Sunday 25 September 2011

The Barsoom Project by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes

The Barsoom Project, published in 1989, is the sequel to Dream Park, which I reviewed a couple of years ago so I won't repeat the basic background - please read the Dream Park review for that (see the list of reviews in the left column). The Barsoom Project features the same principal character, Alex Griffin, the Head of Dream Park Security, and the plot follows a similar pattern in having two parallel threads. One thread features Griffin's attempts to unravel a murder within a game which happened eight years before, while simultaneously trying to uncover a plot against Dream Park itself. While ostensibly what the plot is all about, in practice this is only an minor distraction from the main thread, which follows the progress of several characters participating as players or actors in a new game: a version of the Fimbulwinter game which was the venue for the old murder, but this time recast as a "Fat Ripper Special", aimed at helping obese people lose weight.

An additional plot element is kept in the background until close to the end - the attempt by the Dream Park organisation to promote the real-life colonisation of Mars by means of a skyhook, or space elevator. This Barsoom Project provides the title to the book, although it's hard to see why since most of the story is concerned with the progress of the Fimbulwinter game, set in the Arctic and featuring Inuit (Eskimo to us oldies) mythology.

I had some issues with aspects of the story. I was not entirely convinced by the economics of the Dream Park games, nor by the logic of the "fat rippers"; even if their experiences encouraged the game-players to change their diets (although it wasn't obvious why it should), why would it have the same effect on overweight computer gamers? However, the biggest problem with this story for me is that it lacked much in the way of dramatic tension, simply because the reader knows from the start that the constant stream of bizarre dangers faced by the participants in the game is not real - if they are "killed" in the game, they simply retire uninjured. Now it could be argued that, by definition, fiction is "not real" anyway, but in a conventional story the author and reader conspire to pretend that what is going on is genuine so that tension can be built up to high levels - that simply doesn't happen here (in fact participants in the game have to be reminded that they need to lie still and be quiet when they're "dead"). As in Dream Park, the criminal in the story is unmasked at the end without any prior clues to allow readers to work out who it might be.

Despite this, the many who loved Dream Park will I expect enjoy The Barsoom Project. As I'm not interested in role playing games it took me some time to get into the story, although the pace picked up after the half-way point. I found it moderately entertaining, but it doesn't really add anything to Dream Park. On checking my previous review I was reminded that there is a third book in this series, The (California) Voodoo Game (which I have read, although I recall nothing about it) and I see a fourth has just been published, The Moon Maze. I think I might pass on that one - initial reviews are not encouraging.


Bill Garthright said...

Good review, Tony. I enjoyed the book more than you did, but then, I'm a gamer. I think that makes all the difference in the world.

I recognized the flaws in this book and in Dream Park, but the setting was so appealing that I could overlook them. And I enjoy reading about and watching games (on YouTube), not just playing them, so this was right up my alley.

This is a book where our existing interests matter, I think. Non-gamers don't seem to find it as appealing. That's understandable.

Fred said...


I have read the first three and agree with you. _Dream Park_ was the best, while the series weakened as it progressed.

I wasn't aware there was a fourth out. I may check it out to see if it has recovered its original flair.

Anthony G Williams said...

I'd be interested in the views of anyone who's read the fourth book.

The Gray Monk said...

An interesting sounding review. I got my first taste of scifi reading Edgar Rice Burroughs "Carson of Venus" and the equally good (In retrospect - better) Barsoom stories. OK, so now we know that Venus is uninhabitable, but for their time they were excellent and he used them to parody what was happening in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

Brilliant stuff, now I shall have to try and find copies again ...

Anthony G Williams said...

I have fond memories of those Edgar Rice Burroughs stories from my dim and distant youth, but I think I'd be reluctant to read them again for fear that I would now find them ridiculous.

I have kept a kind of updated version of the stories (in spirit, anway) which I enjoyed in the 1980s - the Gandalara Cycle by Randall Garrett and Vicky Ann Heydron. In these, a modern-day man suddenly finds himself in the body of a warrior on an exotic desert world. I must read them again sometime (so many books, so little time...).