Friday 12 June 2009

Dream Park, by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes

This novel was first published in 1981 and I read it not long after. I thoroughly enjoyed it then, and was pleased to return to it when it was selected for the Modern Science Fiction discussion group, particularly since I remembered nothing about the plot.

The story is set on Earth some time in the future; there are ultra-high-speed trains running in evacuated tunnels and life-like holograms, but not much else in the way of advanced technology. The location is the Dream Park of the title, a huge leisure park which, in addition to more familiar attractions, hosts role-playing games on vast sets, their actual topography enhanced by computer-generated holograms so they seem to stretch for miles. Keen role-players participate in these games, in which the Lore Master, the leader of the players, pits his wits against the Game Master who devises the game and supervises its progress. Games last for several days during which the players remain on the set and maintain their chosen roles – warrior, thief, cleric or magic user – the magic users being able to summon holographic "supernatural aid" at need. A lot of money rides on these games because, if deemed successful, they are turned into computer games and other merchandise.

The plot concerns the running of a new game, seen as a "blood match" between the Game Master and Lore Master, who have clashed before. Most of the action happens on set, but there is a parallel plot concerning the murder of a security guard at Dream Park, which seems to be associated with the game. The Park's Head of Security, Alex Griffin, becomes convinced that one of the players must have been responsible so he anonymously joins the game as a player in order to try to identify the criminal. However, he finds the game a lot more absorbing than he ever imagined.

I had better start by admitting that I have never participated in a role-playing game of any kind; I'm not sure if that's a benefit or a handicap in reviewing this story! The writing style is brisk and well suited to the teenage market. At first I was disappointed because I found the tale rather frustrating. Many characters are introduced in quick succession and I soon lost track of them. A list of characters is included at the front of the book but, while an essential reference, this only gives their names and roles. Not enough information is provided to round out the personalities or fix their descriptions in the reader's mind, so I kept flipping back though the text to find where they were first (albeit only briefly) described. This lasted until about half-way through the book, during which time I still felt that I didn't know the characters or much care what happened to them.

However, after that the story begins to take off. The surviving characters become more familiar and the story more gripping as the players battle their way through the obstacles and dangers set by the Game Master towards a still-unknown goal in the fantastical world of Melanesian mythology and the Cargo Cult. At the same time Griffin, who secretly keeps in daily contact with his security team, is trying to identify the criminal. The game is a lot more successful than the rather cursory solution of the crime; the eventual revelation of the killer was more of a "huh?" than an "of course!" moment, as not enough clues had been provided.

Despite these reservations, it's an unusual and exciting mix of adventure and crime story, worth the time to read if you can get past the initial problems with characterisation. I expect that RPG fans will enjoy it even more.


Bill Garthright said...

Yup, this RPG fan certainly enjoyed it! But I loved the Dream Park idea - the kind of game they were able to put together - better than the storytelling here. As you say, the characterization is poor, and the mystery isn't much better. But the GAME, oh, the game...


Fred said...

I read it years ago and had a similar reaction. The "mystery" really wasn't much, and the characters were OK. I never read anything by Niven or Barnes because I expected unique or memorable characters.

What sold me on the book was the concept. That's what grabbed me, and it was the reason I also got the sequels, _The Barsoom Project_ and _The California Voodoo Game_, neither of which I remember anything about.

However, I still have all three, so one of these days I may dust them off and...

Anthony G Williams said...

Fred, I also have the two sequels and, like you, can't recall what they're about. I might well be tempted to read them again sometime.

Fred said...


Right now I'm working my way through Greg Benford's "Galactic Center" series--one of the best I've ever read, and now rereading.

After that it's time for lighter fare--CJ Cherryh's Morgaine and the Gates series, a sword-and-science sequence that's pure fun.

I just might schedule The Dream Park series after that.

Anthony G Williams said...

Yep, I've got Benford's and Cherryh's work on my "re-read" list too!

I recently read the first of Cherryh's 'Foreigner' series for the first time (reviewed here) and have the next two on my reading pile - which continues to get taller year by year...

Fred said...

I just recently reread _Foreigner_ also, probably for the Modern SF Group on yahoo.

It's almost impossible to balance out rereading old favorites and trying out some of the new writers, or even some that have been around for several years, but just haven't been able to get to them yet. That's why I belong to a local SF group at B&N. That way I occasionally get to hear about new writers.

Anthony G Williams said...

I get most of my info on new books from the reviews sections of 'Interzone' magazine and the publications of the British Science Fiction Association and British Fantasy Society. If a new book gets enough favourable write-ups and it sounds as if I might enjoy the plot, it goes on my "to buy" list....which is now very long!

Fred said...

I should log on to Locus which would be an excellent source for new SF, but I really only use that site for research.

This is the only other source I have for finding out about new SF--The SFsite.

Anthony G Williams said...

Ah yes, I have a certain fondness for the SFsite as they've posted reviews of both of my novels!


Unknown said...

Larry Niven and Steven Barnes will be making an appearance at the Wyrd Con convention on June 11-13, 2010!

Both authors will be participating in a Dream Park panel and then they will have a signing.

Steven Barnes will be leading Tai Chi Saturday and Sunday mornings of the convention.

For more information about the convention or to register for the event visit the Wyrd Con website!

Wyrd Con
June 11-13, 2010

Hilton Orange County/Costa Mesa
3050 Bristol Street
Costa Mesa, CA 92626