The Barsoom Project by Larry Niven & Steven Barnes
I’ve never read anything by Larry Niven or Steven Barnes before, and after reading The Barsoom Project, I’m wondering why. While there were parts that didn’t completely connect with me, the writing was great and the story was interesting enough to hook me almost right away. Though I haven’t read Dream Park, the first book in the DREAM PARK series, I did not feel that my interest and understanding of this, the second book in the series, suffered at all. There is a nice synopsis of Dream Park on the back of the book which caught me up to speed on the main conflict the protagonist, Eviane, faced. Also, there is a prologue which was (I’m assuming) straight out of Dream Park. With those two parts combined, I felt caught up to speed on what was happening and was automatically interested in this amusement park which was far too real. The Barsoom Project opens with an incredibly intense scene which sets a dark, mysterious tone for the rest of the book. It also succeeds in hooking the reader and making them want to learn more.
While The Barsoom Project is considered science fiction, it’s kind of light on the sci-fi aspects and heavy on the gaming (and thus) computer-type aspects, which worked well. It also insured that the gamers amongst us will probably love this book and enjoy bits of it that completely flew over my head. Hey, it’s not Niven’s or Barnes’ fault I’ve never played a video game in my life and can’t figure out why anyone would want to.
To be fair, the book is about a lot more than just gaming. There are politics and personal struggles involved, as well as personal relationships. The Barsoom Project has the potential to be read as a book full of deeper meanings, and the tight writing and quickly moving plot ensure that all of this is enjoyable to ingest. Plus, who hasn’t wondered what it would be like to be sucked into a video game and take the place of [insert character here]? I don’t even play video games and I’ve wondered that.
The Fat Ripper Special is a video game which plays a central role in this book. People use it to change behavioral patterns. For example, if you overeat, you can play The Fat Ripper Special to unlearn that habit. The game gets your psychological profile and tailor-makes conflicts and situations to help you change your thought process and habits. Interestingly enough, Niven and Barnes wove Inuit mythology into the game, and it’s obvious that they did their research. The addition added a nice flair and some colorful depth to the device that the plot hinges on.
There also is quite a bit of mystery within The Barsoom Project: Eviane, a main character from Dream Park, is back to play the game and face her demons. While that may seem fairly stereotypical, The Barsoom Project opens with the amusement park being visited by delegates from many other worlds and nations. These two situations work together to keep things interesting and intense. There is murder and plenty of politics, colored by interesting characters who suffer slightly from being a little two-dimensional at times.
While part of me thinks that these ideas aren’t new, they aren’t exactly tired and overdone either. The idea of getting sucked into an RPG is interesting to me, and I’m sure that if I’ve thought about it, someone else has as well. That’s part of what makes this book work. Niven and Barnes are playing on ideas that many people have had and creating a whole book out of them. As a result, many readers may find The Barsoom Project very relatable and interesting. The characters also help; once you get to know them, it’s hard not to care about them and wonder what will happen. Thus, all of the spokes in this book’s wheel are firmly in place and work together nicely to keep things moving forward.
Much of The Barsoom Project takes place within the video game, causing the sci-fi aspects to be an addition to the book rather than central to it. I couldn’t quite connect with the gaming aspect of things and some of the characters were slightly flat, but the mystery, Inuit mythology, politics, and the characters really kept me hanging on and yearning for more. Niven’s and Barnes’ writing is descriptive while only going a little over the top during some of the introductions to various new concepts. However, these over-the-top portions also serve to ensure that gamer-defunct readers like myself understand what is going on. The plot is quickly moving and is sure to satisfy both gamers and non-gamers alike.