Chalker’s “Quintara Marathon:” on demons, metaphysics, and guarded optimism

by Stevie on June 17, 2010

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we don't have to be naughty, so let's just stop it!

Quite a few Jack L. Chalker novels have some sort of metaphysics in the background.

The Well World was created by this super advanced race, the Markovians, as an experiment to seed the Universe with designer sentient races to find that mysterious mystical something-or-other they were convinced that they had missed in their breathtakingly successful materialist-technological achievements which allowed them to rapidly dominate all known space. They’re so worried about it they decide to recreate the Universe itself to see just where they went wrong. But they couldn’t synthesize “soul” so were forced to become their puny creations themselves. Who knows if the experiment has worked, as it’s going on right now, all around us! Oooooo!

In “Soul Rider” the computer-come-energy god-like being travels our Universe and the Flux one beyond, only to return to World and theorize that there is a “third” universe beyond that of Flux that somehow stabilizes this one, analogous to the way that the computer network imbedded on World stabilizes the Anchors. Woo-hoo! The computer-energy-god being also “discovers” that humans, and some of the more advanced animals, have “souls” that the machines can neither create nor fully understand. Somehow these souls are related to this third, control Universe.

In “The Dancing God” series, we wander through the marvelous magical alternate Earth, created as an experiment by the angels or perhaps God himself. Natural Law works via committee proclamation and deals with everything from the function of gravity to what outfit you’ll automatically select depending on your general appearance and profession (it’ll be skimpy and revealing if you’re young and attractive, but don’t worry, it’ll feel perfectly natural); demons exist; and the various members of Faerie are the physical embodiment of their very souls, who live eternally in an unchanged state until the Final Judgment comes, however long that takes!

For the most part, this metaphysical theorizing takes place in the background of these stories. You know it’s there but it’s not that integral to the plot. The Quintara Marathon is different. More like Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, the spiritual/religious issues are right there front-and-center. This series takes place in the far distant future. Humanity has expanded to the stars and even colonized numerous planets. We ruled our own interstellar empire for a while; that is until we were discovered by three competing multi-species super-empires who conquered us, divided up our territories and absorbed us into their very different cultures, mostly as slaves or in low-prestige dead-end jobs. So much for man as master of all things.

The first book, The Demons at Rainbow Bridge, introduces us to a mixed cast of characters from all three empires: the Exchange, the Mizlaplan, and the Mychol. Many of the protagonists are human though quite a few aren’t. Eventually the three groups are all drawn into conflict with one another after each receives a distress call from an exploratory mission on an until-then undiscovered planet at the edge of Exchange space near the borders of the other two Empires. It becomes a race to answer the distress call when it’s discovered that the explorers claim to have found “demons.”

Like my own stories on Chalker, the Quintara Marathon is unevenly written. Book one is gritty and primarily driven by character development. I really liked it and it seemed like an interesting departure for Chalker. The second, The Run To Chaos Keep, becomes a sort of Dante’s Inferno. Chalker’s even thrown in the famous warning sign at the entrance to Hell, “Abandon all hope, all you who enter here.” It’s fun though becomes more predictable, boiling down to a competition between the teams to get to the end of the extra dimensional maze first. The final volume, The Ninety Trillion Fausts, is extra preachy at the start, going on and on and on about arcane theories of God and the Devil; good and evil. Eventually, the plot resurfaces. The three enemy empires are persuaded to unite. They mount a campaign to fight off the demon threat as they did in ancient times. And everything ultimately works out.

Humans play a vital role in the metaphysical drama. Our home planet has been a battle ground between the Pilot (God) and the Engineer (Satan) since before we left for the stars. This somehow leaves humans especially qualified to battle Good versus Evil. Using the knowledge accumulated by the ancient super-races, humans ultimately overcome their petty weaknesses and triumph. Of course, we release the demons mid-way through the series, too, thus creating the conditions where we must fight the evil back. We really are our own worst enemies!

That conflict in us: our enormous potential for good and for destruction, with a unique destiny that makes it impossible to avoid those choices, is at the heart of the Quintara Marathon. This Chalkerian theme influences most of the novels, from the Soul Rider series, the Well World, Four Lords, and this one. Man, or since we’re talking Jack Chalker here, woman truly is the center of all things.

Chalker is an optimistic realist. The Universe may not be created for us or in our image; it may treat us roughly, enslave, torture or kill us; but, somehow, we’re here for a reason. In every novel, we create (or at least worsen) all of our own problems: we release demons from ten thousand years of captivity, we erase part of the Universe with a technology we don’t understand and nearly unravel existence, we impose our sexual power fantasies on others for our own primitive kicks. You name it! We’re real jerk offs. And just when it doesn’t seem that it can get worse, we turn around and freely choose to enslave ourselves at every opportunity. The garbage makes the novels glow with a tense excitement, but it’s the glimmer of hope that makes them bearable.

Perhaps it’s not necessary to postulate a greater-than-humanity divinity that somehow monitors and directs things, as Chalker freely does everywhere. Perhaps we don’t really even need to have confirmation of having souls (though there’s something strangely comforting about that.) But isn’t it nice to think when you’re having a bad day or feel that things in the real world are pointless sometimes: we really are here for a “greater purpose.” I like it. So carry on!

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