Larry Niven and Steven Barnes
I realized the other day that there are no Larry Niven posts on Two Dudes yet. This is shocking, considering Niven’s place in my person pantheon: Ringworld was one of the very first sci-fi books I ever read (Foundation may or may not have come first) and Niven was part of my Big Three, along with Clarke and Asimov. I basically cleaned the library out of his books before the end of junior high school; to this day, I think I have read more Larry Niven than any other single author. This is not to say that I am unaware of his faults as a writer. However, to a young and very nerdy Pep, things like “characterization” paled in importance next to “giant objects and amazing concepts,” bouncy prose, awkward hanky-panky, and that whole Known Space thing. This is all a long way to introduce Dream Park, but I feel it important to set the stage.
Now we must imagine 7th grade Pep. He is very short and is adamant about his poor fashion sense. He watches Public Television and wouldn’t know a pop song if it bit him. He has been playing computer games long enough to remember cyan and magenta CGA graphics and is digging deeply into pen and paper RPG’s. He knows far more about chess openings than girls. Into young Pep’s life comes a book by his favorite author, in which people more nerdy than he dress up in costumes and act out computer aided, live action RPG’s. Young Pep almost has seizures. The only books that have a greater effect on Pep’s junior high era all have the word “Dragonlance” in the title, which should lead anyone sane to wonder how on earth Pep ended up with an attractive wife and workable social skills.
I read Dream Park for a second time recently, half afraid that it would be crap and I would ruin my happy childhood memories. I was pleasantly surprised. To be sure, Dream Park suffers from the usual Niven-ly suspects and is, perhaps not dated, but would have profited from the fantasy boom that hit later on. To put things in perspective, Dream Park was published in 1981. Dungeons & Dragons existed, but had not yet joined forces with Satan and found notoriety. People were writing and reading fantasy books, but Robert Jordan and the whole “I can’t seem to end this series and people keep buying them” trend in weighty, best-selling door stops hadn’t set in. This makes Barnes and Niven prophets of a sort, but it feels odd that all of the characters, when making references to contemporary fantasy, are stuck referring to Conan, Fafhrd, and the Grey Mouser. This is not the authors’ fault, of course, but Dream Park would have seemed more natural had it come out five or six years later.
On to the mechanics of the novel. Barnes and Niven are operating on a couple of levels simultaneously. The real world features Dream Park, the amusement park where everyone goes to play their games, and its staff. Alex Griffin, the Chief of Security, is at the center of the action. The gamers are all introduced in real life, as are the Game Masters, other helpers, and what staff members are relevant to the story. In the real world, somebody on staff got murdered and Alex is trying to find the killer. This part of the story is decent, but not awesome. I suppose it is there to add weight to the book, since merely writing about a game might seem too frivolous.
The Game is much more exciting. All of the gamers get to be their dream selves in the game, acting more or less like one would expect. (What can I say? I’ve gamed enough to know.) Alex joins them part way, as the real world begins to intrude on The Game, though he is soon caught up in the insanity. D&D-esque rules and characters are thrown into a Pacific Cargo Cult world, complete with mythical WWII aircraft, magical caches of warm Coca-Cola, cannibals, volcanoes, zombies, and all kinds of fun stuff. Young me wanted it to be full-on High Fantasy, but older me is glad they went with something original. (To the authors’ credit, everything I know about Cargo Cults, which are pretty wild, I learned from Dream Park.) When the real world mystery is solved at the end, my reaction was lukewarm. When the gamers conquered the zombies and cannibals, and flew off triumphant into the sunset, I was much more excited. In perusing other reviews, this seems to be a pretty common reaction.
On the con side, Dream Park falls victim to the same flaws that afflict most Niven books. The characters are a bit flat and move to the demands of the plot, rather than vice versa. Male-female relations can leave readers cringing. Like a lot of Hard SF, the book is about ideas and things, not people. This bothers some readers, but I tend to me more forgiving. After all, we read hard sf for the stuff. If I want characters, I’ll dig up a copy of Dickens or Steinbeck.
All in all, Dream Park gets a nod from Two Dudes. The second time through didn’t leave me quivering with excitement and wondering where to cryogenically freeze my head until Dream Park becomes a reality, but I enjoyed it. Well read SF fans will know what they are getting from a Niven creation. This isn’t my favorite Niven book of all time (that would be The Mote in God’s Eye), but it’s probably in the Top Ten.
Rating: The Confederation’s Cup. Basically just a warm up for more serious competition, there is still fun and drama to be had.