Chalker’s endless bodily transformations heightens human sympathy and they’re a lot of fun, too

by Jasper on May 13, 2010

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isn't a simple haircut a way we voluntarily transform ourselves without even thinking about it?

In all this type of story the living interest lies in their non-fantastic elements and not in the invention itself. They are appeals for human sympathy quite as much as any `sympathetic’ novel, and the fantastic element, the strange property or the strange world, is used only to throw up and intensify our natural reactions of wonder, fear or perplexity. The invention is nothing in itself …

Herbert George Wells (1866-1946) in a preface to a collection, 1933

I found this while randomly trolling the Internet for critical stories about Jack Chalker’s writing. Aside from my own humble commentary, there doesn’t seem to be a lot out there beyond stock comments about the writer’s life, lists of his books, and vague statements about Midnight at the Well of Souls. People are sure missing out.

This H.G. Wells quote spoke to my own obsession with Chalker. The “fantastic” might be a hook to get you interested but there’s definitely something there beyond the mere theatrics. I’m still annoyed with that other web site that trashes Chalker’s tendency to use certain plot devices, for example shapeshifting, by calling it “author appeal.” It’s so dismissive! I wonder if those bozos have even read any of his stuff?

It’s true that I really can’t think of a Chalker novel where changing shape and/or gender don’t feature in the plot somehow. From the very first, clumsy novel, A Jungle of Stars; to all of the Well World novels; the Soul Rider series; Four Lords of the Diamond; the stand alone novels, And the Devil Will Drag You Under and Downtiming the Nightside; the Dancing God series; and the one I just breathlessly finished, the Rings of the Master all use this device in one way or another. I haven’t read everything that he’s published yet, but this is about half of them. It must be a pattern, right?

I admit that all of this switching around does appeal to me, and it truly is one of the reasons that I enjoy Chalker. But is changing shape the only reason that he wrote these books? Isn’t there more to the novels? I think so. Wouldn’t the guy have been bored silly writing so many novels that were meaningless beyond altering the characters’ appearances? Maybe he’d have been better off working as a plastic surgeon or in digital photography if that had been the real reason?

If one actually paid attention to the ouvre, one might be able to make more out of it. I’d classify the shape and gender changing as follows:

1. Voluntary versus involuntary
2. Temporary versus permanent
3. Partial versus complete transformation
4. And a variation of number 2, a single episode of change versus many possible

Looking at the most famous series, the Well World, with this list in mind, we see that most folks who enter the Well undergo an involuntary, permanent, complete transformation, with a few exceptions. On the Well World, magical and scientific means can be employed to temporarily or permanently change individuals after they pass through the Well. That’s how Nathan Brazil becomes a great stag and Marvra Chang a kind of pig at various points in the series. But it’s true that for most people arriving on the planet, there’s only the one major change and they sink into obscurity to live out their lives.

That’s very different in the Soul Rider series where unless you’re magically endowed, partial and complete changes can be imposed on you in Flux by others and your own subconscious. These transformations are permanent so long as you’re in Anchor and in a few cases with certain self-imposed “spells” even in Flux. Otherwise change is the rule over time.

In Four Lords, the Federation Agent’s four “copies” change bodies once at the start of each novel. And in all of them except for “Lilith” they keep on changing. Initially the change was voluntary and seemed permanent. You learn though that there are more options for most of them.

In my new favorite Chalker series, Rings of the Master, except for Vulture, for the most part people can be transmuted once into something else. If they try again, then it seems that they lose significant IQ to the point that they become dysfunctional. So it’s a source of real pain when crew members of the intergalactic spaceship, Thunder, must choose to be transformed into “colonial humans” to infiltrate various worlds and capture the golden rings needed to unlock Master System and free humankind from the tyranny of the machine.

I wouldn’t want to have to volunteer to become a Janipurian cow-like human or a Chanchukian sea otter type, would you? Even worse would be some bizarre water breathing sea monster like “human” from Alititia. Wow! You’d really have to believe in what you were doing! And that’s exactly what happens. Even more stressful, it turns out for some, is changing sex in the process of becoming some other kind of creature. And that’s nothing compared to China Nightingale’s forced transmutation into a blind, hormone-crazed sex machine while not pregnant; blind, “normal” person while with child. That seems like the most grotesque of them all, though she still looks like an “Earth human.”

