a William H. Keith Jr., wrote several Battletech books.  Those Battletech books, while game books, were so outstanding I instantly started following the Warstrider books.

They didn’t disappoint.

The series begins in the 26th century, set in a future space empire ruled by Japanese.  The empire is strongly prejudiced against non-Japanese citizens.  Despite that, the main character, Dev Cameron, joins the Imperial Military.  He does so to help the reputation of his father, who died in disgrace during Imperial service.  This death happened in connection to a war against the Xenophobes.

The Xenophobes are an alien species which dwell underground on several planets.  They tunnel easily through the earth and consume any minerals and technology they encounter.  Ignoring all attempts to communicate, the Xenophobes annihilate all other life forms.

Dev enters into battle against these foes, first as an infantryman and later as a warstrider (mech) pilot.  The series starts out as a simple military sci-fi story of rah-rah action.  It doesn’t stay that way.

First, this is the first series I read that used nanotechnology as a major plot point.  Both the humans and Xenophobes (later renamed ‘Nagas’) make extensive use of it.  The implications of nanotech are explored in war, medicine and the nature of humanity.  There is a major power creep in the series, reminiscent of E.E. “Doc” Smith’s books.  Unlike Smith’s books, however, Keith does his best to maintain a level of hard science.  He approaches nanotech, biotech, virtual reality, mental links, quantum communication and even space and time warps with scrupulous detail.

Second to that is examination of political systems and how they might work (or not work) in a space civilization.  This was my first serious encounter with the concept of classical liberalism or Libertarianism.  It was also (at the time) dealing with the U.S.’s paranoia over the growing power of Japan.  Most of the action is between the breakaway Confederation and the Hegemony/Empire, rather than against aliens.

Third, it tries to approach alien mindsets, first with the Nagas and later with other alien races encountered by humanity.  In later books it deals with the concept of humanity’s minds interlinked through technology becoming a new entity.

Finally, it’s an outstanding war story.  Keith keeps the action going even when the methods and even the concepts of warfare change beyond easy comprehension.  He also keeps the stakes personal, even when all of humanity becomes a giant “Battlemind” fighting against a robotic group mind from the center of the galaxy(!) 

Keith’s work blew me away when I read it in the 90s and hasn’t lost its punch.  The concepts are pretty crunchy, but Keith manages to give the elements to you in bite-size pieces.  The technology is also a bit prescient, I think.  The potential of nanotechnology is staggering IRL. 

Warstrider is so layered, I can’t really do it justice in a brief review.  I recommend you check it out.  It’s available on Amazon, only now it’s under another of Keith’s pen names: Ian Douglas.

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