Details: (c) 1977 MA Foster; Pub 1977 (1979?) Daw Books; ISBN 0-87997-497-4
Verdict: The Gameplayers of Zan is very readable despite minor flaws.
Reasons for reading it / How it came into my hands: Birthday present from rysmiel, who has taken to spoiling me with good books recently. Thank you, rysmiel!
I enjoyed The Gameplayers of Zan; it works well as a story to the extent that I'm inclined to forgive the technical flaws. The first chapter is really breathtakingly good, and the rest doesn't quite live up to that, but it's still very well worth reading.
The pacing is kind of awkward. There's a huge emphasis on world building and very little action for about the first two thirds, which is absolutely fine by me because it's interesting world building. I like the contrast between the distopian projected human future and the very novel and original society of the ler reservation. And I really enjoyed the interactions between humans and ler, because that cross-cultural stuff is one of the major things I look for in SF. Unfortunately the structure of the book means there's not very much of that, but what there is is rather fun.
The portrait of human society feels like it owes rather a lot to 1984, but it's nicely done for that, suitably depressing and frightening. I was a bit impatient with the ler stuff at first, it's too much the cheesy fantasy stereotype of living at one with nature and with an elaborate social structure that looks like it's just an excuse for the writer to describe it. But all this stuff makes a lot of sense in the light of what's revealed in the last part of the book, so I revised my initial impression in its favour. Even on its own merits it's a rather nice example of this kind of pastoral fantasy society.
In contrast the last section feels horribly rushed. The revelations of the underlying plot work well in some ways; it's quite clear that every little detail from the earlier part of the story does fit in in retrospect, and it's generally cleverly done. But dramatically the last section lost my attention because too much of the plot was revealed at once. It's quite action-heavy, especially compared to the earlier parts of the book, but at the same time a lot of the revealing of the underlying plot was done in the form of infodumps. Also, the ending was deeply unsatisfying, providing facile excuses for the villain and conveniently allowing the heroes to defeat her while keeping their hands perfectly clean. Plus the consequences of what she's set in motion are just dismissed rather than dealt with, which is annoying. Still, the actual scene of the final confrontation is very nicely dramatic.
The other mildly annoying thing about tGoZ is that it mystifies science. I've already ranted about the way it treats genetics. And a large part of the plot relies on a similar mystification of cellular automata. In a way I'm less annoyed by the latter because to some extent it's the main motor for the plot. I was also pretty unconvinced by the conlang elements, but it wasn't glaringly bad. (Though throwing a random Hebrew phrase into the middle of an obviously indo-european setup is something I personally find extremely jarring!)
The characterization of the main characters is very nicely done. (The peripheral characters are pretty much scenery, but it's not every book that can make characters lively when they have very little screen time.) But yes, the multiple viewpoints work well, and I really felt a connection with the characters. There's also some very nice writing about sex; I think a lot of literary sex scenes fall down because they're aiming too much to be erotic. The sex in tGoZ is not particularly titillating, but it's well-written as writing; I got a strong impression of the characters' emotions. The gender thing is a little odd; there are absolutely no human women even glimpsed, let alone participating actively in human society. Ler society is explicitly described as egalitarian but the equality seems like a shallow veneer pasted onto very 20th century western gender values. Not that that's a huge problem. In general I think it was my empathy with Felirian and Morlenden, and also with Maellenkleth, Mevlannen and Krisshantem that really carried the story for me.