Book Review of “Dream Park” (1981)


Cover art for “Dream Park” by Niven and Barnes

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I had originally read Dream Park by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes in the early 1980s, not long after it was first published.

I decided to re-read it because I was looking for material from which to construct my one-on-one role playing games I play with my thirteen-year-old grandson.

Long story short, the novel was too involved for me to mine anything useful for what I had in mind. But having only a vague recollection of the book, the re-read was thoroughly enjoyable.

Imagine a future where role playing games have evolved with such sophistication, they can be played out live in a huge, high-tech amusement park. Games are big business because Dream Park, which puts a bunch of money into them to begin with, recoups its dough with movie, book, and other game deals based on the live-action game. The players must be in relatively good shape since, although lives are never lost and most of the danger is simulated, they must still withstand the stresses of “camping out” in a (simulated) wild environment for several days amounting to hard labor. There are also personal and professional reputations on the line.


Larry Niven

At the same time, an experimental drug is stolen from Dream Park’s R&D labs and a security guard is seemingly murdered in the process. Everything points to the criminal being a player in “The South Seas Treasure Game” which has just started and is scheduled to run for three-and-a-half days. Dream Park Security Chief Alex Griffin has to go undercover into the game to find the murderer and recover a substance worth millions.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that this is just the first book in a four-part series given that everything is part of a series today. I’m probably not going to rush out and read the other three. Maybe later.

Yes, it’s half lived out Dungeons and Dragons and half murder mystery. In fact the solution of the final mystery reminded me a lot of the old made-for-TV mysteries like Columbo that were so popular when the book was published. I guess it’s possible that Niven and Barnes let their awareness of such shows “leak” into the book. I recall around that time, Barnes was also writing screenplays for television, so that could be part of it as well.


Steven Barnes

The hard part for both fictional Griffin and we real-life readers is separating the simulated dangers of the game from the actual murder of a security guard.

There were multiple levels of mystery and conflict woven into the tale that I’m compressing including some fairly “soap opera” relationships and love affairs gone right and wrong.

I know there were a lot of loose ends created and then requiring a solid tying, but the book was just a tad too long for me. Of course, there was a lot of mythos to wade through which the authors researched meticulously. It got a little thick at times.

The saving grace with older science fiction novels is that the reader doesn’t have to slog through 21st century social justice themes that have somehow become an absolute requirement. I didn’t find myself mentally tripping over OPPs (other people’s priorities) every few pages (or every few words). Probably why older SciFi will always have a special place in my life.

2 thoughts on “Book Review of “Dream Park” (1981)

  1. I suppose the notion of becoming thoroughly immersed into a fictional reality has a long history. It showed up also in StarTrek’s original series as an entire planet, and of course in the Nest Generation as the holodeck. Plotting a murder mystery into such an environment is an entertaining twist, of course. But I particularly appreciate your comment about “OPP”, the heavy-handed insertion of which has transformed entertainment into propaganda. Tsk, tsk.


    • To be fair, science fiction has a long history of social and political commentary. The original Star Trek had a number of such stories. As far as I can tell, the major difference is that the audience/readers are told if they don’t unquestionably accept the inclusion of representation for its own sake and at the cost of good writing, we are phobic or some other bad thing. Yes, please make your commentary if you must, but not everyone will accept it. Also, not all stories absolutely require a social commentary to be good and frankly, some stories are better without it.


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