Thursday, November 03, 2011

It's only the Moon - your move

kw: book reviews, science fiction, games

I have never been much of a gamer, particularly not role-playing games (RPG's) so it paid little attention to the gaming portrayed in The Moon Maze Game by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes. So why read the book at all? you may ask. I'll read anything by Larry Niven. He is always full of interesting new ideas, and this book doesn't disappoint.

The setting is the Moon, in 2084, and not only is the Moon getting pretty well colonized, so are the L5 point and certain asteroids. Computer power and virtual reality gear are very advanced, making full-surround, live-action gaming affordable. Many effects rely on projected holography, which is still technologically far, far beyond known capabilities…but it makes for a good yarn.

On this future Moon, certain people with tons of money have contracted to convert a domed crater into a gaming arena. One of the gamers is an African prince, and when this becomes known to certain Lunar denizens, a plot is hatched to kidnap him and force his father to abdicate in favor of a democratic government. The actual kidnapping is to be carried out by a band of mercenaries who hire out to do high-profile, high-stakes kidnapping.

There are typically two ways to portray villains. One way is as ciphers with simple motive and unalloyed evil intent, black boxes that churn out evil. Another is as complex personalities made known to us by large sections of stream-of-consciousness, yet also primarily evil. Niven and Barnes take a different tack. There is a little window here and there into the thinking and motivations of the four main perpetrators, but they are portrayed with sufficient sympathy that the reader is torn, not quite willing to hate them properly. The characters of the gamers and others who find themselves embattled by the kidnapping and its aftermath add to the richness of the psychological milieu.

I don't know enough about gaming to have much of an opinion. I assume real gamers will drool over the prospect of full-immersion role play that the book offers. The game setting is a purported sequel to the fiction of H. G. Wells, particularly his Moon and Mars stories: Steampunk on steroids!

I'll leave the plot for the reader to ferret out. A number of Lunar characteristics portrayed show how the authors have thought them through. For example, taking a shower, then waiting for the water to drip off before toweling could take a long, long time. Thus, something like the strigil (a blunt, curved scraping blade used in ancient Rome) is posited to remove most of the water more quickly. The low gravity also allows muscle-powered flight using apparatus much smaller than the Gossamer Condor, and this is taken advantage of at one crucial point. So is brachiation. Tarzan might have swung through the jungle like an ape, but an actual human can only brachiate for a few swings before risking a shoulder separation. On the moon, it is almost easy. A little bit is offered about low-G fighting, but so little is actually known that the authors wisely keep it short.

In spite of my unfamiliarity with the gaming aspects, the authors explain enough (sometimes almost too much) that I could keep up. It is quite a gripping adventure.

Now, I wonder, will we really have a colony on the moon in only another 73 years? It will require another generation to arise with stars in their eyes, a confidence in our ability to conquer any barrier, and a willingness to risk that is presently almost absent among the world's peoples, particularly the American public. About a quarter of the world's population is too comfortable and yet too anxious, while the rest is too poor to imagine big things. If this doesn't change, 2084 will come and go with nobody Moon-side to dome up a crater, fill it with air, and strap on wings.

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