I first ran across M. A Foster through The Gameplayers of Zan, the first in his complex and and interesting Ler series. I subsequently picked up many of his other books, including the Morphodite trilogy. I remember them as being dense but rewarding, somewhat like David Zindell’s later Neverness books.
On re-reading The Morphodite, I was struck by the book’s very strong similarities to Jack Vance’s work. I either didn’t recall this, or hadn’t noted it when I read this back in the 80s (and had read less of Vance). Nonetheless, the society the book describes is very much a Vancean one, complete with absurd rules, formal ceremony, and fatal flaws. Reading this now, it’s hard to imagine that Foster didn’t know exactly whom he was emulating (or was inspired by).
Foster’s doesn’t use language in the same lively, playful way that Vance does. His prose trudges from place to place in a dense but workmanlike manner. His characters, however, are far more human and sympathetic than Vance’s, if devoid of their sardonic humor. The result works, but feels as if it could have been more in different hands.
The strength of the story is in the protagonist, a distant but likeable character sent out to cause chaos, but also trying to find his own way and place in the world. His interactions with others tend toward the shallow (perhaps subtle), but his inner struggles are interesting.
If you’re a fan of Jack Vance’s cultures, but could do without the wordplay, this is the book for you. In any case it’s the kind of interesting exploration of an idea that SF does well. If the prose doesn’t sparkle, it’s still strong enough to carry along a clever concept.