The Moon Maze Game
Larry Niven & Stephen Barnes
At long last, the fourth installment of the Dream Park series emerges from the fevered recesses of Larry Niven’s brain. When the first came out, back in the Dark Ages before everyone knew what a 12-sided die is and doorstop fantasy series were as scarce as hen’s teeth, I doubt he and co-author Stephen Barnes had any idea they’d be cranking out sequels. Thirty years later, that’s exactly what happened. The book triggers two big questions. First, Niven’s track record in the last decade or so has been, to put it kindly, mixed. Does this book measure up to past glories? Second, what has changed in the Dream Park world in the nineteen years since we last dropped in?
Let’s look at the second question first. Niven and Barnes have let their world age along with us. Some of the characters from the previous three novels make cameos or have their names dropped, but Moon Maze brings an all new cast. There is still a Griffin at the center of things, but this time it is Scotty, Alex and Millie’s son. (Newsflash: apparently Millie is black. I totally missed that memo, unless Niven and Barnes are changing the past to suit present plot needs. Wouldn’t be the first time it’s happened.) The other gamers are by necessity new, since any past favorites would now be in their 60s and 70s. There may be geriatric games at Dream Park, but not the cutting edge stuff that the novels usually focus on.
The world and technology have moved on as well. As the title might lead one to assume, this takes place on the Moon. Astute readers will remember that nothing was happening on the Moon in the original books, though things were starting to happen in Earth orbit. Dream Park itself gets more and more insane as well, though many of the updates are clever ways for the authors to rearrange their near-future tech. Cell phones are present now, for example, and there are no dot matrix printers spitting out accordion paper. Everything has evolved naturally though, so the Dream Park world is still easily recognizable as such.
The book itself has evolved also. The first three Dream Park novels followed the same pattern: a game wrapped in a real world mystery. Something was going on that was tied to the game, but not a part of it, and the Dream Park security staff, headed by Alex Griffin, solved the problem. Of course, for various reasons, THE GAME MUST GO ON, so the reader gets to watch the mystery unravel while also following the progress of the gamers in whatever crazy world the Game Masters (and authors) have cooked up. Moon Maze tries a different track, leaving the mystery behind for a more conventional thriller. Of course THE GAME MUST GO ON, but this time it’s not a way to make money or flush out the perpetrator. This time, terrorists have overrun the game and the gamers can’t escape. (Note: this is not a spoiler. The dust jacket reveals everything up to this point.) All of this is taking place on the Moon, so it’s not like our friends the gamers can just sneak out a side door. Instead, they must use their ingenuity and the crazy props lying around to outwit the terrorists, or at least avoid unfortunate endings and/or the vacuum of space.
This last change represents the logical extension of everything that has gone before. At its heart, the Dream Park world is all about wish fulfillment. Maybe not for Niven and Barnes, but obviously for their characters and, I think, SF fandom in general. Niven has a long, friendly relationship with fans. Many fans have found their way into his stories, Fallen Angels was basically an ode to fandom, and his recent books with Edward Lerner are the culmination of one fan slowly working his way from admirer to coauthor. Dream Park lets all of the gamers in fandom (I suspect this is a huge percentage) pretend that they too can put away the 12-sided dice and sourcebooks, get dressed up, and go beat the daylights out of virtual monsters. I understand this – I would probably be at Dream Park myself, given the opportunity. But Moon Maze takes it one step further. Not only are the gamers playing these amazing games (and becoming rich celebrities while they do), now they are real life heroes, using their innate gaming skills to save real lives and thwart real bad guys. What could be better for the pimply guy down the hall who knows more about hit points and skill trees than the workings of his shower? This is not entirely fair – a great many nerds and gamers shower regularly.
It’s time to venture back to the first question. As I have written elsewhere, Niven takes a lot of heat in the critical community. He comes from an older style of Hard SF, back when men were men, characters were vague, and big ideas were more interesting than profound themes. I understand both the critiques and the expectations of an older generation, raised as I was on a combination of Hard SF and high school English assignments. The characters in Moon Maze are not completely faceless, the authors make attempts to humanize them. I’m not sure that there is Character Development going on, but we at least get some semblance of moral complexity with some of the bad guys. I suppose there’s a touch of misogyny present, though the female characters are all capable and ready to dish out butt-kickings. (I’m not really sensitive to this sort of thing, but now that I think about it, most of the women needed a good, strong man in their lives.) I probably didn’t learn much about the human condition.
What I did read, however, was a fast-paced, fun story. Niven and Barnes keep things very cinematic: events move quickly, the action is paced well with just enough breaks to let everyone catch their breath. Viewpoints jump smoothly, ensuring that the reader sees all the important interactions and no filler. Necessary tropes get checked off, one by one. [Some very minor spoilage] Appropriate bad guy back story including hard childhood and/or oppressive society? Check. Hero with a tragic weakness to be overcome? Right here. Noble sacrifice of someone who was basically marked for death from his/her introduction? Aisle Three please. Divorced couple who really just needed life-threatening stress to realize that they should be together after all? Sale on those today, sir. Crazy Moon caterpillars involved in interplanetary warfare with mechanized Martians? Er, we’ll get to that later.
I’m mocking things a bit, but to the authors’ credit, even the clichés are addressed in a logical, orderly fashion. Everything that goes down happens for a good reason, even if it is a bit predictable. This may be more of a condemnation of Hollywood than praise for Niven and Barnes, but it’s refreshing to read a blockbuster-esque novel without gaping plot holes, inconsistencies, forehead slappers, or just plain factual nonsense. (I’m looking at you, but not you exclusively, Dan Brown.) This is actually giving Moon Maze far less credit than it deserves. I will say it again: Larry Niven has my number. I read this over two days, but would have finished in one had silly things like my kids and sleep not interrupted. Whatever faults his other recent books have, and they are apparently many, Moon Maze is non-stop entertainment. It may even be the best of the series.
Before signing off, I should explain that caterpillar thing. The gameworld here is probably my favorite of the four. Its basic premise is that the H.G. Wells canon is real, which means we have doughty 19th Century British types, crazy bug-like things on the Moon, insidious Martian invaders from War of the Worlds, and a lot of stiff upper lips. I am not a Wells expert, nor do the gamers get as much time to explore as they (or we) might like, but the Moon that the gamers visit is a setting I would love to spend more time in.
A couple of last notes: I have no idea if this is a sly reference to famous Moon books of the past, but Lunar independence raises its non-sequitur head. Is there a Moon book out there where people don’t rebel? Finally, previous Dream Park reviews are here and here.
Rating: FIFA 2012. Those of us who can’t be Messi in real life can at least play him in a video game.