Dream Park by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes

There have always been two types of science-fiction. One is the high class writing of authors like Isaac Asimov with their perceptive ruminations on the future. These are discussed by broadsheet critics in hushed and respectful tones. The other is a cheap romp with laser guns and monsters which is sold in supermarkets, and rarely discussed by anyone.

Dream Park fits somewhere between the two, even if my copy does come from K-Mart and has an appallingly trashy cover. The story is rather clever. In the near future, theme parks have evolved to create a huge immersive experience, based on role-playing. Gamers can act out their fantasy lives as wizards, warriors and engineers whilst combatting foes that may be holograms or animatronic monsters.

As you would expect, the adults who play these sort of games are generally oddballs. The other characters never miss an opportunity to point out that the whole experience is completely bonkers. On the other hand, the role-players themselves take the game very seriously indeed.

For a book published in 1981, Dream Park is pretty prescient. The authors predict a wired world and supply the characters with a sort of mobile phone network. The game feels like modern-day reality TV as contestants struggle for survival in front of a home audience. Just like modern talent shows, there also exists a rivalry between the game designers and the players. For added spice, the game taking place in this book is a grudge match between one of the star designers and a celebrity player, who is still  fuming over a previous contest.

Niven and Barnes place the action in the South Seas, using a culture based on cargo cults. Cargo cults sprang up in the nineteenth century when local people in the South Sea islands first came into contact with Western technology. Believing that objects like planes and cars were a form of magic, they began worshipping legendary people from the West, such as John Frum. They integrated these figures into their existing belief systems and mythology.

Cargo cult activity often centred around complex ceremonies. These used objects cobbled together from local materials like wood and shells to mimic real objects like telephones. I loved this part of the book and the extraordinary monsters which draw on local myth, such as the haiavaha, the crudely drawn warthog-thing on the cover. This is a powerful supernatural being that guards the secret of reverse fire.

As you might expect, there are some parts of the book that have dated. The authors find it impossible to introduce a female character without some comment about her sex appeal. By the end, this was becoming unintentionally hilarious. As each new woman was introduced, it was only a matter of time before the authors started lusting over their fictional creation:

There she was, a vision in leopard tights that drew stares from all but the most jaded.

her voice was sheer magic, a husky growl that was pure female animal

On a ledge seven feet above the trail, there stood a slender dark figure. At first, Alex was reminded of Millicent: the short tightly curled hair, the delicious figure

That aside, Dream Park is good lightweight fun. It takes a little while to get into, but it is a rollicking story, packed with original ideas. Although not very well-known in the UK, co-author Larry Niven is most famous for his Ringworld series, which is much more hard-core science-fiction, and soon to be re-released on the Kindle.

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11 responses to “Dream Park by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes

  1. Pingback: Dream Park by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes | Todd DeanTodd Dean

    • So you’d be a role-player, playing a role-player, playing a character. That is truly bizarre. I wonder if you can still get it?
      Dream Park came out before the RPG boom so Larry Niven and Steven Barnes were obviously way ahead of the curve there.

      • Yup, slightly too many levels of remove from the ultimate character I think, which is why I suspect it never really took off. Besides, by the time you’re playing a guy killing orcs in a dungeon I’m not sure the experience is bettered by playing a guy playing a guy killing orcs in a dungeon.

        Another game, Hong-Kong Action Theatre, did something similar. Instead of being an rpg about playing Hong Kong movie-type characters you played an actor playing those characters. Apparently it was pretty good, but the meta stuff inevitably makes it nichier.

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