by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes
Tor, August 2011

For those who haven’t read the other Dream Park books, no worries. The Moon Maze Game is enough of a stand-alone book that you don’t have to read any of the others to get what’s going on in this one. The basic behind the Dream Park series is MMORPG taken to the next level. Instead of playing on-line, you’re playing in real-time real-life.

This time around, it’s a high-stakes game on the moon, where colonists have been agitating for independence as its own colony instead of being an extension of Earth. Amidst this intrigue (which takes a way in the back of the bus seat), a group of gamers have been deposited into a game based on H. G. Wells’ novel The First Men in the Moon, and the team is assigned to rescue Professor Cavor from his Lunar captors, the Selenites.

Our players:

Scotty Griffin – protection specialist hired to escort Ali Kikaya, the teenage prince of the Republic of Kikaya. Scotty’s been dirtside since an incident on the moon left him with post-traumatic stress of some sort. Now, when he sees stars, he gets vertigo something awful. The other casualty of his condition was his marriage to Kendra, who runs the lunar station.

Angelique Chan and Wayne Gibson – two of the best players in the field, along with their compatriot Xavier. Until Xavier got fingered for cheating, blamed Wayne, and went off in a huff to design his own games. Xavier is now one of the biggest gaming moguls around (think Bill Gates of LARP) and seems to have expressly set out to make Angelique and Wayne fail at the game.

Prince Ali – teen nose-in-the-air prince who thinks he doesn’t need a bodyguard, and that his father just doesn’t understand him. He’s a pretty typical whiny rebellious teenager with a losing-his-patience father who sighs a lot.

Along with other players, they get thrown into a “rescue” of Professor Cavor, only the game soon turns very deadly, as sabotage and political intrigue strike into the heart of the gaming operation.

On the surface, it’s a good read. And really, you don’t have to read any of the other Dream Park books to get what’s going on in this one. Bad guys sabotage the game. Game becomes really dangerous. Mad scramble to beat the bad guys from the inside before the Prince’s father abdicates his seat of power to a bunch of terrorists. And as far as it goes, it’s a fun ride. The main characters are fleshed out enough, that you root for them in the right places. Xavier even gets a little shine, even though he’s nothing more than a Lex Luthor pastiche, complete with two beautiful girls in his entourage…

But there’s so much more that could have been done with the political intrigue side of things. A lot of time was spent inside the game and inside the control room for the game, so much so that other elements of the plot were given short shrift. The thread involving an upcoming election and Kendra’s political opponent could have been deeper, especially since it plays a factor in what’s going on inside the game dome. And yes, it’s told from the point of view of the people on the moon, but we’re introduced to Ali’s father on Earth, and when things go from bad to worse, we never get back to see events unfolding in the Republic of Kikaya, and that’s the main reason we have the situation on the moon in the first place.

Now, even with those elements being a bit thin, it’s a good book, and I won’t say you should skip it. It goes quickly, and it’s fun to see bits of Wells (with all of the necessary Steampunk elements) incorporated into what’s essentially a kidnapping-gone-wrong LARP scenario.

The only technical niggle I have with the book is the not-too-clear use of Omniscient Narrator 3rd Person. There were times when the point-0f-view shifted between Scotty and Wayne – within the scene – and I had to stop and re-read a few places to make sure I was with the right character in the right place.

But other than that, it’s a solid story. It moves along at a good place, doesn’t bog down anywhere. I just wish there had been a little more meat on the bone.

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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