May 8 2009 6:51pm

Alien immersion course: M.A. Foster’s The Gameplayers of Zan

The Gameplayers of Zan (1977) is one of those books where I find myself wondering however anyone could have started from a blank piece of paper and come up with the idea. It’s weird, and it’s alien, and it is a very odd book indeed.

The Ler are an artificially created race, made from human DNA but at the next stable point along the evolutionary chain. (Handwave, handwave.) They have five fingers and two thumbs on each hand, they have a very different reproductive cycle, and they have developed their own initially artificial but very distinct culture. At the time of the novel, 2550, there have been fourteen generations of Ler living on their reservation, reproducing in their own natural way, a hundred thousand of them surrounded by twenty billion humans. Human culture is itself very different from anything we might expect. This is one of the things that makes the book so odd. The Ler are not held up in contrast to humanity as we know it, these humans are harder to identify with than the Ler are, and the Ler are pretty strange. The effect of the book is like taking an immersion course in the alien.

The book plunges us into the Ler from the beginning. There are, oddly, footnotes. It’s like reading a translation. We’re given Ler words and concepts, translated once and then used untranslated. We begin with a Ler girl who knows something (we don’t know what, and it’s one of the central mysteries of the book) who is in a sensory deprivation environment and who chooses to “autoforget” to delete her memories, which Ler can. Then we jump to Fellirian and Morlenden of the Deren braid, the real protagonists, who are asked to search for the missing girl. The question of who she is and what she knew are the hook that lead us through Ler society and Ler interaction with the human world.

Ler society is really fascinating, and this is really what draws me back to this book. The Ler have thirteen years of childhood, followed by about seventeen years of infertile adolescence, followed by about fifteen years of fertility, followed by about sixty years of infertile elderhood. To maximise fertility, in which Ler get two, or occasionally three, births, they form not families but “braids” which have four parents, and four (sometimes five) children, an elder outsibling, born to the insibling pair of the previous generation, then two insiblings, whose parents are one of the previous generation’s insiblings and one married in afterparent, then a younger outsibling, born to the two afterparents. Everyone has to be the right age. The two outsiblings will marry out, the two insiblings will stay in the braid and carry it on. They are of no genetic relation, but are brought up as siblings. It sounds really odd, and it is, but Foster shows you how it works for individual characters. It wouldn’t work for humans, but humans don’t have the problem of needing to maximize fertility and mix genes, rather the opposite. Humans in Foster’s future have been through one Malthusian crisis already.

The braids also pursue a traditional occupation. The Derens are record-keepers. We also hear of potters and weavers. The Ler, whose first generation were raised in human labs, have made a deliberate choice to live in a primitive way. They’re not supermen, and they’re not real aliens, but they are very different. And they’re quite distinct from any “primitive” historical human societies, though they’ve clearly taken aspects from different culures and made them their own. They’re using high technology for some things while choosing to live in the woods and carry water.

Humans meanwhile are suspicious—not just of the Ler but of each other. They live in shifts, in dormitories, they’re mostly not allowed to reproduce, they live with a high level of surveillance and control, they take programmed names so people can’t guess their origin, and they’re given points for betraying each other. They’re paranoid, scheming, unhappy, whereas the Ler we see have a kind of solidity and balance to their lives even when they’re miserable that’s entirely lacking among the humans.

We follow Fellirian and Morlenden through fascinating Ler society and the quest for the missing girl, and eventually discover that—as in Bujold’s “The Borders of Infinity”—the whole thing has been an elaborate smokescreen disguising an escape plan. The Ler, unknown to the humans and most of their own people, are growing a spaceship to take them off Earth. This is an appropriate solution to the quest plot, it explains all the mysteries, it opens up the way to the two sequels, where humans and Ler are in space, and it really isn’t what’s important. What I like about the book is the alien details—the way the braids are woven, the “wayyon” or wander-year the insiblings take in the year before fertility, the madness of Sanjirmil.

The sequels, all included in the new edition, are weird. The Warriors of Dawn was written before Gameplayers, though it’s set later, and is much less accomplished as a novel. The Day of the Klesh is well written but too odd for me. I’ve read both of them several times, but I haven’t read either of them for a long time. When I feel drawn back to the Ler I mostly just re-read Gameplayers.

walter tingle
1. wjtingle
I agree with almost everything you said. My one quibble is that I found the ler part of "Warriors of Dawn" fascinating. The warriors were mezza-mezza, but the ler investigator was amazing to me at the time.

"Zan" was a very different kettle of fish. No one does 'alien' better than Foster. You might consider a review of 'Waves' and 'Owl Time', which are equally (and maybe more) alien.

One of the tragedies of 20th century American sf was Foster deciding sf wasn't worth his time and effort. He couldn't earn enough to make it worth his time. We are all poorer for that.

Jack Tingle
Terry Lago
2. dulac3
Wow...huge spoilers. Is it worth reading the book now that I know the secret?
larry shirk
3. lorenzo
I was quite taken with this book when it first came out, and have re-read it countless times.
Some of the things in the human society - in my estimation a distopia - are not so far away: how long until there are machines that monitor human-emitted chemicals, given that video monitors have become ubiquitous and seldom provoke even a comment anymore? And, supposedly, there are agencies that monitor all internet traffic for keywords already.
There are a veritable host of new ideas - well thought out and internally consistent, though no one seems to have taken them to use again. Such as passing information directly mind-to-mind via sound, or a mind/body ability that allows one to forget EVERYTHING, or to auto-correct insanity (usually).

