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The Moon Maze Game by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes

Cover art by Matt Stawicki

Published by Tor Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

When I came across a reference to this novel in an online newsletter, I was reading a lot of classic science fiction about lunar settlement, from the obvious The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress to more obscure works by authors now forgotten by all but the most determined historian of written science fiction. It looked like something that would fit right in with what I was reading, so I added it to my to-read list.

When I actually acquired it and began reading, i soon realized that this novel was not a stand-alone work, but rather the latest in the authors' ongoing Dream Park series, which I'd seen a few times but never actually gotten around to reading. However, I was happy to note that the book does indeed stand on its own, and that a reader picking it up at random from a rack at an airport duty-free shop in preparation for a long-distance flight isn't going to be tossed floundering into a confusion of obscure references.

The underlying premise of the Dream Park universe is that in the near future, Live Action Role Playing or LARPing begins to take advantage of ubiquitous computer technology to create elaborate stage-like spaces in which gamers can play, using holography and animatronics to create a full-immersion illusion of the imagined world in which one's character is supposed to be living. Given that such technology is going to be quite expensive, these gaming venues cannot be entirely supported by the fees paid by the participants, so LARPing has become a spectator sport, and much of the revenue that supports the elaborate arenas come from advertising and from betting on the outcomes of the games.

This novel is set about seven decades in the future, by which time humanity has not only gotten back to the Moon, but has established permanent bases for scientific research and for the mining of various resources, including the H3 that Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt has been promoting as an economically valuable resource that would bootstrap resumed lunar exploration. Although one might expect a lunar base to be named for one of the Apollo moonwalkers (like Armstrong Dome in Kristine Kathryn Rusch's Retrieval Artist series or Port Aldrin in Bruce Bethke and Vox Day's Rebel Moon), Niven and Barnes have theirs named Heinlein Station, in honor of one of the most famous literary proponents of lunar settlement (two decades before Robert A. Heinlein wrote The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, he was already writing a Future History that featured the commercial settlement of the Moon in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries and space travel cheap enough that the wealthy routinely vacationed on the Moon).

In this future, by 2080 they already have the technology to build large surface domes that are airtight and provide the necessary protection against radiation, so it's not necessary to have all the habitats of one's settlement underground, buried under the lunar regolith for protection against the harsh lunar environment. Furthermore, they've reached a point in the development of lunar settlement that they have sufficient surplus beyond survival needs that they can build a new dome that will be focused upon entertainment, specifically, a dream-park-style LARPing environment where they'll have the first game on the Moon. The sheer novelty of LARPing on the Moon fairly ensures that the betting on the game will be extremely high-stakes.

However, as it turns out, the stakes will be even higher than anticipated, for one of the gamers is the son of the king of Kikaya, a nation carved out of the Congo several decades earlier. Crown Prince Ali is a dreamer and idealist who spends much of his time designing scenarios for gaming, not to mention characters and monsters. When we first meet him, he is in his study, the walls hung with sketches for imaginary creatures to be realized by the Disney-style imagineering of the Dream Park parent company, Cowles.

Although Ali will be traveling under an assumed name, no anonymity can ever be perfect, so his father has arranged for a bodyguard in the person of Scotty Griffin. Scotty used to work on the Moon, before an accident left him with intense psychological injury that manifests as phobias so intense he returned to Earth and sought work there. In leaving, he also left behind what had been a happy marriage, since his wife could not bear to leave the Moon and her work there. When we first meet Scotty, he's working as a bodyguard for an heiress, the Cocoa Angel. When she's kidnapped, he pursues the kidnappers and brings her back safe, but the mere fact that the bad guys were able to get their mitts on her is a black mark against Scotty in his employer's eyes, and he's looking for a new job.

And it's that black mark that makes him willing to take an assignment that will require returning to the Moon. At least it shouldn't be that dangerous, since he'll be safely inside the gaming dome, not out on the surface in a spacesuit like he was when he had his nearly fatal accident. And to be honest, there is still something in him that's excited about heading back to the Moon, even if he thought it killed and buried in the nightmare of the accident.

When the gamers arrive on the Moon, everything seems to be going well. They soon recognize that the scenario they'll be playing is derived from H. G. Wells' The First Men in the Moon. But even as they're making their acquaintance of the insectoid Selenites and their caterpillar-like mooncows, everything gets upended by the intrusion of a group of terrorists who call themselves Neutral Moresnot, who have been hired to kidnap Ali.

This somewhat infelicitous name was remarked upon within the text, as the name of an international enclave that existed prior to World War I, the name of which was subsequently taken by a group of Esperanto enthusiasts who wanted to fund a private island that would be a preserve of international co-operation. However, one can only imagine the psychological effect of that name upon a reader who was at that moment suffering from a truly nasty cold that involved a surfeit of unwelcome mucus. It didn't help to look up the name to verify the textual claim of historicity and discover that the original spelling was Neutral Moresnet. with a second e -- making it look like the authors were playing an obnoxious and rather juvenile bodily-fluids joke on the reader.

The infelicity of the terrorists' name aside, they mean business, and are willing to maim or kill the other gamers to ensure Ali's tractability. However, the gamers are not willing to give up so easily, and are soon searching for the smallest advantages that may enable them to escape, or at least gain the upper hand against the kidnappers, one of whom is displaying active sadistic tendencies, above and beyond the merely instrumental use of cruelty to ensure submissiveness.

One group seeks to escape the gaming dome and get help. Among them is one gamer with a significant disability, who believes that her life-support pod is sufficiently airtight to enable her to perform an EVA. However, her assessment proves incorrect, and her death in the effort results in a profound alteration of the social dynamic of the other characters. Namely, there's now a life debt on the board, and certain actions which might have previously seemed reasonable (particularly Ali's arguments that they should just surrender and ask the terrorists to be merciful to them) would now constitute disrespect for her sacrifice.

Just to make things more interesting, it turns out that some parts of the gaming system are still active, and may be able to provide the gamers with tools for getting away from the kidnappers, now in relentless pursuit of Our Heroes. There is one particularly interesting game-within-a-game sequence involving larval Selenites, in which the gamers must get their minds out of their humanocentric assumptions, and which is even more mind-bending in the context of their being pursued not just by game elements, but by the kidnappers who are now so enraged at the disruption of their plans that they're not entirely rational any more.

Everything comes down to a desperate battle in an underwater airlock with a nasty boobytrap that may require another life for the rest of our heroes to get through. The story's a very interesting intersection of gaming and terrorism, with some very good elements of the old science fiction many of us loved as kids, in which it was simply presupposed that space was our next frontier, that we'd settle the Moon and Mars and the rest of the Solar System. I did find it interesting that Celeste the sadistic and possibly psychopathic villain in this novel should have a name so reminiscent of Celine, the equally sadistic and possibly psychopathic villain in John Ringo's There Will Be Dragons and its various sequels.

Review posted February 1, 2013.

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