Last year, when Emily Devenport was announced as a CoKoCon Guest of Honor, I took the opportunity to work through her bibliography in order and review a book a month here at the Nameless Zine. As CoKoCon has now announced Steven Barnes as its Author Guest of Honor for 2020, I'm going to do the same thing with his bibliography, starting here with a collaborative effort with Larry Niven, coincidentally the very first Guest of Honor Phoenix fandom ever met, at LepreCon in 1974.
I've read a lot of Niven's work over the years, but somehow hadn't read this one, which was nominated for the Locus in 1982 and was later expanded into a series, with three sequels thus far, 'The Barsoom Project', 'The California Voodoo Game' and 'The Moon Maze Game'. Other later books by Niven and Barnes tie in without being set in Dream Park.
I liked it a lot, as an adventure and as a mystery, though its real value is in how it explores fandom. This must have felt intensely validating for fans in 1981 before we nerds took over the world, as it took the opposite view of other books published the same year in the wake of media coverage about the disappearance of James Egbert III in 1979, which sensationalised the idea of it being caused by his playing a live action version of Dungeons & Dragons.
For instance, Rona Jaffe's Mazes and Monsters was published in 1981, before being turned into a film with Tom Hanks the following year, and it certainly didn't look on gamers as being just human beings doing something they love the way this does. It was a fertile time for moral panic and D&D was an easy target. Only a few years later, Jack Chick published his famous Dark Dungeon tract suggesting that D&D is used by witches as a gateway to Satan. In many ways, Dream Park is the antidote to all of that.
It throws us into a recognisable future America of 2051 that benefits from a lot of advances in technology. Dream Park itself is a venue where gamers pay to be part of multi-day multi-player live action roleplaying games. They're run like D&D by a Game Master behind the scenes and the team includes a Lore Master as an experienced guide. The technology is a combination of physical and holographic, the immersion factor enhanced by sound. Danger is perceived constantly but never real.
It's always fun to look back at science fiction writers to see just how much they got right and how much they got horribly wrong. Niven and Barnes really do well here, anticipating a whole bunch of technology that we now have and more that we might have soon. For instance, each game is broadcast live and edited for resale, with a proportion of income going to the participants. It therefore anticipates LARPing (which existed but hadn't been named), as well as reality TV, Esports, virtual reality and royalties for YouTube channels, not to mention Star Trek: The Next Generation's holodeck.
The gamers get to Dream Park via what reads like Elon Musk's hyperloop, the trip from New York to Dallas taking about half an hour. We witness a clear example of motion capture technology, the movements of an actor translated into those of a holographic rabbit. There's even mention of a rendition of 'Baby, It's Cold Outside' with the roles reversed, which is insanely ahead of its time. The MacGuffin of the piece is Neutral Smell, a liquid to serve as a manipulator of the subconscious, like a subliminal scent, which I have no doubt is currently being developed.
On the flipside, there are a heck of a lot of people printing things in 2051 and they all appear to use dot matrix printers. I'm not buying that one, any more than I am the idea that popular players are documented in magazines. It could be argued that the authors never say that these magazines are physical but I'm taking it as a given. All in all, they do their techno-extrapolation very well indeed, even if LA didn't fall into the ocean in 1985. Maybe that was just wishful thinking.
The story as we begin seems to revolve around one of those games, South Seas Treasure Game run by a legendary Game Master, Richard Lopez, who has spent a couple of years developing it, another touch we see as very realistic today. As almost all of the character building comes from the gamers ("gamesters" here) as they progress through this game, it remains important, especially as there's a sort of love/hate relationship between Lopez and Lore Master Chet Henderson. There are reputations on the line here.
However, it soon becomes clear that the real story is the murder of Albert Rice, while he's walking the site as a security guard on the night shift. It seems that the killer must be one of the gamers, stealing a vial of Neutral Smell presumably as an act of industrial espionage, so Alex Griffin, head of Dream Park's security team, joins the game as a substitute player to track down the murderer. That means that he's investigating the murder while he's undercover as a gamer during the last few days of South Seas Treasure Game and he finds that gaming isn't quite what he thought it was.
This is a fantastic setup for a science fiction novel. It's wild adventure, the game beginning on a plane ride to New Guinea that's forced down during a storm, the captain dead. The gamers find themselves at the wrong lake, with a thirty foot water snake standing in the way of their goal to help a local tribe of cannibals. Oh yeah, there's more adventure here than there ever was in Jurassic Park, even if it's holographic. Meanwhile, it's also not a bad mystery, though we find ourselves so caught up in action and interaction to forget sometimes that there even is a mystery, appropriately as that's soon mirrored in Griffin's experience.
Throughout, I was more intrigued by the technology than the mystery, which I knew Griffin would wrap up on his own. How would it feel to be so lost in VR that it's hard not to believe that you're really in New Guinea fighting the next monster Lopez conjures up, even as you know intellectually that this is a game? It's interesting to see that will is part of that process. How would it feel to interact with the holographic technology as a player, especially during battle? While there's plenty of holographic death and dismemberment, there ought to be a psychological impact to killing someone in such realism.
And, with all that, I'm only scratching the surface. There's a lot here and it isn't all what we might expect to be there by reading a synopsis or, for that matter, this review (I haven't even mentioned nods to Robert Heinlein through a Stobor trophy and Fritz Leiber through a reference to Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser). Dream Park is not a tiny novel but it's a speedy read and it's a grand debut for Steven Barnes. Next up, another collaborative novel written with Larry Niven but not the next 'Dream Park' book: 'The Descent of Anansi', from 1982. ~~ Hal C F Astell
For more titles in this series click here
For other titles by Larry Niven click here
For more titles by Steven Barnes click here