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Literature / Well World

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The setting for a series of science fiction novels by Jack Chalker, beginning with Midnight at the Well of Souls in 1977. The Well World is a planet-sized computer created by an ancient race that used it to expand and stabilize the universe; its surface is a series of 1560 hexagonal laboratories used to develop new sentient species with carbon-based lifeforms in the southern hemisphere and truly alien lifeforms in the north. Newly arrived space travellers are incorporated into the experiment by being automatically assigned to a "hex" and transformed into its dominant species. Control the Well World and you can theoretically control the entire universe. Of course, it's never that simple.

Main series:

  1. Midnight at the Well of Souls (1977)
  2. Exiles at the Well of Souls (1978)
  3. Quest for the Well of Souls (1978)
  4. The Return of Nathan Brazil (1980)
  5. Twilight at the Well of Souls (1980)
  6. The Sea is Full of Stars (1999)
  7. Ghost of the Well of Souls (2000)

Watchers at the Well side series:

  1. Echoes of the Well of Souls (1993)
  2. Shadow of the Well of Souls (1994)
  3. Gods of the Well of Souls (1994)

The Well World series employs the following tropes:

  • Action Survivor: Nathan Brazil. Despite being the immortal guardian of the universe, he's small, unimposing, and doesn't normally go looking for trouble. His survival is guaranteed but his integrity is not and he's been mutilated quite a bit over the years, and while the stuff he loses always grows back, it's a long and painful process.
    • He only seems small in the modern era. He's only slightly less than average sized for a paleolithic human, and most of human history was spent in the paleolithic era.
  • All Myths Are True: Centaurs, fairies, and fauns are real alien races. Earth was created in seven (subjective) days. Nathan Brazil was Judas Iscariot, as well as the inspiration for the Wandering Jew.
  • Amnesiac God: Nathan Brazil in the first novel, before the Well restores his memories.
  • And I Must Scream: The final fate of Juan Campos, the South American rapist drug lord from the Watchers at the Well trilogy. Nathan Brazil decides that a fitting fate for Campos is to be dropped into the body of a gorgeous, mute South American Indian woman, who has wandered a bit too close to the Campos compound around the time that the Family's henchmen are looking for some fun. To add squick to the matter, Brazil's Modus Operandi is to find people who have recently died, and bring them back to life with the soul of the person that he's dealing with. Campos, my boy, you are now a zombie sex slave for the family that you were once groomed to lead. And only you will ever know or believe it. Sleep well.
    • The fate of a bad guy in the first book. He's dropped into the body of a deer-like animal on the home planet of a species of humanoid which hunts said animal in packs and eats it alive. Wanting to avoid such a grisly fate, he hurls himself off a cliff ... only to wake up in the body of another deer. Brazil made sure that he will experience death repeatedly, once for every person whose death he is responsible for. He has a fair body count to his credit. And the worst part: he doesn't know that it will, eventually, end.
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    • The fate of Datham Hain, a drug dealer and slave trader. The Well transformed him into a female breeder of a giant insectoid species. Her new people brainwashed her into a loyal and adoring subject of the local warlord prince. When the group reaches the Well, Hain's only wish is to mate with her beloved Prince. Brazil grants her wish, transforming Hain into the most beautiful female ever seen, and sends her home. When the rest of the group demands to know why the villain gets rewarded, Brazil explains that nobody told Hain that her new race's infants hatch from eggs inside their mother ... and eat their way out. Cue horrified and squicked expressions on every face...
  • Alternative Continuity: The Sea is Full of Stars— a series about a group of travelers to the Well World that doesn't include Marva Chang or Nathan Brazil, forcing the heroes to solve their dilemma without a walking Deus ex Machina.
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  • Arc Words: The phrase "Until midnight at the Well of Souls" is found in all Well World languages. We learn why in the first book (that's when the Well is open for entry), but it isn't until the fifth book that we learn there is a much deeper but no less literal meaning lurking underneath.
  • Armless Biped: The inhabitants of Slongorn, although one could theoretically count their probosces as arms.
