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A lesser-known classic from the 1970s

The Gameplayers of Zan  (Ler, volume 2)

By M. A. Foster 

14 Jan, 2015



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M. A. Foster published seven novels and a collection of short stories between 1975 and 1985. Despite having been intermittently out of print since first publication, his work still has its fans1. The Gameplayers of Zan was only the second of his seven novels, but, if you find someone who still remembers Foster's work, it's very likely that the book they will mention first is Gameplayers. It's one of those curious gems the mid-1970s2 produced, a science-fictional anthropological exploration slash Kafkaesque political thriller that probably wouldn't see print in today's market.

The world of 2550 is a police state that has seen incremental technological progress since our time, but has achieved none of the dramatic steps forward that the pundits of the 20th century optimistically predicted. The main exception, the creation in the mid-21st century of a new species of hominid known as the ler, isn't much of an exception. While the ler are very different from the humans from whom they were created, they are in no way the supermen for whom their creators were aiming.

Earth in 2550 is a crowded, regimented world, one where the sexes are kept segregated in the name of population control. Daily lives are governed by the Shifter Society (everything functions 24x7 and people are confined to their assigned shifts), a way of life that doesn't seem like much fun. It's not a world congenial to nonconformists and yet the ler have their own place in it: an isolated reservation in North America where they have been free for centuries to pursue a highly structured, rustic lifestyle. They are tolerated because selected ler serve at a research institute that comes up with the incremental technological tweaks that keep the Shifter Society barely functioning.

This seemingly stable state of affairs is threatened when a girl is detained in connection with a seemingly pointless act of vandalism in a museum. It's only after the girl uses the ler ability to erase her own mind that the authorities realize she is ler and not human. With the lone suspect beyond questioning, the human security state is free to speculate about her motivation while casting their increasingly suspicious eyes at the ler reservation. Unfortunately for the ler, this is not a world that believes in human rights when state security seems to be threatened.

The Ler couple Fellirian and Morlenden have no inkling of the political complications they will face when they are asked to find a missing girl named Maellenkleth. While it takes a while for the searchers to connect the dots, they eventually realize that Maellenkleth is indeed the same person as the shell currently in human custody. Or at least she was. Even if she is a shell, she is ler, and kin, and must be rescued. The rescue attempt further focuses human attention on the ler.

A human world too interested in the affairs of the ler is a dangerous thing indeed, but, as it turns out, the greatest danger the ler face isn't from the worldstate but rather from a shadow government of their own that most ler have no idea even exists.

Among other things, this is a book about an Earth that has survived at least one Malthusian crisis3 and can see another one from where it is sitting. While the current situation seems stable, the people who run the state firmly believe that the only reliable means of population control is abstinence, thus the strict sex segregation. It's not actually clear if their belief is true, especially since it could just be another rationalization for regimenting the masses, but if the author himself believed it, he would be somewhat extreme in his views but not remarkably extreme; I could rattle off a list of people with similar views without much trouble.

Ler reproduction, on the other hand, is governed by some unique biological imperatives. Late onset fertility allows them consequenceless fun as adolescents but once they are fertile adults, they return to their braid, or join a braid, a braid being a strictly defined group marriage. The braid set-up is complicated and I am just going to quote Wikipedia here:

Ler family structure is organized around a "braid," which they have designed to preserve maximum genetic diversity to offset their low initial population and small birth rate. A braid starts with two "fore-parents". They mate and produce the "elder outsibling". Then each of the fore-parents goes forth and brings back another ler of the appropriate gender, the "after-parents". The fore-parents each mate with an after-parent and produce the "insiblings", five years younger than the elder outsibling. Then the after-parents mate and produce the "younger outsibling", five years younger than the insiblings. The insiblings remain in the braid and become the fore-parents to the next generation; the outsiblings will leave to join other braids as after-parents. The rare surplus children tend to be given the responsibility of beginning completely new braids together. Alternation in the gender of children is enforced with pheromones. In rare cases, sometimes on purpose, two same-sex insiblings are born; the braid line ends there, as all four children must weave into other braids as after-parents.

I remember being convinced in the early 1980s that this system would lead to a slowly declining population level but I no longer remember my reasoning. It is possible to found new braids as well as end them, although it is not common.

My editor points out that Foster could have been playing with various free love ideas floating around in the 1970s—but I suspect that Foster could have been thinking of the Rumspringa enjoyed by some Amish adolescents. Foster was born in Greensburo, North Carolina, which is not that far from Caswell County, North Carolina's Amish community. (Strokes beard thoughtfully. Still not itchy)

I am perhaps primed to think of Anabaptists because the ler’s standoffish attitude towards technology reminds me of Kitchener's Old Order Mennonite community. Like Mennonites, the ler cautiously evaluate each new element of technology, so that adopting it will not have disruptive effects on their society. They reject mere convenience and fashion as drivers for change. I can’t say that I find this attitude appealing, but I don't think it is necessarily unreasonable and I can see its attraction for others.

This book is about twice the length of the standard mid-1970s SF novel. Other longwinded authors of the time, authors like Herbert, Niven, and Pournelle, fill their pages with breakneck adventure. Foster belongs to the same school of thought as John Brunner. He prefers a leisurely exploration of the ler way of life and the dystopian planet on which the ler live. It's a perfectly valid approach but bear in mind when you pick up this book that, for an optimal experience, you should savour rather than rush your reading.

That said, the pace picks up towards the end of the book, when Morlenden gets a better idea of what's really going on in the reservation. There are some intriguing R&D decisions that I cannot detail here except to say they seem like obviously bad ways to tackle the research challenges involved. I will also say that for all the ler confidence in themselves, it's not actually clear to me that their grasp of human society is actually as solid as they believe it is. Given that their grand plans for lerkind hit a road bump or two, their faith in their models of their cousin species may well be misplaced.

It happens that this is one of the books that was on the syllabus of the SF course I took in university thirty OH GOD I'M SO OLD four years ago. While I seem somehow to have misplaced my course notes, I do remember that my professor, and I apologize for forgetting his name, made a big point of how one particular character uses other characters' expectations to manipulate them, a technique we now call social engineering. It would have been easy to frame the book so that only humans were vulnerable to social engineering and the superior ler immune, but as Foster writes it, both human and ler can be gamed. And are. The fact that both humans and ler have organizations that hold themselves beyond oversight makes both societies more vulnerable to being manipulated.

While this book languished out of print for nearly a generation, DAW Books was kind enough to reprint it in 2006 in omnibus form, together with the other two ler novels, The Warriors of Dawn and The Day of the Klesh. The omnibus also includes an essay “An Explanatory Afterword on Ler Names,” which I believe is material original to the omnibus. That omnibus, The Book of the Ler, appears to still be available from DAW Books.

1: It even seems to have its own Facebook page.

2: The DAW Books of the 1970s was an interesting imprint because, while founder Donald Wollheim had an ongoing fondness for old-fashioned pulp, some of it openly misogynist, that was not his sole focus. He published women (although he was timid enough to insist on gender-concealing names), he experimented with translated SF, and he published unusual works like this one. The result was one could never be quite sure if the new DAW book one had in hand would be a Spring Surprise or an actual confection.

3: The world of 2550 didn't seem as environmentally stunted as I would expect a world bumping up against Malthusian limits would be. However, my impressions may be unreliable given that one cannot expect urban settings as written in 1977 to be ecologically diverse. There is the Ler nature preserve, but I suspect that if we did a species count, we'd find that the ler reservation is sadly denuded of once common species.