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The California Voodoo Game
Dream Park #3
by Larry Niven & Steven Barnes
Del Rey, 343pp
Published: December 1992

This is the third book in the 'Dream Park' series which started the career of Steven Barnes a decade earlier and it remained the last one for nearly twenty further years. That makes sense because it does feel a lot like the end to a trilogy, ending careers in front of and behind the game at the heart of the story and bringing a plethora of characters back from earlier books, often in different roles.

And, while I don't believe that it's the best book of the three, I'm pretty sure that I enjoyed it the most, which isn't what I expected going in.

Its biggest flaw is surely the number of characters, especially when compared to the page count. The titular Voodoo Game is an epic challenge, featuring no less than five teams of six players each. Add in the backstage crew at Dream Park and assorted others and it's easy to get lost figuring out who's who. In fact, a couple of hours after I finished the book, I took a fresh look at the cast of characters at the beginning and found that I'd already forgotten who some of them were.

While reading the book, what stood out most was the setting. This is a 'Dream Park' novel but I don't believe any of it takes place at Dream Park. Instead, we're mostly at MIMIC, a massive arcology built in the nineties but abandoned after the big one hit California as too damaged to function. Squatters took over but now it's undergoing renovations to be the central hub of operations for the Barsoom Project, the multi-national plan to terraform Mars which gave its name to the previous book and plays an important part in this one, even though the project hasn't even spun up yet. Those squatters are now guides.

After finishing it, I believe that what makes it work so well is that it's a truer book about games. The previous two books used the games that happen at Dream Park as a backdrop for other stories: a theft in the first one and some industrial espionage in the second. On the surface, we could say that this is consistent with that, as the other story here involves a participant in the game seeking something outside of it even as it's going on.

However, he is a true gamer, someone who translated The Art of War and wrote a spiritual sequel, The Art of Games, and so his particular crime becomes a game in itself. It's a battle of wits between him and those who are trying to stop him, using many of the same skills as those used within the Voodoo Game. I'd suggest that the balance between the two games is very good, especially as they're not separate; they're a Venn diagram with a crossover that's much larger than just the Bishop.

What's more, we know that the bad guy is the Bishop early on. He murders an employee of Dream Park in chapter five before the Voodoo Game even starts. In the previous two books, the job of Alex Griffin, Dream Park's security chief and, by extension, we readers, was to figure out whodunit. Here, we know who pretty quickly but we don't know why and there lies the puzzle. Griffin and his cohorts know that the Bishop is up to no good but they don't know he's a murderer and they have to figure out what's going on before they can stop it.

Another cool gaming aspect is that we see a little more backstage this time. The Voodoo Game is a huge undertaking; at one point, a participant calls it the Olympic Games of gaming. Later we discover that it's going to be the last game for a number of key people, making it even more important. There's more than one gamemaster and they up the stakes considerably at a number of points in the game. The increased insight into the engineering behind the game, both physical and in terms of the gameplay, was a huge plus for me here.

Some reviewers seem to be unhappy about how the series found itself dated at this point by technological advances. The first two books use holography but this one seems to drop back to more primitive HUD tech, even though it's set seven years after its predecessor. They have a point, but I was impressed by engineering setpieces and the reality that GMs have to adapt when gamers take unforeseen directions. Gaming is everything here and not just from one angle.

I have to call out a couple of those setpieces. The most impressive from an engineering standpoint has to be the moment when three gamers are underwater on a flooded level at MIMIC seeking help from some alien gods. Deliberately, I should emphasise, the entire floor gives way and the entire lake, players included, collapses down into the level below so that zombie crocodiles from down there can attack them. That's fantastic.

It's almost as much fun as the battle in the video arcade, in which a number of games are forced to defend themselves against the combined attacks of four ninja turtles, Michael Jackson, Wonder Woman, the Three Stooges, a gigantic centipede and a whole slew of other characters brought to life by the Voodoo Game from whatever arcade machines happen to be present. That's glorious fun.

While many of the characters are forgettable, killed off early or don't have remotely the time we'd like them to have, it's great to see some of them in new circumstances. The gamers in the Voodoo Game include a number who played the South Seas Treasure Game in the first book, favourites like Mary-Martha Corbett, better known as Mary-Em, and others such as S. J. Waters and Holly Frost.

In particular, there's Acacia Garcia, who's pivotal here, because she's the current flame of loremaster Nigel Bishop, as well as the former flame of two key backstage players: gamemaster Tony McWhirter, who was her partner during the South Seas game and security chief Alex Griffin, to whom she moved after Tony's disgrace and incarceration. Their collective interaction is good and believable and worthy of what I still think was meant to be the final book in a trilogy.

The last thing I'll call out for praise is the way that Niven and Barnes were able to take the wildly disparate forms of voodoo and give them some cohesion within the context of a game. The way they did this was to shoehorn in Robert Temple's 'The Sirius Mystery', a pseudoscientific attempt to explain how the Dogon tribe of Mali knew all sorts of astronomical details about Sirius, with the conclusion that ancient aliens from the Dog Star visited Earth and passed such knowledge along to the Dogon first hand. In the Voodoo Game, they simply brought magic too and it travelled and changed over time.

Looking back at the trilogy, I've thoroughly enjoyed it. It definitely looked into the future and got a lot of things right, but inevitably got some wrong too. That's fine. Authors aren't prophets. The only detail that annoys me is the Barsoom Project, which in the context of this trilogy is a huge McGuffin, but which I'd love to see explored.

Many of Steven Barnes's books seem to be set in a shared universe, with 'The Descent of Anansi' certainly sharing one with the 'Dream Park' books, but the California quake perhaps adding the Aubry Knight books in too. So, in which books, do we actually terraform Mars? Inquiring minds want to know. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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

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