  • Assimilation Plot: The State, in an Alternate History where the Soviet Union never fell and Communism became the default human government, tries to make this a reality on many of its more "advanced" planets, engineering humans in birth factories to be physically flawless but mentally ant-like workers and on some worlds even hermaphrodites, so everyone's equal.
  • Author Appeal: Even a casual survey of Chalker's work will show that he was obsessed with the idea of humans changing their species and sex. The Well World books just gave him a justification for doing it on a massive scale.
    • Not to mention the recurring cases of strong-smart-woman-turned-virtually-helpless-by-vision-or-reading-impairment-and-body-morphing. Seems to happen in the majority of Chalker's books.
  • Bee People: Many hyper-communist human colony-worlds have begun evolving in this direction, although they haven't gone so far as to develop a single queen who does all the breeding (yet).
  • Blessed with Suck:
    • Nathan Brazil is effectively immortal and something like God, but most of the time he does not consciously realize it. He remarks that no matter what the disaster, he has been a survivor, no matter how awful the event was.
    • Brazil also has a tendency to bless other characters with suck, usually as a karmic retribution for something they've done.
  • Charles Atlas Superpower: Gypsy (Dr. Zinder) has learned to directly manipulate minor local aspects of the universal programming, without technological assistance— he claims that it's all done mentally using mathematics.
  • Complete Immortality: Nathan Brazil, among other names he uses; later, Mavra Chang.
  • Con Man: Both Brazil and Mavra Chang use this as their fallback survival strategy. Brazil's life is just one big con anyway.
  • Cosmic Retcon: Happens a few times, using the powers granted by the Well.
  • Dismantled MacGuffin: In the last Well World series, the villains are attempting to find all the pieces of the dismantled Straight Gate. As it was an artifact of the Markovians, it was indestructible, so it had to be split up, scattered, and removed from the history books to keep it from being misused.
  • The Dreaded: Brazil, despite being an inoffensive sort, has the power to theoretically end the universe, and that terrifies everyone.
  • Emergency Transformation:
    • In Midnight at the Well of Souls, Nathan Brazil's soul is transferred into a deer-like creature when his human body gets fatally wounded. (Later, after he gets access to his powers, he obtains a new body for himself, but at the time it's expected to be irreversible.)
    • In Twilight at the Well of Souls, Mavra Chang's centaur body is permanently crippled by her enemies. Her allies then rescue her by transferring her mind and soul into the body of a pegasus. She also gets a new human body later, courtesy of the Well.
  • Enforced Technology Levels: Each hex has a maximum technology level — Non, Semi, or High — to simulate the availability of resources in that race's target biosphere. Technology above a hex's maximum level will simply fail to work inside that hex. Hex tech levels are not enforced on their species in the wider universe, however.
  • Expansion Pack Past: Nathan Brazil, which is sort of inevitable considering that he has (he says) rebooted the universe, and subsequently relived the whole course of all human history, at least five times.
  • Failed Future Forecast: Later revised as the universe is rebooted. In earlier Well World stories, communism spread to the stars, and there were even people who worshipped Marx and Lenin. After the universe was rebooted, the stories which (partially) took place on modern Earth noted that things are different.
  • The Fair Folk: An insectoid race that can abuse physical laws by their outstanding psychic powers, essentially making them magical for all intents and purposes. Brazil theorizes that the Well is cheating for them to make up for something they are supposed to have in their native environment.
  • Fantastic Drug: The alien organism called "sponge" is a (temporary) antidote to a brutal alien disease: a sort of brain-eating virus that eats away ten percent of an infected person's brainpower (not their physical brain, but their ability to think) per day, until they no longer know how to eat, at which point they starve to death. A dose of sponge neutralizes the virus for approximately a day, then the deterioration starts again. It's the ultimate blackmail drug, controlled by a vast, ruthless criminal syndicate, and it's the secret behind the success of the Com system.
  • Fate Worse than Death: Nikki Zinder is one of the founders of the Olympians, the race that Ben Yulin created through Obie's powers. When the other founders figure out that they're all reaching their age limits, they go back to the Well World for one last life time. Nikki, on the other hand, uses cybernetics to stay alive and becomes a Brain in a Jar to continue leading her people. When you first see her in The Return of Nathan Brazil, she seems relatively sane until Mavra leaves the room. Then she goes on a religious rant and orders her people to make sure that Brazil doesn't fall into the "Evil One's" hands, before laughing madly and then begging in a child's voice for her father to come back to her, though she can't reasonably think that he's still alive.
