Don’t judge a book by its cover. It’s an interesting phrase. It’s loaded with profound meaning about the nature of substance versus instinct. Well, I strayed from this line of thought entirely the other day when I picked up “Exiles at the Well of Souls” by Jack L. Chalker.
I was perusing a local bookstand, and sitting between a thick tome about Russian Jewry and a guide was a book with a very peculiar cover. A dark blue satyr rides on a green Pegasus across a cloudy mountaintop, wielding a glowing silver sword.
Judging entirely by the cover, I brought it home and read it cover to cover- and whoo boy, did I make a mistake.
1. Jack L. Chalker
I had no idea who Jack Chalker was before I picked up this book. For the sake of this review, I perused his Wikipedia page, and it seems that he was a prominent science fiction and fantasy author, with dozens of books to his name.
He earned himself several awards for writing, including the Daedalus Award (1983), The Gold Medal of the West Coast Review of Books (1984), the Skylark Award (1980), and the Hamilton-Brackett Memorial Award (1979)- plus, he posthumously won the Phoenix Award (2005).
2. Premise (No Spoilers)
The premise of the story is that two scientists create an AI that can modify the “Prime Equation,” which is a sort of mathematical equation underlying all of reality. Modify the equation, and you alter reality- and it becomes changed in a way that no one else notices that reality has changed. The head scientist, Gilgam Zinder, is betrayed by his coworker, and his partner, Yulin, helps an ambitious politician kidnap Zinder’s daughter to force Zinder to work for him.
It’s crucial here to outline the setting. Far in the future, humanity has spread across hundreds of planets. Ideologies of every type are given their own planets and are left to see if their system works. A grand council of representatives meets to keep the peace between the systems and is in charge of the stockpile of weapons powerful enough to disrupt the status quo.
Our main villain, the politician Antor Trelig, comes from a world of genetically modified hermaphrodites and wants to use AI to force people to obey him on a planetary scale.
Our heroine, Mavra Chang, a professional thief, smuggler, and pilot, is given the job of rescuing Gilgam Zinder and his daughter so that Trelig can’t force their compliance.
Now, with that premise, the story sounds like an awesome sci-fi space-heist with a morally gray hero. And it… kind of is?
You see, the story quite suddenly turns into a fantasy about halfway through when the characters end up at the “Well World.” I won’t say much, because I’d be spoiling it too much for those interested, but all the characters basically end up caught on different sides of a civil war between about a dozen different weird alien races.
To be fair to the author, he writes very well. Despite a continually shifting perspective and a numerous amount of characters, the story manages to be clear about what’s happening, and the pace keeps going without being too fast to absorb everything new. All the aliens have distinct enough names that I’m never wondering, “Which one is that again?” when I read about “the Agitar” or “the Czill.”
4. So, Where Does It Go Wrong?
The story is… weird. No, it’s more than that. The story is weird and – there’s no other word for it – fetishistic. Everything is fetishistic.
The villain is a hermaphrodite.
His drug-addled servants and slaves walk around naked- some of whom are so hormonally imbalanced, they’re men who have developed female characteristics (boobs).
When it gets to the fantasy section, you learn precisely how and when every single alien race has sex.
One of the protagonists engages in intercourse with a fourteen-year-old human(!), and the story brushes past it as if it’s not a big deal.
By the end of the story, all of the characters are turned into aliens or animals. Except for Mavra, whose limbs become horrifically malformed, turning her into a weird horse/human thing that the satyr on the cover (the same one who committed the pedophilia by the way) describes as being ‘mildly erotic’.
Oh, and the story doesn’t actually end. It continues for another SIX WHOLE BOOKS.
Well written with an intriguing plot, but full of fetishistic undertones and outright pedophilia.