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The Moon Maze Game
Larry Niven and Steven Barnes
Tor, 364 pages

The Moon Maze Game
Larry Niven
Larry Niven has authored or co-authored more than 40 novels and short story collections. His 1970 novel, Ringworld, won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, while his short stories have earned him four more Hugos. His collaborations with Jerry Pournelle include The Mote in God's Eye, an intense first-contact yarn, Oath of Fealty, a blistering tirade against liberal values, and the #1 bestseller, Footfall. He resides in Tarzana, California.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review:Stars and Gods
SF Site Review: Juggler of Worlds
SF Site Review: Escape from Hell
SF Site Review: Inferno
SF Site Review: Ringworld
SF Site Review: Rainbow Mars
SF Site Review: Best of all Possible Wars
SF Site Review: Destiny's Road

Steven Barnes
Born in Los Angeles in 1952, Steven Barnes majored in Communication Arts at Pepperdine University. He's done numerous screenplays and was a creative consultant on the Sakura Ninja series of action-adventure films and on the animated feature The Secret of Nimh. His novels include The Kundalini Equation, Streetlethal, Gorgon Child and FireDance.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Star Wars: The Cestus Deception
SF Site Review: Lion's Blood
SF Site Review: Zulu Heart
SF Site Review: Charisma
SF Site Review: Iron Shadows

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Dave Truesdale

Thirty years ago the original Dream Park novel appeared. In 1982, the idea was fresh and exciting, the book a cult hit, especially among board gamers. It melded action and adventure with live-action holographic role-playing games (RPGs) set in the eponymous Dream Park, a sort of Disney World for world-level gamers to actually participate in the fantasy scenarios they had hitherto played on game boards. Inspired by the first RPG in 1974, Dungeons & Dragons, it took the wildly popular and financially successful concept to the next level, introducing the elements of "holographic" and "live-action" to a futuristic setting and bringing the gaming experience (and an already built-in audience) to the printed page. It worked, and followers of the original Dream Park have seen three sequels as a result.

Dream Park was set in 2051 and featured a South Seas Treasure theme. The central plotline involved a murder, some proprietary research material stolen, and the revelation that it was someone "inside" the game who was the culprit.

1989's followup, The Barsoom Project, showcased an Inuit mythology theme as the live-action fantasy RPG (where -- believe it or not -- gamers paid big bucks to lose weight via the game's obstacles), but tossed into the mix Muslim terrorists (backed by a shady Muslim capitalist!) attempting to thwart the implementation of a space elevator at the Park, from which the title is derived.

The California Voodoo Game (1992) had as its theme, as the title states, voodoo, and again murder.

Which brings us to The Moon Maze Game (2011), now set in 2085, 34 years following the amusement park's debut. The corporation funding Dream Park (and authors Niven & Barnes) have now moved the action to the Moon, as the finishing touches are being put on the new park located at Heinlein base. The basic setup of the game is the same as in the previous novels: the elite live-action players from around the world flock to this first-ever game set on the Moon, and the stakes for everyone are enormous. Potential players pay an exorbitant entry fee, are winnowed out through exhaustive live-action exercises until only the number required for the game remain. The corporation records everything for later edited broadcast to the world and the mega-bucks they earn in return are massive. The winning player acquires immense prestige and respect on the now extensive gaming tournament circuit (known as the IFGS, the International Fantasy Gaming Society), not to mention monetary offers to appear in other games on Earth, or as highly paid consultants or designers. This is to be the biggest, most prestigious, most anticipated Dream Park game in history -- and the first-ever on the Moon, whose interests lie in attracting more tourists and business to its economy -- and its struggling bid for independence (which is another nod to Heinlein and his 1966 Hugo award-winning novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress).

With this backdrop -- and as in the previous books -- we are then given the fly in the ointment. Scotty Griffin -- son of Alex Griffin, one of the original Dream Park characters -- is enlisted as bodyguard (a.k.a. "Protection Specialist") to Ali Kikaya, teenaged son of the leader of a small, despotic African nation, the Republic of Kikaya. Ali is ostensibly traveling to the Moon on vacation, but under false pretenses and an alias becomes one of the select few winning their way into the game (he is an enthusiastic "home" gamer, which has fueled his subterfuge). It is his attempted kidnapping by Kikayan rebels during the game that sets the plot wheels in motion.