    • He is. He has to Mercy Kill her or her insanity will get in the way of saving the universe.
  • Fisher Kingdom: Entering the Well World induces transformation into one of that world's indigenous races.
  • Flying Dutchman: Nathan Brazil is an immortal wanderer, and is said in-story to be the likely inspiration for both the Flying Dutchman and wandering Jew legends.
  • Formulaic Magic: The Great Equation. A couple of supercomputers are capable of warping reality retroactively (that is, those who didn't see the change actually happen are incapable of realizing that anything changed) by "altering" the Equation, which basically is reality. By moving a few numbers in the equation, the result — that is, our reality — changes to suit.
  • Freak Out: In the second book of the second series, a fairly subdued version happens to Alowi, as she insists on being called from then on out when she's afraid that her husband is dying and realizes that she loves him. The fact that she'd been male (and very straight) until not long before the wedding played into that as well.
  • The Fog of Ages: In the first book, Nathan Brazil is so old that he's forgotten most of his life, including his own origins; it all comes flooding back when he comes (back) to the Well World.
  • Gender Bender: Numerous.
  • Gender Rarity Value: The Olympians are a subspecies of Transhuman Aliens specifically created to exploit Gender Rarity Value to fulfill a male villain's harem fantasies— fantasies that backfired spectacularly.
  • Handy Feet: The Twosh are bowling pin shaped creatures with only two limbs, which they use as hands or feet as the situation requires.
  • Hermaphrodite: Several species, mostly aquatic, as well as variant humans.
  • Humans Are White: Averted with Nathan Brazil, who is described as having a dark complexion, black hair, brown eyes, and a Roman (aquiline) nose. He's Semitic and he looks it, because he has to look like someone who wouldn't be too out of place in the Mesopotamian "cradle of civilization".
    • Secondary protagonist Marva Chang looks Asian due to plastic surgery intended to hide her from those who would harm her birth family. When she is transformed on the Well World into a form which she believes to be based on her true form had she been allowed to grow up normally, it's blond and busty, which would have made her extremely exotic looking (and thus difficult to hide) by prevailing human standards.
      • Brazil notes early in the first book that most people either look generic or engineered, and names rarely match appearances.
  • Hurricane of Puns: Those hex names which aren't shout outs or nonsense words. Like "Wasdamaddah".
  • Humanity Ensues: Inverted when various human characters are given alien forms and come to take on attributes of those forms.
  • Idiosyncratic Episode Naming: Most of the stories are "[X] Well of Souls". The two that aren't are The Return of Nathan Brazil and The Sea is Full of Stars:
    • Midnight at the Well of Souls
    • Exiles at the Well of Souls
    • Quest for the Well of Souls
    • Twilight at the Well of Souls
    • Ghost of the Well of Souls
    • Echoes of the Well of Souls
    • Shadow of the Well of Souls
    • Gods of the Well of Souls
  • Immortal Procreation Clause: Nathan Brazil, which he actually considers a mercy, since if he hadn't been, he'd have outlived a lot of mortal descendants by now.
  • Lady Land: The Olympians, a matriarchal society of transhumans that evolved, ironically enough, out of a failed attempt to create a society based entirely on male harem fantasies. (The ten-female-to-one-male birth ratio proved to be a bad idea in retrospect.)
  • Laser-Guided Karma: If you make it to the Well of Souls with Nathan Brazil, better hope you were a good person.
  • Last of His Kind: Nathan Brazil, although he keeps changing his story about what his kind is exactly.
  • Lizard Folk: Marquoz starts life as one of a small saurian fire-breathing race. After reaching the Well World, he is reborn as a Hakazit, a race of huge armored dinosaur-like war machines.
  • Magic Versus Science: In some hexes the differing laws of physics allow "magic" of various sorts, which is in fact all just the Magical Computer doing its thing.
  • Master Computer: The series is set inside one for the entire universe.
  • Mermaid Problem: The mermaid-like Umiau are hermaphroditic, not shy about that fact, and not at all interested in sex outside their species.
