M.A. Foster was a science fiction writer active in the 1970s and 80s. He may not have been a major figure in the field, but he wrote some good stories, and had some interesting ideas. And he definitely did some evolving as he continued.
His first published novel, The Warriors of Dawn, is at least partly to do with the interactions between humans and the Ler, about whom we learn more later. It’s not a TERRIBLE novel, but he did much better later. There’s a lot of action in it, but until near the end the action seems disconnected. Only near the end do things begin to make sense, so that the novel ends in a fairly satisfactory way.
His third published novel, Day of the Klesh, reads more like it’s his second. In this one there’s almost no action, and the author tells more than he shows, which was also true to some extent of his first novel. In both, a satisfactory ending is achieved by introducing an alien race as the villain, towards the end, which isn’t the best sort of construction.
The Gameplayers of Zan is his second published novel, and his writing here takes a quantum leap forward. It’s a prequel to the other two novels, set on earth, before either humans or Ler had begun traveling to other stars.
The Ler are a deliberately induced mutation of human beings, with some physical differences, and a very different culture. They are a relatively small group, about 100,000, compared with about 20 billion humans at a time about 500 years from now. They’ve been allowed a fair amount of autonomy, including a wilderness preserve to live in, and they keep the area pretty rural. A fair number of them work outside the reservation, as a way to repay humans for their status. They seem to be a relatively low-technology society.
In this novel the author knows exactly where he’s going and how to get there, and he wastes no scenes or words. There are many mysteries, which are dramatically revealed as the story progresses, and you get to really like the two main Ler characters, who seem to be perhaps above average in their culture, but no more. They’re both intelligent and courageous, and it’s largely their efforts that produce the happy ending. The surprising thing is that Zan is so much better than the other two books. In some ways it’s the best that Foster did, though he wrote some other good things later.
A second series begins with The Morphodite. This isn’t set in the human/Ler universe. It begins on a small and obscure planet in a sort of research/prison facility. The main character has been trained in many disciplines to make him an effective assassin. He has also been CHANGED in a very strange way. In a method similar to meditation he is able to change his body to become an entirely different person. He can’t do this often, as he becomes 10-20 years younger each time, and each time he changes it’s to the opposite gender. He also perceives in a way that most people can’t, so that he can, as it were, aim himself as an assassin. At the beginning of the novel he is urged to do this, with the aim of introducing change into the societies of the planet, whose original settlers had tried to stop change altogether.
He manages to do this by a seemingly random killing of someone he’s never met and has no feelings for, one way or the other. The killing is discovered, and sets off catastrophic change. As soon as possible afterwards, the assassin sets off his own change, and becomes a woman. He wants to lose himself in the population, but the people who aimed him are both fascinated and appalled at the results. Some want to study him, but more want to simply kill him as a terrible danger. The assassin, now a woman, is seduced by a man she discovers to be an agent for the group from the research/prison facility, and she kills him, then changes again. This time she becomes a man.
The man partners with a woman he’d previously met, they start living in a rural setting, and take in orphans, of which there are quite a few, as in tumultuous times. This situation lasts until the beginning of the second novel, Transformer, when the people who had launched the Morphodite try again to kill it. He happens to be away when this happens, but his woman and some of the children are killed. He’s previously discovered that the people planning this came from offworld, so he decides to go find them.
On a passenger ship he travels and learns more, becoming friends with some of the crew as he goes. He wants to break the cycle of violence that pursues him, and some of which emanates from a particular institution on another world. In the course of the novel he changes again to become a woman, manages to locate the man who has pursued him most doggedly, and confronts him. From her unusual perception she’s determined that this is the way to thoroughly discredit the institution that created him, and by now she abhors violence. Then she changes once again, becoming this time an infant. Her friends leave the ship at the next stop and raise the infant, now male again pretty successfully.
The planet on which they live is a small one, circling a small star, and the entire planet is city. Sociologically, it’s much like the world some seem to be in favor of now: one character remarks, “On Teragon NOTHING is legitimate.” There’s no government mentioned, there seem only to be individuals and various organizatins, which buy and sell and negotiate with each other. The man, now in his early 30’s, survives well on this planet, sometimes as an independent contractor, others as an employee. He has a perception that others don’t, and has honed his skills, but has forgotten about his previous selves.
Until he finds himself being pursued again. After temporarily escaping from his pursuers, he decides to understand himself, and begins a process much like meditation to do so. He succeeds, remembers his past lives, sees the broader universe and how his situation affects it and is affected by it. He looks ever more clearly on the problem of human evil, and this may be some of the best writing Foster has done.
Unfortunately, the novel is flawed. The next sequence has the protagonist headed deep into the interior of the planet because he can’t find a way to the surface. It becomes clear that the planet is actually a spaceship, built by a race similar to humans in size, and breathing a similar atmosphere, but little else about them is clear. He finds a map of the galactic group we live in which seems to show that the planet came originally from the Lesser Magellanic Cloud, a different galaxy, but the race that built it is long gone. His descent into the depths of the world might symbolize descent into his subconscious, but he’s already done that in the previous section. As interesting as this may be, it seems unrelated to the rest of the novel, and comes across as writing just to make the book long enough.
The protagonist returns to the surface to find most of the people who have been pursuing him willing to negotiate now, having gotten some sense of his power. He has a vision of how he wants things to be, and how to accomplish that, and allows himself to be murdered. This makes him sort of a Christ-figure, one who sacrifices himself for the greater good. Clearly, this would seem to be the one way to combat the human world’s evil: to sacrifice one’s self for others, rather than others for one’s self. But one is left with the feeling that the novel could have been better.
The same year that this third novel, Protector, was published, Foster also published a book of short stories, Owl Time. One story in it stood out to me. The main character is living in a world where most, if not all of the inhabitants are engaged in art, but not in original art. They take sequences of literature, movies, ballet, music, etc, and juxtapose them to create new viewpoints. The character becomes somewhat successful at this, but also disillusioned: some of his friends abruptly disappear, and it seems that there’s a mechanism which takes people, destroys their memories, then “resurrects” them. The main character decides he doesn’t like this world, and finds an exit. He then finds himself in another world, and is told he’s the first to exit that environment for hundreds of years. It doesn’t seem to be coincidental that Foster never published any more fiction thereafter, to my knowledge.
The story suggests that he found creating fiction to be too artificial. According to Wikipedia he subsequently wrote more about the language he’d devised for the Ler (he seems to have been something of a linguist), and wrote an occasional column, but that the last one had appeared in 2009. I wonder if he’s still alive (he’d be at least approaching elderly if he was), and would like to more about him and his life, especially about how it went after he stopped writing fiction. Even if he’s still alive, I don’t know if he’d welcome the curiosity of strangers, though.
His work would probably not attract everyone. I haven’t noticed anyone talking about him unless I directly looked for things about him. I could wish he had written more fiction, but that might be merely selfish. I hope he found whatever he was looking for.