Writers need to read almost as much as they need to write. It’s how we discover things we want to do, avoid, improve upon and revisit. It also pays to re-read things we’ve previously read, as life experiences and evolving styles might give us new appreciation for something half-remembered or cast an old favorite in a new light. This, then, is why I grabbed a Kindle copy of Larry Niven and Steven Barnes’ Dream Park.
Summed up in one sentence: it’s a murder mystery that takes place during a LARP which uses a holodeck.
I’m not even joking.
Dream Park is the name of perhaps the largest entertainment compound in 2051, a place where holograms blend with real set pieces and highly complex computer mainframes to create full-immersion interactive experiences. The premiere events are the Games, where people assume the roles of heroes catapulted into dangerous, other-worldly situations at the whim of Game Masters who manipulate the complex mechanics of Dream Park the way a D&D Dungeon Master manipulates tiles, miniatures and statistics. The biggest and most ambitious Game yet, the South Seas Treasure Game, is about to begin. Games yield tons of potential revenue beyond the registration of the players due to film, book and other entertainment rights; they’re also the perfect place for a murder to flee. There’s been a death among the Dream Park staff, and the head of security, Alex Griffin, isn’t going to stop at anything to track him or her down… even if it means joining the South Seas Treasure Game itself.
Long before LARPs, computer gaming or even reality entertainment were established as means of escapism, Niven and Barnes gave us an idea of what those sorts of diversions might be like. On top of this foundation is laid the notion of the Game, based in some very quirky mythology with plenty of basis in fact which gives the fantasy within the fantasy added weight. But this wasn’t good enough for the storytellers. A further injection of mystery, a case of double identity and the nature of escapism itself is introduced. Less authors might have found these disparate ideas tripping over one another to be the hallmark of the work, but the elements are blended so carefully that the narrative becomes much like the fictional Park: it’s hard to tell where one part of the narrative ends and another begins. We’re right in the middle of things from start to finish.
Part thriller, part sci-fi romp and part historical fantasy action/adventure seems like an ambitious combination, but what makes Dream Park work isn’t the layers of genre setting, it’s the characters. With depth, dialog and realistic emotion, Niven and Barnes give us a diverse and thoroughly three-dimensional cast. Some that seem stereotypical will surprise in their hidden aspects. It’s these beats, just as much as the monsters and mythology, that keep the reader turning pages.
From the novice in awe of the Park’s complexity to Griffin’s struggle not to become lost in the Game’s immersion, the characters bridge the gap between the more fantastical aspects of the story and our capacity to care about the people involved. It’s a well-paced, well-meaning yarn that’s completely satisfying. It’s not a perfect book, as some of the characters feel rather stock and the depth of some of the central cast make the “redshirts” seem a bit obvious. Still, in terms of works not afraid to blur the lines between genres, you could definitely do worse.