Thursday, 13 January 2011

Book Review: The Barsoom Project by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes

Pros: interesting concepts; mix of SF, fantasy and mystery; use of Inuit mythology was great

Cons: not hard SF, pacing issues, some characterization problems

The Barsoom Project is advertised as being the direct sequel to Dream Park.  This is true insomuch as several Dream Park staff members remain as well as a few gamers from the previous book.  But with one exception, nothing in this book requires having read Dream Park - and while that one event isn't fully explained for those not in the know, if you want to read The Barsoom Projet as a standalone, it's doable.

Eviane's mind was shattered when, during a game at Dream ark, her fake gun actually shot and killed someone.  Out of the hospital, she's back at Dream Park - unwittingly about to participate in the same game.

Meanwhile, the park is hosting dignitaries from many nations to gain funding for their Mars terraforming project, The Barsoom Project.

Griffin, chief of park security, needs to keep those dignitaries safe and has just learned about Eviane's first visit and the fact that the person who switched guns during that ill-fated game was never caught.

As with Dream Park, The Barsoom Project works on many levels.  Aspects of the book that seem incidental (like the visiting dignitaries) have great importance when the mystery is finally solved.

Many of the concepts introduced by the book are quite interesting (and some of them are real): the means of terraforming and colonizing Mars, the skyhook, the 'fat ripper special' game.  While the Barsoom Project isn't described in hard SF detail, what is described is fascinating.

I liked how the gamers seemed to live the experience more than question the magic in this book.  It's how I expect I would react in that situation.  I did find some of their attitudes bizarre though, especially with regards to the hookups.  One character gets very jealous concerning a bedmate, despite barely knowing the person, while another completely forgets about their bedmate pretty quickly (I don't want to spoil the ending so I'm being purposely cryptic here - I found this character's reaction quite odd in the book).

But, the characters did have more depth than those in Dream Park, and with fewer gamers to keep track of, I didn't need the dramatis personnae list much.

With this book the authors jump back and forth between genres.  The game is mostly fantasy - using Inuit mythology, which was a nice change from the medieval norm.  The Barsoom Project is pure science fiction, and many of Griffin's scenes are mystery related.  The climax and conclusion provide a satisfying ending, tying up all the plotlines.

I did find that the first half of the book was purely set-up for the second, making it slower.  It took a while for the game to get interesting and for Griffin to learn enough of what's happening for the mystery to really take shape.  Once it did, the story picked up and the second half was a quick read.

All in all, it's a fun romp.

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