The Imaginary Realms of
Gilbert M. Stack


Larry Niven

Larry Niven

Dream Park by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes

There’s a lot to like about this novel. On the one hand it’s built around a very interesting murder mystery in which the authors play fair and give you all the pieces you need to solve the crime. (I didn’t solve it, but I was left feeling like I could have done so.) On the other hand, it’s the story of a role-playing game played live-action with incredibly sophisticated technology—a clear forerunner to many modern novels built around virtual-reality-based games. It’s also a form of coming-of-age story in which the main character, Griffon, the head of Dream Park security has to go undercover in the gaming experience to catch a murderer and learns to love and respect the games that are the heart of Dream Park’s business. This is an intricately plotted novel in which the role-playing adventure is built upon the most interesting mythology. It’s wonderfully creative and sure to hold your interest.

The Barsoom Project by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes

The sequel to Dream Park is packed with more of what I loved in the first book. The novel opens with a crime. Someone has snuck a real rifle into one of the games and the poor gamer who wields the weapon unintentionally commits murder. Eight years later, Dream Park is hosting an international conference trying to raise money for the Barsoom Project, an ambitious plan to build a high-tech elevator capable of lifting cargo to and from orbit at a fractional cost. To make certain all the conference participants are in a properly happy mood, Dream Park has been opened to their families so the families can play while the financial arrangements are worked out. But there are tons of problems. The financiers represent every country on earth and many are affiliated with terrorist groups. It’s a security nightmare for our hero, Alex Griffon.

One of those relatives is playing in one of the roleplaying games including her internet friend, Michelle, who just so happens to be the emotionally traumatized woman whose weapon killed a man in Dream Park eight years ago. Michelle’s presence attracts the wrong kind of attention and suddenly Dream Park security sees an opportunity to finish solving the crime from eight years earlier. So while the players are up against an extremely challenging mystery that once again appears to weld modern tech into magical mythologies, Griffon is pitting his mind and his team against a clever modern terrorist. This one is exciting from beginning to end.

The California Voodoo Game by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes

The California Voodoo Game didn’t quite live up to the standard set by the first two books in this series. The outside the game mystery was quite intriguing, but the “game” storyline, for the first time in the series, never quite captured my interest.

The California Voodoo Game is the title of the latest roleplaying epic being sponsored by Dream Park. Five teams compete in a completely new location to solve the game. A couple of the players have appeared in earlier stories as had most of the Dream Park staff who play a role in the story. Just before the game starts, Alex Griffon’s girlfriend, and second in charge of the game security, is murdered. The reader sees this happen and knows who the villain is, but we don’t understand what the bad guy is after. While Alex’s staff pursues the murderer from outside, Alex once again goes into the game to see if he can draw him out.

All of that is great. Trying to navigate through the myriad blinds the murderer has constructed to uncover what he is really after was a solid storyline. Unfortunately, it happens within a game mystery which just didn’t measure up to the first two Dream Park stories. And since much of the action happened in the game, the book often seemed to plod along for me.

The novel is still worth reading if you liked the first two books in the series, it’s just not quite as good as the first two were.

The Moon Maze Game by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes

The Dream Park series ends on an awesome note with The Moon Maze Game. I loved the first book and thoroughly enjoyed The Barsoom Project but thought the series took a wrong turn with The California Voodoo Game. With the Moon Maze Game, Niven and Barnes recaptured the magic, and ironically did it by breaking the formula that governed the first three books.

These novels all revolve around a live-action role playing game which utilizes holograms and robotics to produce fantasy adventures. The efforts by the players to win the game is always a central part of the plot, but there is also always a crime that occurs outside the game that somehow involves the players in the games. Our heroes are always trying to solve the crime without interrupting the game which is a major cinematic event with tens of millions dollars depending on it being completed. The Moon Maze Game has all of that plus some excellent subplots involving problems between members of the cast, but what makes this stand out as the best book in the series was that Niven and Barnes broke their formula midway through, upping the tension dramatically and making this a thrilling rollercoaster of a ride.

The plot was especially appealing to me because it revolves around H.G. Wells’ novel, The First Men in the Moon. The numerous ways that Wells’ work is woven into this story is an utter delight for the science fiction fan. You don’t have to be familiar with Wells to enjoy the book, but it certainly adds to the fun if you are.

There was only one significant mistake in the plot that I picked up upon. The crime involves people on earth believing that one of the players in the game taking place on the moon has been kidnapped—even though the kidnappers don’t always have control over their victim. Communications between the game area and the rest of the world have supposedly been severed. Yet, we find out at the end of the story that the game cameras were transmitting everything that happened. This means that everyone on earth knew the kidnapping had at least partially failed. It also means that the authorities on the moon trying to figure out what to do should have had more information than they did (because they were still able to contact earth). To make matters worse, the error wasn’t necessary to advance the plot. Still, it’s easy to overlook this one thing and enjoy a great novel.