by Larry Niven & Steven Barnes

OK, I’m starting to get the hang of these Dream Park books, and I’m not sure I like them or not.

Let me backtrack a step. The Moon Maze Game was the first Dream Park book that I read, and it’s actually the third in the series. You can see what I thought about it here. And when I got through that one and realized that these were essentially stand-alone books all in the same universe, I didn’t feel quite so inhibited in reading Barsoom because I knew going into it, that I didn’t have to know anything about the first book.

So, I felt pretty good about stepping into the Dream Park realm again. Only this time, I needed a map or something.

The Barsoom Project again delves into the world of immersive role-playing games, putting the players directly into the environment to reach the goal. In this case, it’s a scenario called a “Fat Ripper” – geared toward teaching players new habits when it comes to diet so they can effectively lose weight. OK. All well and good so far. Into this game: Michelle Sturgeon, playing as “Eviane”. She’s going through the game again, several years after a disastrous first time. Sabotage led to her killing a Cowles staffer using one of the prop guns. The trauma sent her spiraling down into the Eviane persona to the point where Michelle was a little dim voice in the back of her head.

So, we have a role-playing game, sabotage, a cover-up, and Security Chief Alex Griffin tumbles onto it just as a bunch of muckety-mucks are at the facility for a presentation on the new Barsoom Project, something about taking industry to Mars to cut costs on something.

Let’s be clear here. This book is mis-titled. It’s really not about the Barsoom Project at all. That’s the McGuffin to get us all in the same place and have something for Griffin to chase while the main part of the book centers on the game. Yes, the Barsoom Project itself plays into the final “end game” scenes in the book, but it’s only the kickoff item to get the whole ball of wax rolling. The book itself is mainly about the game and how Eviane deals with it after having killed a man.

So, the Gamers enter the Fat Ripper and learn they’re in Alaska (frozen tundra up North somewhere) to save the Eskimos’ deities from other Eskimos who have been corrupted by the ways of the white man. The Gamers not only have to learn to respect their environment and the food they eat, but also have to deal with various abhorrent creatures who would feel at home at Innsmouth (and yes, one of those creatures could very well be Cthulu…). Braving the elements, the mad horrifying creatures, and men who want them all dead, they make their way through the game. Their goal: destroy a satellite that fell to Earth and is now providing the corrupt Eskimos with the power to take over the planet through mystic spells and incantations.

The Moon Maze Game did this same thing, only it was easier to follow. I think it may have to do with Steven Barnes’ use of Eskimo (or Inuit) folklore and mystic tales in this book. While the story is an easy enough read, I found myself slogging through it at times because it was hard for me to keep track of everyone. There are too many Gamers, I feel, and some of them aren’t defined enough to be memorable. And since everyone is playing a part in the Game, everyone has two identities. So sometimes I’m reading about Snow Goose, and other times I’m reading about Gwen, and they’re one and the same (I’m pretty sure they are, anyway…).

When I was done with the book, I really felt like I’d missed something. Something’s missing. And I keep circling back to the murder mystery cover-up. It just feels incomplete, like Niven and Barnes were telling two different stories that had to compete for pages. The Griffin story line feels a little short-changed when stacked against the Fat Ripper story, even though the two overlap and depend on each other for resolution.

Bottom line: it’s a good read, but you’ve got to pay attention. Not only do you have to deal with the world-building of the Dream Park environment, but you also have to get through the Eskimo cultural exchange program. It’s hard to keep up at times.

Either that, or I’m just too tired to read it properly.

Jason P. Hunt

Jason P. Hunt (founder/EIC) is the author of the sci-fi novella "The Hero At the End Of His Rope". His short film "Species Felis Dominarus" was a finalist in the Sci Fi Channel's 2007 Exposure competition.

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