Friday Forgotten Book – the first two Dream Park novels by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes

There are four novels in the Dream Park series. This Friday Forgotten review addresses the first two of them, written in 1981 and 1988.

dream-parkDream Park by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes, Ace Books, April 1981, mass market paperback, science fiction – fantasy

This is the first book in the series, originally written as a standalone novel. By Niven’s assessment, the book was written as a lark as much as anything else; the authors had fun creating the setting and inventing their (1981 version) of a futuristic live role playing game (RPG) filled with computer inputs, holographs, live actors, masterful scenic and computer-generated environments. Technical advancements since the book was written show both how insightful the authors were, and how off the mark many of their guesses turned out to be.

In Dream Park, in addition to the theme park aspects of rides, displays, restaurants and so on there are several “gaming areas”. This is where a group of people, who have paid for the privilege of participating, gather to play a game created by a Game Master and led by a Lore Master. The games are adventures lasting from one to four days, in a setting as real to them as everyday life, but created by the Game Master with computer code. There are challenges, battles,  goals, etc. Players score points with their performance. Player can be “killed out” in battles and have to retire from the game. The objective is to attain a treasure or object within the time limit.

In this novel, the game master, Lopez, has set up a South Seas Treasure Hunt. The Lore Master, Henderson, and a dozen players battle natives, zombies, mythic beasts, snakes and so on to make their way through the jungle, out to the coast, past a volcano and to the location of the Cargo, which is the prize. A backstory is that there is a fierce rivalry between Lopez and Henderson which affects game play.

The overreaching plot is a murder investigation, carried out by Griffin, the chief of Dream Park security. Because it’s known that one of the game players is suspected, but not which one, the security chief has to enter the game to find the killer.

barsoom-projectI’m not – have never been – a gamer, so I can’t speak to that aspect of the book, but I enjoyed it in spite of the outdated tech.

The Barsoom Project by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes, Ace Books, April 1988, mass market paperback, science fiction – fantasy. Reprinted by Tor Books.

Written seven years later, the tech in this book is updated only a little, intentionally. The authors say in the introduction they didn’t want to mess with the original concept too much. This book has only a few characters carried over, and is pretty much a standalone novel.

This one has more politics, since the Barsoom Project is an effort to set up an international starter colony on Mars, including terraforming. The gaming aspect is overshadowed by an “accidental” murder in a previous game. I think the authors tried hard to make the book more of a murder mystery than the first one was, with modest success.

There are a lot of different types of games shown off in this book, but the general idea is the same: live players competing against a Game Master to achieve a goal, with a secondary story of the murder, how it could have happened, who might have allowed it to happen, and how that affects everyone.

This one is, like the first, a fast read and your enjoyment of it may depend on your level of interest in both RPG gaming and the solving of the mystery within the Dream Park setting.

The series:

  • Dream Park (1981)
  • The Barsoom Project (1988)
  • The Voodoo Game (1991)
  • The Moon Maze Game (2011)

About Rick Robinson

Enjoying life in Portland, OR
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6 Responses to Friday Forgotten Book – the first two Dream Park novels by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes

  1. Jeff Meyerson says:

    I must admit, as someone who was never into “gaming” or role-playing games, the premise of this doesn’t really appeal to me much. Also, it sounds like the HBO WESTWORLD series, which we quit watching after a couple of nasty episodes. Just did not appeal at all, and there is too much else to watch.

    Still, your recommendation makes it sound like a possibility, if I get in that mood. Good review.

  2. tracybham says:

    I read the first three of these sometime around 2000. Borrowed them from my son. I remember enjoying them, liking the combination of science fiction and mystery. I was never into games at all.

  3. I passed on these books when they were first published. The game element is very much in keeping with time the appeared.

  4. I have the first three (maybe the only 3?) in this series that I have yet to get to. I tend to enjoy Niven when he goes solo and in collaboration, so my assumption is that I will enjoy these.

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