The Gameplayers of Zan Mass Market Paperback – 1 Jan 1985
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'Gameplayers' tells the story of a genetically engineered super race, the ler, who live in their own commune alongside humans. The ler lifestyle appears rural and primitive when contrasted with the humans' technologically advanced society - yet it is the ler who are the sophisticates, compared to an increasingly chaotic and uncontrollable humanity.
The ler know, however, that it is only a matter of time before the humans turn on them, and they have plans of their own... Now one of their leading game-players has turned up dead, outside the ler reservation, and both ler and humans have to find out what is happening.
The glory of this book is in the depth it manages to convey without becoming long or wordy. Ler society, with its customs and language, are superbly evoked without laboured explanation. The 'game' of the title is based on Conway's 'Life' game - now a mathematical field known as cellular automata - but is just a small part of the overall story. Ler language and marriage customs are equally fascinating.
If you have the chance to read this book, do so - it rates with the best work of better known SF writers such as Ursula LeGuin and Frank Herbert. There are two sequels, too - both excellent but, alas, even harder to find. I would love to see some enlightened publisher re-issue these books - and Foster's others - perhaps in an omnibus edition: then I could replace my battered paperback copies.
Humanity dwells in soulless totalitarian hypercities on an overpopulated Earth. Searching for the ultimate Superman in their gene labs, they instead accidentally create the Ler: a quiet, reflective race of diminutive people with whom humans can no longer interbreed. As the hubristic genetic dream collapses, the 500 created new-humans elect to separate themselves from their larger, more aggressive cousins. Decades later, a few thousand Ler live in a pastoral reservation, regarded with hostility, incomprehension and envy by the hordes of ordinary humans that press in on their idyllic life.
But the Ler have secrets and the book begins with a young Ler leaving the reservation and committing an unthinkable crime out in human society. The ensuing investigation, both within Ler society and by the ruthless human bureaucrats outside the fence makes for a tense race against time.
Foster creates a fabulously intricate but utterly plausible alien society, albeit one which has sprung from our own genome. We learn that the Ler, for all their differences, still face the dilemma of Nature vs. Nurture, but with a poignant twist - they are without the comfort of a sustaining myth about their origins: they have only to look beyond the fence of their precarious home to see their 'maker'.
This is a haunting, well-written and engaging story and a mystery with a staggering conclusion. The Ler society, organised on startlingly different principles to the human one, is utterly fascinating. But it's the superbly realised characters, who are both alien and yet familiar, that raises this book to an exceptional level.
A new omnibus edition - The Ler Trilogy - will be released in October and includes the sequels 'Warriors of Dawn' and the hard to find 'Day of the Klesh'. Don't miss the chance to read it.
Read it - its very special.
Second time around, I think the core criticism still holds, which would explain why it was never more successful. The scene setting, so often a problem for SF writers, which explains the basics of the created world to the reader, takes far too long and is too opaque, slowing things down too much before getting into the actual plot.
Once it gets going however, it's great, with subtle and complex characters explored in considerable depth, and without the plot holes and lack of internal consistency that often marks the inferior product in this genre. Bascially we are on 26th century Earth, grossly overpopulated and overcrowded, with comprehensive state control and supervision the only way for mankind to survive. And there are the Ler, an arguably not very successful product of genetic engineering and eugenics, which has produced a sub-species of Homo Sapiens who are highly intelligent, but physically weaker and with much slower population growth. They are limited to a largely pastoral reservation of their own, where they have developed a unique culture of their own.
Then there is the Game of Zan, rivalling Hesse's Glass Bead Game for arcane impenetrability as to its real purpose, played only by two families, who have effectively inherited the role.
To get the rest, you are going to have to read it; the denouement when it comes is jaw dropping, and the exposition of the comprehensively realised future world that the author has imagined becomes truly fascinating. But its very detail imposes a stately pace on the narrative, and risks the reader's attention wandering before getting caught by the core concepts and characters. Which is a pity, but there we are - a 'not quite' classic.
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