“The Saga of the Well World” and “Watchers at the Well” by Jack L. Chalker (December 17, 1944 – February 11, 2005) presents a unique look into the manner in which science fiction can transform real science into metaphor and, through that effort, enter the realm of art.
The story is set in a distant future where humanity has settled the galaxy, running into few other species in the great expanse. Society operates in collectives of planets, some capitalist, some mafia like, some using drugs or technology to turn themselves into insect-like colonies. The back cover summary for book 2 “Exiles at the Well of Souls” gives us a good review of the story line.
Antor Trellig, head of a ruthless interstellar syndicate, had seized a super computer with godlike powers, which could make him omnipotent. The Council offered master criminal Mavra Chang any reward if she stopped Trellig – and horrible, lingering death if she failed. But neither Trellig nor Mavra had taken the Well World into consideration. Built by the ancient Markovians, the Well World controlled the design of the cosmos. When the opponents were drawn across space to the mysterious planet, they found themselves in new alien bodies, and in the middle of a battle where strange races fought desperately, with the control of all the Universe as the prize.
We soon discover the Well World is a massive planet (several Jupiters combined) whose crust is covering an ancient super-computer. This computer maintains the equations that control the physical universe. On its crust are several hundred hexagonal territories, each containing a different species. These are the seed stock for all intelligent life in the universe, grown here and then deposited on planets once ready. Built by a race known as the Markovians, who were the only intelligent species to inhabit the universe. Having evolved to their fullest, they felt something was missing, so they decided to try again. They built this planet/computer to program a new universe, based on a new quantum math, populated by the species they created. However they could not create new souls, so they had to transform themselves into the new creatures and let the computer run on auto. This was the key part of the project, they were testing to see if different forms and/or compositions in different environments would allow them to discover what was missing. They left one of their own behind to monitor things, Nathan Brazil, who is not ruled by our physical laws because he is not of this universe.
String Theory suggests (vastly oversimplified) that everything in the universe vibrates at a quantum level similar to a violin string, and like music, that vibration has a numerical equivalent. And this is the base math for all matter and energy in the universe. This theory also requires a minimum of 10 space-time dimensions. That is the science behind the science fiction which drives this plot.
The art of this set design is in the use of the theory as metaphor. While the characters are engaged in all the usual politics and action/adventure associated with the genre, power hungry bad guy and liberty defending heroes working with morally ambivalent pirate types, the subtext throughout the series is the Markovian equation and their quest for fulfillment.
Are souls in new bodies capable of discovering new truths, or is that just redecorating? Is perspective as valuable to understanding as knowledge? Chalker has taken the nature v nurture argument to a quantum level, asking if physics or metaphysics determines who we are, and where the line between the two exists.
Chalker is not so arrogant as to offer a final answer to these questions. But the fact he causes his audience to ponder their own existence in relation to the world around them, I believe, lifts this above the level of pulp fiction. The fact that he does it subtly, through symbolism and imagery and parable, convinces me this work graduates to the level of art.