The second novel borrowed its title from Edgar Rice Burroughs' novels of Mars, whom the inhabitants of the red planet called Barsoom. This time around the game's theme is derived from H.G. Wells' 1901 novel The First Men in the Moon, as conceived by the game's chief designer, Xavier, who maintains total, live-action control over the game's traps, puzzles, and other ingeniously conceived dangers. A sub-plot develops when the Chief Operations Officer, Kendra Griffin, Scotty Griffin's ex-wife, is caught in the middle between Scotty and Xavier, who once both sought her attentions in a heated rivalry during their collegiate years as up-and-coming prodigies. Through a tragic bit of misfortune, Scotty has vowed never to leave Earth again, which led to his divorce from Kendra. But now Scotty has returned and the old rivalry between he and Xavier is once again in play, as Xavier can easily manipulate Scotty's being "killed" in the game at any point, for Xavier also blames Scotty for falsifying information against him in a scandal from years ago which has cost Xavier dearly in his subsequent career.

But when the terrorists discover that young Ali Kikaya is a player in the game and will stop at nothing to kidnap him to further their political agenda, Xavier must re-evaluate his personal animus toward Scotty (not to mention financial considerations for the corporation if the game is to be broadcast to the world in the midst of a hostage crisis), and with the help of Kendra and others aid Scotty, Ali, and the other gamers (without real weapons) to negotiate the deadly traps and defeat the terrorists before they are killed. But it's not as easy as it may sound, for the terrorists have disabled all but a fraction of the game's internal communications and functions, making help for the good guys a real life-and-death problem, as the bizarre landscapes and monstrous, deadly life forms Xavier has created for the game from Wells' novel must be worked around (or not) by both the terrorists and the gamers on their own, never knowing what will come next. And if one of them, or a terrorist, inadvertently makes a wrong move, an ill-advised shortcut to freedom or to the kidnapping of Ali, the entire dome may explode, sucking the air supply into space and killing everyone. Only their experience as resourceful gamers and a knowledge of Wells' story give Scotty and crew any margin, any hope for success, as Niven & Barnes toss in one complication after another to be overcome, in tried-and-true adventure-thriller fashion. It's a wild ride.

On this immediate, immersed-in-the-story-as-it-unfolds level, all of this keeps the reader turning pages, which is a good thing. But when one stands back it is easy to see that this is much the same basic formula as previous installments but now merely moved to the Moon, with the basic theme based on Wells' Moon, instead of voodoo, South Seas Treasure or Inuit mythology. It would seem to be a winning formula, that of re-arranging the deck chairs and giving them a new coat of paint. The fear is that long-time followers of the series will notice this quickly, and unless they find the paint on the chairs fresh enough (which some very well may), might feel like they've been here before and come away a bit let down.

For newcomers The Moon Maze Game is recommended as a paperback purchase, an entertaining few hours of escape into lively territory the reader may not have encountered before -- a perfect fit for a lazy summer afternoon's reading pleasure.

For long-time Dream Park fans and especially the gamers among you, also a paperback recommendation, though some might disagree with any recommendation, deciding to reignite the complaint voiced in response to previous books of the balance between character development and game action. It is my view that in this sort of fast-paced, Idea-action/adventure-thriller novel all that is needed by way of "character development" is a sense of who the characters are, the rudiments of their individual back stories, and a human conflict (or other personal relationship or entanglement -- be it of the conflictive or attractive sort -- between or among these primary characters with which the reader may identify) or pro forma love interest, for the setting, plot, and action are front stage and are what essentially drive the story. In this, The Moon Maze Game succeeds. Some prefer more character development in their Dream Park novels while some prefer more game action. It's an author's eternal dilemma, for no matter how hard they try they just can't please everyone it seems. Everyone's a critic.

Copyright © 2012 by Dave Truesdale

Dave Truesdale has edited Tangent and now Tangent Online since 1993. It has been nominated for the Hugo Award four times, and the World Fantasy Award once. A former editor of the Bulletin of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, he also served as a World Fantasy Award judge in 1998, and for several years wrote an original online column for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

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