Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Book Review: The Moon Maze Game by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes

The Moon Maze Game is the most recent collaboration by authors Larry Niven and Steven Barnes. It is the fourth book in their Dream Park series (preceded by Dream Park, The Barsoom Project, and The California Voodoo Game) and part of the same future history as some of their other collaborative works, but it's a self-contained story and stands fine on its own whether you've read the previous books or not.

In the year 2085, humanity has spread into the solar system and now has a thriving permanent settlement on the moon. After losing his job as the bodyguard to a wealthy Belgian heiress, security professional Scotty Griffin receives a new job offer from an unexpected source: the King of the Republic of Kikaya, an African nation born from the ashes of the former Democratic Republic of Zimbabwe. The King wants to hire a bodyguard for his son and heir, Ali, for a trip to the moon.

Griffin is a former Lunar resident himself, but a near-fatal accident on the Lunar surface that left him near death and pinned down with his face towards the sky while he waited hours for rescue caused him to develop a crippling fear of the open starry sky. It left him unable to do his job and eventually drove him back to earth entirely, breaking up his marriage. He isn't keen to go back, even if the new job doesn't require him to leave the safety of the colony's domes, but he needs work and he hates the thought of letting his fears rule him forever.

Ali's destination is the first virtual-reality live-action role-playing event ever held on the moon, which he plans to participate in. Overseeing the event is Kendra Griffin, Scotty's estranged wife and one of the leaders of the colony's emerging society. Live-action role-playing utilizing a combination of holography and real physical items and sets is a popular form of entertainment on earth, attracting thousands of players in the games themselves and millions of viewers watching the most exciting games from home. A full-scale state-of-the-art gaming event requires considerable infrastructure, and so this historic event- which will be broadcast to hundreds of millions of viewers on Earth- represents a potential milestone in the development of the lunar colonies, showcasing their development before the entire world's eyes, spurring greater economic development, and bringing the day when the moon treats with the independent nations of earth as an equal closer. If it goes well.

The game is itself set on a fantasy version of the moon, populated with creatures inspired by the stories of H.G. Wells and brought to life by a labyrinthine, multi-story dome built for the occasion. But Ali's presence draws the moon into terrestrial politics when two lunar residents with a family connection to Kikaya and ties to opponents of the existing monarchy hire a gang of professional kidnappers and smuggle them onto the moon, hoping to abduct Ali and use him as a political bargaining chip.. The game has barely begun when they seize control of the game dome and take  Griffin, Ali, and the rest of the players as hostages. The prisoners begin a desperate escape attempt, but even if they escape, the players are still trapped with a group of ruthless professional criminals in a sealed dome until rescuers can arrive and figure out how to force their way in without blowing the dome open to the void of space in the process.

There is something working in their favor, however: The dome's numerous holographic and mechanical effects still work, and the dome's computers are still running the game. Griffin is the only prisoner accustomed to real fights, but the gamers know far more about how to deal with and take advantage of the dome's capabilities than their captors do, and the gamers have no shortage of ingenuity...

I quite enjoyed The Moon Maze Game. The plot is interesting, very well-paced, and keeps things exciting without seeming rushed or overstuffed. The lunar colony setting is not particularly new or noteworthy in itself, but it's used very well, with things like the dangers of the airless environment, the challenges of carrying out a covert criminal operation in a cramped, crowded, airtight population center, and the effects of low gravity all used to good effect. It's primarily an action-adventure story rather than a speculative one (though the two mesh interestingly, as discussed below) but it's still very much a science fiction story- the lunar environment is so integral to events throughout that the book could not transplanted to a more mundane terrestrial setting and continue to make sense

The action in the book is very well-done, and the authors make extensive use of the possibilities of lunar gravity. Barnes' background in the martial arts brings a lot to the story, especially when working in combination with the lunar setting. Low gravity doesn't just mean you can jump high- a fight becomes a radically different proposition when trying to shift your stance the way you would on Earth can throw you off your feet, or when your weight isn't rooting you to the ground firmly enough for you to turn your body in place to throw a proper punch, or when it's possible to turn somersaults with a grown man clinging to your back. It was rather cool to read a book where many of the science fictional aspects were not about futuristic technology (much as I love that sort of thing), but rather about the natural human body in motion in an alien environment.

I like the characters quite a bit. The various gamers who find them selves trapped in the dome with Ali and Scotty Griffin are likable people, and the authors do a good job of making them important participants in events through their courage and ingenuity without ignoring the fact that, unlike Griffin,  they don't have training or experience preparing them for a real-world life-or-death struggle and would have no chance in a straightforward confrontation with professional killers.

I also enjoyed the portrayal of Xavier, the renowned Game Master chosen to create and oversee the adventure to be featured for the moon's historic first game. Xavier is an unlikable jerk- he's smug, arrogant, spiteful, overly self-involved, and was planning to covertly abuse his position as Game Master to harass and embarrass two participants in the game he has a decades-long grudge against until the arrival of the kidnappers interrupts him, at which point he is initially more angered by the interruption of his work than the threat to human lives. But he's not a caricature of an unlikable jerk- using all of his ingenuity and what limited access he still has to the systems inside the gaming dome, he does everything in his power to help the gamers survive and escape, his own hated enemies included. He's a prick, not a monster, and his role in the story benefits from that.

Probably most of all, I liked the portrayal of the relationship between Scotty and Kendra Griffin, which spurns the common "angry, bickering estranged couple forced by circumstances to work together" cliches. Instead, both Griffins come across as deeply hurt but reasonable people who understand that the breakdown of their marriage was the result of an unfortunate set of circumstances- a woman who had dedicated her life to the moon and would never be happy living anywhere else and a man suddenly rendered unable to continue living there at all- and have the maturity to accept that instead of taking their pain out on each other. That was refreshing.

I recommend The Moon Maze Game for science fiction fans. It's not the sort of mind-blowing speculative work most commonly associated with Larry Niven, but it's a very solid action-adventure story and well worth reading.

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