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The Barsoom Project
Dream Park #2
by Larry Niven & Steven Barnes
Ace, $8.99 Kindle, 352pp
Published: September 1989

By sheer coincidence, two of my runthrough projects reached a point in June where the current book in each was written by Larry Niven. I usually tend to space out my authors but I'm up to 1971 in my runthrough of Hugo winners for Best Novel, which was Niven's 'Ringworld', and book six in my runthrough of Steven Barnes novels, which is the second in the series he wrote with Niven about Dream Park. So it's two Nivens this month.

This is the first sequel to 'Dream Park', which I enjoyed a great deal. This one I enjoyed both less and more.

From one side, it didn't feel as fresh to me, with the in-game action wildly more extreme, inappropriately in my mind for the purpose to which it's put, and the out-of-game action less believable. One aspect that continued to bug me throughout was that the Barsoom Project of the title is not the game that we follow in this novel, as I had both hoped and expected it would, and that makes the title rather misleading.

To get it out of the way, the Barsoom Project is some sort of pitch to go to Mars that's happening at Dream Park at the same time as the other events we focus on. It has nothing to do with the in-game plot except that one of the players is Charlene Dula, the niece of Ambassador Arbenz of Anansi, who's at Dream Park for the Barsoom presentation. It does have ties into the out-of-game plot but, quite frankly, it could have taken any form and still played the same role in the novel.

Fortunately, from another side, this revisits familiar ground without trying to simply recycle it and I thoroughly appreciated how the authors' formula, if it's fair to call it that, is flexible enough to embrace some interesting ideas that are again ahead of their time. The concept of Fat Ripper Specials has a direct lineage to, say, Wii Fit in the way they gamify weightloss. It would be fair to suggest that much of this book is about the intersection of gaming and mental health and I found that fascinating.

For those who haven't read the first novel, we're in the second half of the 21st century and Dream Park is a combination theme park and LARP, using the advanced technology, holographic and otherwise, of the time to immerse a set of players in a multiplayer multi-day live action fantasy game, orchestrated by a game master and usually played for points under the watchful eye of the International Fantasy Games Society.

In the first book, the players embarked upon an adventure in the South Seas and it was just that, an adventure enjoyed by gamers who were there to enjoy an adventure. In this first sequel, the adventure takes place in Alaska and deep into Inuit mythology. The sun is dying because Ahk-lut has stolen away the Raven, while Sedna, the goddess of the sea, is suffering and needs to be attended.

Fimbulwinter is another excellent setting for a Dream Park game, even if it also trawls in Lovecraft for no apparent reason. I couldn't resist the first page, which features a great warrior failing to kill a gigantic caterpillar monster with the pubic bone of a walrus. If I was this sort of gamer, that's exactly what would have me signing up for Dream Park. However, that's really not what makes it special.

That's the fact that the gamers here aren't really just here to game, though I'm sure that's part of it. Most of them are here to lose weight, as part of a Fat Ripper Special, which is an attempt not only to gamify weight loss but also to use gaming as a tool for psychological change. Agreeably, this works for some of the players, who leave Fimbulwinter with different mindsets than they brought in with them, but it doesn't work for all of them, which I felt was a neatly realistic touch. It's also worth mentioning that, while most of these gamers are fat and wanting to lose weight, one of them is acutely thin and wanting to gain it.

I won't run through the cast of characters because it really doesn't matter much, except in a few instances. One is that Ollie Norliss, from the first book, returns as one of the gamers, for very little reason, and his now-wife Gwen is there to lead the party; she has a lot more to do here. Another has these gamers flout stereotypes: while some are the convention nerds that you might expect, there's also a well known comedian and a professional wrestler who goes by Mr. Mountain. Again, I liked that touch and appreciated the nod to people with mental health issues coming from all walks of life.

I enjoyed the Fimbulwinter game, probably more than South Seas Treasure, at least until it jumped the shark into Lovecraftian territory, hardly a viable place for people trying to address mental issues. However, I have to wonder about how extreme it is. I realise that book one was set in 2051, so this is presumably a little later, but there's nothing to suggest that social mores have particularly changed. Yet Fimbulwinter is full of adult content, both a lot of nudity and a lot of gore.

Now, I'm hardly against either but I would expect that there's a difference psychologically between gruesomely killing someone in a martial arts battle in an 8-bit side scroller and severing the limbs of a fellow player in what must be seen as a holodeck-level immersion before crushing his head, all to stop him rising from the dead as an enemy. What's more, I would have thought that Niven and Barnes had spent a lot of time thinking about this, given the way that they developed the subplot of Eviane.

Given that she's detailed in the cast of characters at the beginning of the novel, I guess it's no spoiler to say that she isn't who she seems. A number of years before the events of this novel, she played Fimbulwinter and found herself traumatised when someone slipped in a real gun and she shot someone in the head for real. It wasn't her fault, of course, but it still happened and the trauma of that event is palpable as she returns to the game under a new name, having passed the psych eval by taking it not as herself but with the mind of the character she plays.

That subplot gets notably deep and it's arguably the biggest success of the novel. Everything here is about mental health and this is a worthy angle to pursue in addition to those about psychological therapy. That Eviane becomes an important cog in this machine for other reasons is a welcome bonus.

But, as I mentioned, if the authors can delve so agreeably deep with Eviane, why would they be willing, if not eager, to hurl all their other gamers into what, to them, is surely just as abiding trauma. After all, these books rely on us buying into the players suspension of their own disbelief while inside the game because that's where the tension lies. Remove that and the tension vanishes.

All in all, I liked this one a lot, sometimes more than its predecessor and sometimes less. Niven and Barnes followed it up with a third book reasonably quickly, 'The California Voodoo Game' published three years later in 1992. A fourth book eventually arrived, in the form of 'The Moon Maze Game', but not until 2011. Next month, though, I'll be reading another solo Barnes, 'Gorgon Child', which is the middle book in his Aubry Knight trilogy. ~~ Hal C F Astell

For more titles in this series click here
For more titles by Larry Niven click here
For more titles by Steven Barnes click here

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