The two other books of the Ler seem very week in comparison.

Foster wrote another strong book in The Morphodite (1981); I felt that the two sequels to this one also lacked the power of the original.
larry shirk
4. lorenzo
dulac3: Yes, read it - I've re-read it (more than twice) and still enjoy it. Enough that I've made sure to have two copies - old paperbacks don't last forever.
Michal Jakuszewski
5. Lfex
Yes, I agree The Gameplayers of Zan is a book which can be enjoyed at many levels and is definitely worth re-reading. I also liked Warrios of Dawn - even if it isn't as good as Gameplayers. Third books is just strange and I couldn't get into it. It has some cool monsters, though. Interestingly, my reaction for the second M.A Foster's trilogy was similar. I liked The Morphodite a lot, Transformer somewhat less, and Preserver not at all.
6. randwolf
Aleister Crowley, who is quoted for chapter heads in one or another of Foster's novels, was an influence. There was also a lot general 1960s flaky philosophy there. I don't know if Foster read Gregory Bateson or Carl Rogers--though it just now occured to me that ler psychology is very Rogerian--but he sure reads like he has.
7. James Davis Nicoll
The Ler are an artificially created race, made from human DNA but at the next stable point along the evolutionary chain.

Not "the next", as I recall, not in the way orthogenesis would suggest. The Ler are a different kind of human but not a superior or inferior kind.

Also I seem to recall noticing their braid system had a small bug in it, in that it could at best maintain their present population but would more likely allow it to decline with time.
Jo Walton
8. bluejo
Dulac3: I think it's very much worth reading even knowing the secret, otherwise I wouldn't re-read it. And I did say "spoilers".
Karen Lofstrom
9. DPZora
I also love M.A. Foster, am sorry that he has not written more, and cherish my yellowing, crumbling paperbacks. How about a digital edition of the complete M.A. Foster?

I think it was on my third or fourth reading of GoZ that I realized that the Ler were the hippies and the rest of the humans were the straights. The hippies lead an artificially primitive existence in the woods, they dress in embroidered smocks, and when young, have uninhibited sex all the time. The straights lead dull, gray, paranoid, regimented lives.
Marissa Lingen
10. Mris
You mention a new edition including the sequels. Who is putting that out? I'm not finding it on Amazon.
Jo Walton
11. bluejo
Mris: DAW. The first link in the main post goes to the page for it. Can't say anything for Amazon, but it exists, I saw it in Indigo a little while ago and nearly bought it even though I already have all three. They're doing the same with the Morphodite trilogy.
Michal Jakuszewski
12. Lfex
This is the Amazon link:

and this is the link for the Transformer Trilogy:

Amazon search function really sucks, you have to know precise names of these books to find them.
Clifton Royston
13. CliftonR
The DAW reprints seem to be riddled with typos (grumble-grumble) but I am very grateful they exist. My ex- ended up with The Gameplayers of Zan in the divorce, though I got Waves. As Jo says Gameplayers is one of those books one just wants to re-read periodically, and it's always as good as one remembers.

The opening chapter in particular is such an amazing tour-de-force: an entire chapter narrated in stream of consciousness form from inside a sensory isolation tank.
14. Zack (not logged in)
re #7: I recall its being said fairly early on that the geneticists who designed the ler were aiming for a superior race, but what they actually got was "different."

Foster clearly thought the braid system maximized rather than minimized fertility; there were throwaway comments about occasional third pregnancies, and Warriors of Dawn mentioned that some unmodified humans had tried the braid system but "it was like pouring gasoline on a fire". I did always wonder how those third pregnancies fit into the braid, though.
15. Hex168
After the best Zelazny, M.A. Foster's are my favorite SF books. (I brought this up a couple of times on Making Light and was disappointed that no one bit.)

I'm very pleased to read your review. The strangeness, the difference, gives me a strong feeling of being in the future and that things have really changed. Not just one thing, as in classic Campbellian SF. This, to me, was the main strength of Cordwainer Smith, Foster, and very few others.

The writing quality varies from adequate, in the parts I'm guessing Foster is just getting from A to B, and superlative, in the sections he's really interested in. One image, as an example (I forget whether it is in _Dawn_ or _Klesh_): there is an enormous mountain which rises up beyond the atmosphere of the world. Its flanks are snow covered up to the altitude that the air will no longer hold moisture, and from there it is bare rock.

My favorite moment is in _Preserver_, where the climax of a three book series occurs after the protagonist moves an object on a table a few inches for no apparent reason, and a few pages later, the reader realizes why.

Another Foster book, _Waves_, recieved the best short review I have ever seen on the internet, "Nothing happens, but it's very exciting."
16. cptblackeye
as with all sf in this vein, I judge it against Lord Herbert's DUNE (first and second trilogy, because you can't see its true majesty until you meet Leto the worm, over-ghola Duncan and Miles Teg and absorbs Frank's dissertations on religion, empire and the meaning of human endeavor! ) and find it to be not wanting at all.
Dawn is a little piqaresque in style so it's deeper themes pop out at the reader near the end and GoZ has parallels with Hesse's Magister Ludi but mostly the books are prophetic and deep and I love them!
The book of LER takes it's place on my must read SF philosophy list with Dune, Stranger in a strange land, Eon and Eternity and the Foundation series.
17. Flokkness
Nice little review. I love GoZ--def. one of my top 3 books, regardless of genre. I wish M.A. Foster hadn't stopped writing (like this anyway).


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