  • Mister Seahorse: Literally (via Mix-and-Match Critters).
  • Mix-and-Match Critters: Justified as lazy Markovians cribbing each other's work.
  • Multiple-Choice Past: Brazil has at varous time claimed to be God, the last member of a race of Precursors, or an ordinary human who was tricked into becoming the caretaker of the universe. It's actually the second one.
  • Neuro-Vault: In Midnight at the Well of Souls, Vardia Diplo 1261 is, for the most part, a human cassette reel— a Neuro-Vault with legs. A message is encoded in her head, to be shuttled to another planet's embassy, where the vault is unlocked, and she's basically written over with the base "Diplo program".
  • Non-Mammal Mammaries: A naga-like species with six arms and six breasts, though these were later retconned into glands for storing water.
  • No Sex Allowed: Taken to extremes by the Comworlders, most of whom are genetically or biochemically engineered to never hit puberty.
  • Now What?: Every group that makes it into the Well confronts this to one degree or another.
  • One-Gender Race: The Czillians, a species of sentient, parthenogenic plants.
  • Our Centaurs Are Different:
    • The original series has Dillians and Rhone (which are the Well World and out-in-the-Universe versions respectively) as more-or-less the classic model,albeit with horse ears, and only about the size of big ponies. Dillians also appear in the Watchers at the Well series; there, they're stated to have become a smoother synthesis of hominid and equine than the classic centaur.
    • The matriarchal Gekir felitaurs.
  • Our Mermaids Are Different: The Umiau are an alien species of aquatic mammals that just happen to look remarkably like traditional mermaids. Another aquatic race resembles sea lions.
  • Patchwork Map: The surface of the Well World is divided into regular hexagons, each featuring its own environment, often startlingly different from its neighbors in climate, biome, atmosphere, gravity, or even achievable tech level, with no apparent separating mechanism other than force walls that just about anyone can shove through without noticing. A case of it being artificially constructed and designed that way.
  • Patchwork World: The Well World is a planet constructed by the Precursors as a testbed for the species they designed and spread through the universe. It's divided into thousands of sections that mimic the conditions of each target planet.
  • Phlebotinum Killed the Dinosaurs: The Markovians killed the dinosaurs because they'd evolved naturally on a planet that was earmarked for the Markovian-designed human race.
  • Plant Aliens: The Czillians are bipedal sentient plants. They are a lot more plant-like and a lot less humanoid then many of the other examples.
  • Plucky Girl: Mavra Chang absolutely refuses to give up despite all of the Body Horror inflicted on her— seemingly crippling mutations and body modifications only seem to make her even more determined. Hell, Mavra's probably at her most dangerous when she doesn't even have any hands.
  • Power Perversion Potential: Obie's a supercomputer hooked up to a Matter/Energy/Matter converter and planted inside a planetoid big enough to house a small town. He can give you anything you want, as long as he knows how to make it, and has a big transmitter capable of altering entire planets to a person's specifications. He's also capable of traveling to anywhere he knows the coordinates of within minutes. Upon hearing of Obie's full power, Nathan Brazil himself said, "to hell with porn," and upon seeing Obie in action, Brazil was rather disturbed.
    • One of the first acts of Ben Yulin, the villain in Book 3, upon gaining control of Obie is to capture two of the woman characters and transform them into what he considers female perfection as well as program them to be his sex slaves. He keeps doing to this to all the other characters he captures, increasing the size of his harem, with plans of doing the same to entire worlds.
  • President for Life/ Only Serves for Life: In Twilight at the Well of Souls, Marquoz is re-made by the Well into a Hakazit, a species of large, powerful, reptilian warriors. The Hakazit have a truly unique form of government: The Supreme Lord is an absolute dictator - but the office is passed on only by Klingon Promotion, and every other Hakazit in the entire hex spends their spare time trying to find a way to assassinate him and become Supreme Lord in turn. The current Supreme Lord is fifty-seven years old and has held the position a little over three years. In his lifetime there have been sixty-six other Supreme Lords. The historical record for holding the position is nine years, three months, sixteen days, five hours, forty-one minutes.