After a while, the endless transformations seem, well, normal and sort of an expected part of life in a Chalker universe. It’s the emotional impact of the changes that becomes so intriguing and compelling here. I can completely suspend belief and accept that one might become a tiny blue satyr like being or a gigantic moth with a grinning death’s head for a face. I’ve no problem imagining someone changed into a part-machine, part-organic, goddess figure with an idealized woman’s form. I’m fascinated by the super hung, super good-looking male servants that pop up here and there in the company of the most decadent characters. Why not?

It makes me think about my own body and those of others around me. We have this illusion that our bodies are permanently set the way they are right now, when in fact they’re changing every minute. Do you ever get a haircut or shave? I do. If you’re an adult, then you were once a baby and then a child. Your body changed dramatically to get you where you are today. Do you exercise or lift weights? Do you over eat and put on the pounds? If so, than probably you’ve been slowly, perhaps even involuntarily and unconsciously, changing your body. I’ve a friend from college who has recently come out as the other gender. Another friend just had a tummy tuck. So they’re both in the process of consciously, voluntarily transforming themselves. Folks who get injured or women who have borne children undergo more bodily transformations. That person in the wheelchair with the missing legs might have acquired that change somewhere along their lives, after all. How is any of this different from the things on the list above?

I’m middle aged now and even when it’s not always visible, I can feel that my body is different from when I was in my twenties. I’m no longer quite as flexible and energetic (and horny) as before. My body aches more now and for longer periods. My mother says that it only increases with advancing age. I believe it.

Chalker’s characters undergo these ultra rapid physical changes, but I think that it just heightens the reader’s sensitivity to phenomena happening around us and to us constantly, but often more gradually. Isn’t that what H.G. Wells is talking about? This is way more than “author appeal.”

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

ritatower May 14, 2010 at 12:40 pm

Wow, I like your paragraph on the bodies changing and being middle aged. I know what you mean about aches and pains and the subtle changes from lifting weights or eating too much, and chaning from child to adult. It’s so contant we don’t even really notice it happening. Also the question arises as to what is ideal or prime anyways? I think freedom from major pains would be good enough.

Kurt May 14, 2010 at 1:49 pm

Freedom from major pains? Isn’t that death? Or maybe long visits to a spa?

Callie September 8, 2010 at 8:32 am

As a transwoman, I have to say that I do find the body transformations in Chalker’s novels (or at least the 3 I’ve actually read) to be fascinating but also horrific depending on the specific transformation. Specifically, I find the imposed transformations to be so disturbing that my stomach turns.

Why? Well, I think for me (and probably for people getting tummy tucks for that matter) all the changes that are taking place in my body now are moving me closer to how I see myself in my own mind. So, most of *my* changes feel comfortable and normal to me. However, before transition my clothes, haircut, and how I “presented” myself felt imposed on me; if not by a specific person, then by environment. I was never myself; I was trapped in others’ view of me. I think that’s why I have such a visceral negative reaction to Chalker’s descriptions of characters being changed against their will. It hits a little too close to home.

Stevie September 8, 2010 at 11:41 am


Thanks for your thought-provoking comments. I agree with you that the imposed or forced transformations are disturbing, especially in Soul Rider. Though part of me finds it fascinating to see how these sadistic characters minds are working and to also know that it’s “just a story” and “not real” helps me to psychologically distance myself from it. Of course, that is a problem, too. We’re content to wathc the nows every wevening and soo endless atrocities parade through our living rooms each evening and merely ignore it without being outraged. Perhaps that’s a different Chalker rant.

Your distinction about others forcing a look on you and your own idea of your identity and how you should look is a subtle but significant distinction. I completely get it the way everyone struggles with the baggage that others impose on us: look at racism and sexism as two obvious examples, though we’ve all sorts of ideas about blonds, children, gays, folks with any obvious visible differences; even people with accents who otherwise seem indistinguishable from “the rest of the crowd.” Even post-transformation, all of this stuff is still imposed. I wonder if that’s why when Chalkerian characters switch gender, for example, they take on a lot of the social presentation of the gender: there’s not much choice to do anything else, as you cannot escape “civilization.”

Thanks for writing!

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