The Barsoom Project
The California Voodoo Game
Larry Niven and Stephen Barnes
Leading up to the review of the newest book in the Dream Park series, I reread the first two sequels. This was actually a bit of a coincidence, as I started this project without knowing that a new book was coming. (We’re a bit out of the loop here at Two Dudes. It keeps us and our opinions pure.) When writing the first Dream Park review, I was just looking for a Niven post that I could bang out in short order, even though it’s been a few years since I read it. After that, it seemed like fun to reread the rest of the books, so I started requesting from the library. Lo and behold, a new book was slated to arrive soon. I knew in an instant that this was big news and Two Dudes had to be there for it.
All of the Dream Park books thus far follow the same basic structure: a fantasy-like game narrative wrapped in a science fiction mystery. Niven has mystery credibility, as he was writing Gil Hamilton stories back when John Campbell was still telling people that nobody would ever write a decent SF mystery. (This claim has puzzled me for a long time, because what is Hard SF but a mystery? Substitute a Big Mysterious Object for a murder and lab coats for trench coats; the end result is pretty much the same.) He is also comfortable in near-future Hard SF and his own brand of fantasy, so the genre hopping comes off as more of a game than a challenge. I suppose this is fitting, considering all the gaming going on anyway.
When I first read the original Dream Park, I was disappointed because they avoided a stereotypical high fantasy setting. (This was in my young and foolish days.) Reading it now, I’m glad they did. And I’m glad that the next two books followed the same pattern, letting Niven and Barnes go crazy with whatever mythology caught their fancy at the time. The Barsoom Project features an Inuit setting, while California Voodoo Game uses, wait for it, voodoo. Looking at all three, the Inuit narrative might be the most inventive and interesting. The Cargo Cults from the first book were new and crazy, and melding voodoo and a post-apocalyptic setting is also entertaining. As a game setting, though, I think the second book wins the prize.
Likewise with the mysteries, Barsoom gives the strongest foundation to the books. In the first Dream Park, the mystery feels a bit contrived and not entirely connected to the story. With Voodoo, there has to be a mystery, because there always is, but again it feels a bit like the book could have been entirely about the game, with no major loss. Barsoom, though, combines a multi-layered mystery to the ongoing game through several different threads; I think this is the most complete narrative of the bunch. Without the mystery, the game is somewhat flat; without the game, the mystery doesn’t mean a whole lot. This compared to the other two books, where the game feels more or less self-sufficient and the connections to the mystery are a touch arbitrary.
This may be a reflection of the games themselves. Dream Park is a wild ride, where the mere possibility of live action role playing on a grand scale is utterly intoxicating; the mystery is a bit of an afterthought to readers zestfully hoping that they may someday get to play. Voodoo pushes the game to a new level. Dream Park has acquired an entire abandoned arcology in the California desert, called in legendary game masters and top players, and planned an epic showdown in the vast building. There are other things going on, not the least of them a plan to colonize Mars, but the showcase here is clearly the game. Barsoom, however, is a run of the mill “Fat Ripper Special,” where overweight people run themselves ragged for a few days, eat only the healthy offerings provided by the game, and possibly learn some subliminal strategies for changing their lifestyles. No steaming hunks of venison here – only carrots for these brave warriors, please. The other games are massive productions with star players and appropriate theatrics, destined for multimedia franchises and mass consumption. With the more subdued game in Barsoom, the mystery elements assume greater importance and more plot cohesiveness.
And yet, Barsoom is in some ways the least satisfying of the books. I suspect I would feel differently if Voodoo didn’t exist. The reason? I’m a sucker for continuing sagas, epilogues, long explanations of how every character’s life passed, etc. (Note: this does not mean I’m reading George R.R. Martin or Robert Jordan. That is entirely different.) Barsoom is mostly new dramatis personae. Aside from Alex Griffin, the Park security manager, and a couple of minor characters, everyone venturing into the Inuit mayhem is new. With Voodoo, many of the original gang are back for an even bigger, better game, and there is the satisfaction that comes from seeing familiar faces having a new adventure. A proper literary critic might flay me for giving in to sentiment like this, but so be it. I want to see all these imaginary people playing their imaginary characters be, at the very least, imaginarily happy.
These are Larry Niven books, with all that entails. Readers who don’t like him now will find little to change their minds. Niven has my number though, whatever his faults, and I can’t stop reading. I wouldn’t put the Dream Park books as high on the list as some of Known Space, but this is turning into a relatively major set of stories. The authors have a good feel for gamers, both as characters and as an audience. I can’t imagine any serious D&D people not getting a kick out of these and finding themselves with a faraway look in the eyes, wishing that someday, somehow, they too could whack away at holographic monsters with a virtually enhanced padded stick. The same goes for reformed gamers. I should know.
Rating: Football Manager. Just like not all of us can be powerful wizards or warriors with mighty thews, not everyone can take the reins of a fourth division Belgian team and guide it to the Champion’s League. That is why people go to Dream Park and why we play Football Manager.