  • Ragnarök Proofing: The Well World itself. Not only is it a planet sized computer that has been functioning for millions of years since its creators disappeared, but if true Ragnarok is at hand,you can just Ctrl-Alt-Del the thing and reboot the entire universe.
  • Reality Warper: Anyone who gains access to even some of the power of the Well World computer (or develops an analogous system). The human-built computer Obie has the power to warp a planet. The Well is the operating system for the Universe, and has been rebooted several times (thankfully by the good guys).
  • Resurrection/Death Loop: In Midnight at the Well of Souls, one of the villains ends up being placed into the body of a deer-like animal on the home planet of a species of humanoid which hunts said animal in packs and eats it alive. Wanting to avoid such a grisly fate, he hurls himself off a cliff... only to wake up in the body of another such creature. Brazil made sure that he will experience death repeatedly, once for every person whose death he is responsible for— and he has a fair body count to his credit. However, the villain in question doesn't know that this will, eventually, end, and is thus made to think that he will be forced to experience this forever.
  • Retcon: Brazil's origin story changes a lot over the years, explained in story as a combination of Shrouded in Myth and Brazil being a habitual liar.
  • Sense Freak/Showing Off the New Body as each character awakens to discover their new species.
  • Rock Beats Laser: Even in semitech hexes, sophisticated weapons are often useless, so people who travel a lot tend to carry things like swords and crossbows, which work anywhere.
    • Some of the non-tech species are as sly and sophisticated as anyone, despite their enforced primitivism.
  • Second Law of Gender-Bending: Also applies to all of the species bending.
    • It's justified; the Well alters the mind of anyone passing through it just enough to make them comfortable in their new forms.
  • Series Continuity Error: The details of exactly what's in each hex of the Well World, and what each hex is named, are not always consistent from book to book.
  • Starfish Aliens: Well World is divided into two parts. Southern Hemisphere is for carbon-based lifeforms, and a lot of those are quite starfish-looking. Northern Hemisphere is for non-carbon-based ones, and those are just plain weird.
  • The Stars Are Going Out: An experimental weapon tears a hole in reality that just keeps widening, erasing everything inside it.
  • Steampunk: In certain hexes, technology is limited to steam.
  • There Are Two Kinds of People in the World: Serge Ortega asserts that the universe contains only three kinds of people — scoundrels, hypocrites, and sheep — and that he is therefore proud to be a scoundrel.
  • Time Abyss: Nathan Brazil, who is several times older than the universe.
  • Transformation Ray: One of the main manifestations of the Well's reality warping powers.
  • Tuckerization: Many hex names are shout outs to people that Chalker knew in SF fandom and the publishing industry.
  • Wandering Jew: Brazil again, and he's been wandering for at least a billion years.
  • Wave-Motion Gun: The entire universe is actually a simulation running on a gigantic computer called the Well of Souls. Humanity figures out how to hack it to a minor degree and builds "Zinder Nullifiers" for use in a major intergalactic war, weapons that basically reformat a large region of space into a default empty vacuum state. The war gets a bit heated, the Nullifiers are overused, and the Well World starts suffering a progressive memory fault that will eventually destroy the entire universe unless our intrepid heroes are able to get into the Well of Souls' control center to fix it.
  • What If God Was One of Us?: Maybe, but also practically yes. Nathan Brazil's real origin is never stated, and several of the characters wonder about him: is he really God, the last Markovian, or a construct of the Well itself? At the end of the day, it doesn't matter, because once he's in the Well Computer, he is a deity. The last book reveals that he is indeed the last Markovian.
    • This is essentially the plot of the first novel, where the adventuring party reaches their goal only to discover that one of their own members is effectively God after they get there.
  • When the Clock Strikes Twelve: The significance of the phrase "midnight at the Well of Souls"— the six gateways to the Well open at local midnight. That was the time the shift changed, and it was the only automatic access left in the system.
  • Who Wants to Live Forever?: Brazil, in his darker moments. But what do you expect from someone who's been forced to destroy and recreate the universe at least five times?
  • Writers Cannot Do Math: Look at the partial maps of the Well World and the data given in the text. Try to extrapolate the possible numbers of hexes. 1560 is not a possible result.

Alternative Title(s): Midnight At The Well Of Souls