I just recently finished the next-to-last book in the “Well World” series by the late Jack L. Chalker. It was, as is always the case with Chalker, an intriguing experience. I haven’t read all of Chalker’s works, but I have read a substantial amount. To say he was prolific is an understatement. But he’s generally an enjoyable read, and, I must confess, I find myself inspired by his work in some ways, and freely admit that there are elements of my current project that are reminiscent of his best books. There are also some things that I am not taking inspiration from.
Chalker tended to work in science fiction, but it was usually on the soft end of the scale, and sometimes his works are outright fantasy, most notably the “Dancing Gods” series. Whether science fiction or fantasy, there are a number of common themes.
Arguably the most prominent motif is identity. Chalker’s books are full of physical transformations where characters become entirely different creatures, and often change sex as well. This is most notable in the “Well World” series, but also informs the “Soul Rider,” “Changewinds” “Rings of the Masters” and “Dancing Gods” series. These experiences are usually highly transformative, in both positive and negative ways, particularly the gender-based changes.
Another related mode of transformation is body-switching, which Chalker uses less often, but it is central in the “Lords of the Diamond” series, particularly the second book. Again, the effects of such experiences on the characters are usually profound. I am not, at this time, intending to do much of that sort of thing; I am tossing around a possible variation for a later book, though I have no idea yet where I would take it.
Another common concept for Chalker has to do with the nature of reality. More than one series, including “Well World,” “Soul Rider,” and “Quintara Marathon,” postulates that reality is a construct that can be reduced to mathematical equations. If one knows the equations, and has the right instrumentality, then one can control reality and shape it to one’s liking. It’s sort of like thinking, “two plus two equals coffee,” and suddenly a cup of coffee materializes in front of you. This is another concept I’m not doing a lot with as such, but the way it sometimes plays out is actually very similar to where my trilogy is ultimately going.
The ability to control reality is used by Chalker to explore one of his favorite themes: power. The old maxim that “power corrupts” goes to insane heights for Chalker, who suggests in numerous novels that those with power will inevitably use it to enslave and torture those without. A rather bleak worldview, and it calls into question why I like Chalker. Well, I must say that the novels where he really plays that up tend to be less enjoyable for me, and, in fact, I have yet to make it through the “Changewinds” series, although there is another reason for that.
Chalker, in some novels, but not all, tended to show a distinct misogynistic streak. He frequently puts his female characters through unspeakable horror, notably in the “Well World,” “Soul Rider,” and, most of all, “Changewinds” series. Often this is combined with physical transformation to establish particularly distasteful sexual subjugation. Needless to say, as someone who likes strong female characters, I have difficulty with this, particularly when female characters find themselves sexually degraded – and come to enjoy it! More than one novel has one or more female characters becoming outright sex slaves or prostitutes, and discovering it to be far more “empowering” than any previous aspirations they might have had. Now, I’m all for women being in control of their own sexuality, but this is just offensive. Combine it with another theme, that domesticity is also the highest calling for a woman, and it gets ugly.
Not a ringing endorsement, is it? What is there to possibly recommend Chalker? Well, for one thing, he was unbelievably imaginative. Where he excels above all is in the creation of alien environments, races and cultures, vividly realized and astonishingly complex. And many novels offer more than one. This is the other central premise of the “Well World” series, and in many of his novels he sends the characters on an odyssey through a series of bizarre and exotic landscapes in quest of some impossible goal. I refer to this sort of thing as a “Chalker Journey” and it informs the overall premise of my series, and I have in mind to pull out all the stops in the third book. I hope I can live up to Chalker’s standards.
Then there is Chalker’s remarkable use of Point of View. He usually wrote in third person, and was highly adept at shifting the perspective fluidly. And he did not limit his narrative voice to the protagonists; he often allowed the readers to be inside the heads of some very dark villains, rendering their motives comprehensible, and making them less one-dimensional. Though the characteristics of the Young Adult genre limit my ability to be that free with POV, I nevertheless use Chalker as a model as I hold onto a shifting third person POV among my four characters.
Finally, any analysis of Chalker is not complete without mentioning one other thematic constant: nudity. I once asked a friend who was reading a Chalker novel, “Has he gotten the characters naked yet?” Yes, he had, as he usually does, often on flimsy motives. But what is admirable is that it is rarely salacious, even when he is at his most misogynistic. Nudity in Chalker is always presented as a comfortable, natural thing, not to be ashamed of. In other words, Chalker actually promoted positive body image.
As I said, I am taking inspiration from Chalker, and have sometimes referred to my series as “Chalker for children.” It’s Young Adult, and my characters are all young. So does that mean I’ll use nudity? As a matter of fact, yes it does. If other writers can write a bestseller wherein children hunt each other for entertainment, then my characters should be able to go skinny-dipping. Indeed, I have one character who prefers to be naked, and so far everyone who’s read my manuscripts likes her, and aren’t the least bit bothered, seeing her attitude as a natural element of her character, so there you go.
Mind you, this means they’ll never make a movie of my book. Oh well. Can’t have everything.