Balshazzar's Serpent
by Jack L. Chalker
Review by James Walton

The human race, through the use of stabilized wormholes, (gates) which permitted faster than light space travel, colonized planets in very distant sections of the galaxy. The resulting network of gates allowed the planets to remain in contact with each other over the centuries. Then without warning one third of these gates mysteriously ceased to operate. The topography of the non-operational gates is a huge sphere, several light years in diameter with the Earth as its center. Thus began The Great Silence and a new Dark Age for mankind.

As with Earth's first Dark Age, it is the religious institutions that help maintain civilization. Utilizing the relatively few starships that remain, (Earth had strictly controlled the placement of starship construction facilities) various groups set out to find as many "lost" colonies as they could.

One such religious group, lead by the charismatic Dr. Karl Woodward, (a large gentleman with long white hair and beard who sounds remarkably similar to characters in many of Chalker's other books) uses its starship, The Mountain, to search for lost colonies and deliver The Word to the people. On one such trip Woodward and crew encounters a group of stranded space pirates intent upon taking The Mountain for their own use.

In addition to being trained lay missionaries, Woodward's people are all trained as soldiers and/or security guards. They've seen trouble before and are prepared to deal with it. The clash between the crew of The Mountain and the space pirates is both predictable and disastrous.

It is while dealing with the space pirates that Woodward receives information about the "Three Kings", three planets reputed to be remarkably Earthlike, all within the life zone of the star they orbit. Such a triumvirate of useable planets in one system is considered impossible, yet human scouts have visited the system at least twice. The exact location of these three planets, Melchior, Kasper and Balshazzar, has been a mystery for centuries. Not even such a devout man as Woodward is immune to the call of huge wealth.

Chalker does not choose to use Balshazzar's Serpent as a podium to push his own agenda or vilify organized religions. He has the characters speak just enough dogma to keep things realistic. Instead Chalker decides to tell a story without hitting us with a message. (What a quaint idea, storytelling solely for entertainment.) The preaching is never overpowering and is not the main focus of the book.

Serpent has an ambiguous ending. God and the Devil (okay, their equivalent in this story) make a bargain that may or may not be fodder for more books in this line. Chalker also has two more planets to work with, both of which have their own mysteries. Perhaps the next two books will deal with how these were colonized. Or will Chalker take the opposite view and tell us what is happening on Earth during The Great Silence?

The preface of Balshazzar's Serpent detailing the discovery of the Three Kings is reminiscent of the beginning of Chalker's Four Lords of the Diamond series. While the reuse of ideas by authors is nothing new I found it odd that Chalker is repeating himself so closely.

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