Wednesday, December 15, 2010
Review - The California Voodoo Game by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes
Short review: Set in the same future as Dream Park, the players return to the bigger and better game, but there is a murderer amongst their midst yet again.
Combined with murder intrigue
Plus voodoo magic
Full review: The California Voodoo Game is the third and final book written by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes revolving around elaborate live-action computer aided role-playing games. The book follows Dream Park and The Barsoom Project, and includes many of the same characters from those books. While the story is decent, there is something of a "been there, done that" quality to the story, as the basic plot of the book is once again a murder mystery set against the backdrop of an ongoing and high-profile gaming session.
The background of the Dream Park world is fairly straightforward. In the future, computer and hologram technology allows for the creation of elaborate illusions that permit the creation of interactive scenarios in which participants can act out fantastical stories. Gamers become celebrities, acting out their adventures which are broadcast for the consumption of their fans. As a strange sort of side element, the Dream Park corporation, which runs one of the most sophisticated (and expensive to use) gaming sites in the world decides to get involved in an attempt to colonize Mars (an element introduced and explored in some depth in the book The Barsoom Project). In each of the the Dream Park books, the plot of the story is framed by an ongoing game, with the players in the game, the gamemasters, and the various employees tasked with making the game run smoothly serving as the focal characters.
As an aside, I'll note that the nature of the gamers themselves, as portrayed in these books, irks me to a certain extent. As presented in the book, most of the players in these elaborate role-playing games are presented as superior athletes trained in fencing, martial arts, mountain climbing, and a variety of other physical skills. In this way, they are little different than most professional athletes of the modern day. While this may be a reasonable supposition, it is somewhat disappointing as people who are world class fencers, martial artists, and mountain climbers already have high profile showcases for their talents. While there are certainly role-playing gamers who are quite physically fit and who have a variety of physical skills, many of them are far from what one would call world class athletes. One thing missing from the stories is the idea that people become role-playing gamers so that they can imagine themselves doing things that they actually could not do. While some of the gamers in the book make a distinction between themselves and their characters, the characters they portray are much more like avatars of themselves than they are alternate identities that they play. One character returning from previous books in this one had actually joined the Army in order to make himself physically fit for the game, because his lack of physical conditioning hampered him in previous installments in the series. The one character in the story that seems most like an actual role-playing gamer is treated with some disdain by the other players in the game because of his lack of physical fitness. In short, rather than books about role-playing gamers getting to play out their dreams via technology, the Dream Park universe simply gives the physically gifted yet one more venue to showcase their talents.
The story itself is more or less evenly bifurcated between the events in the role-playing game and the investigation into the murder of a Barsoom Project employee. The book does not make the identity of the murderer a mystery in any way. The only real mystery in this element of the story is why the murder was committed rather than who committed it. Even though the reader knows the identity of the murder, the characters in the book do not, making reading the book a little like watching an episode of Law and Order: Criminal Intent as one follows the investigators on their quest to uncover the information that the reader already is privy to. As the murder mystery is unraveled, the layers of deception surrounding the real goal of the killer are stripped away, revealing to the reader the true intricacy of the villain's plot. In this respect, giving away the murderer's identity is necessary, as the story would have been impossible to follow otherwise. In the end, the murderer is revealed, his villainous plots foiled, and justice is served after a fashion.
The game that is played in parallel to the murder investigation is moderately interesting. As one might guess from the title of the book, the fantasy element of the game involves Voodoo, and it is a hodge-podge of just about every type of Voodoo imaginable, a fact that the authors freely acknowledge in the afterword to the book. In this book the game element of the story is transferred from the dream park facility to a ruined arcology in the California desert (which is something of a reference to the Niven and Pournelle collaboration Oath of Fealty). The size and scale of the place makes the game substantially larger than the games of previous books, giving the story a somewhat desperate air, as it seems like the authors are trying to outdo their previous efforts by upping the scale. As in previous books, the game element is somewhat overshadowed by the crime investigation - it is hard to continue to be primarily concerned with who will prevail over the imaginary Voodoo spirits when there are actual dead bodies to be investigated. In fact, the various rivalries and dominance games played by the players and game masters in the story makes them seem petty and obnoxious. As in the murder mystery, in the end goodness prevails in the game, cheating is punished, and life lessons are learned.
While this is a serviceable finale to the Dream Park series, and would most certainly please anyone who had read the earlier books in the series, it is probably good that the series ended with this book. With the recurring themes of industrial espionage and murder the series was beginning to run the risk of becoming overly repetitive, and highlighting a different somewhat obscure mythology in each book can only alleviate this problem so far. Despite the rapid advances in technology, it seems unlikely that anyone would create anything like the Dream Park facility, or at this point would want to, since I suspect that virtual reality technology could do the job just as well these days. Even so, following a bunch of high-strung athletes about while they unravel Cargo Cult, Eskimo, and Voodoo mythology is a diverting endeavor, and this book remains quite enjoyable.
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