On a personal note on the progression of time, I remember picking up my copy of The California Voodoo Game from the second-hand section of Rainy Day Books (Fairway, Kansas) and reading it while my mom was at work. I was, at most, 13.
This was the first book I ever read in the Dream Park series - and it lead to some pretty wild speculation about my own future career. Somehow I parlayed my skills at math (awesome) and tennis (not so hot) to become a fearsome warrior the likes of which the world had never seen...
Two decades later, I suck at math, Rainy Day Books is on Twitter and The California Voodoo Game is as wildly entertaining as ever.
First published in 1992, The California Voodoo Game is the third and final book in Niven and Barnes' Dream Park series. The overriding premise is that, in the 2050s, the ultimate spectator sport is Live Action Role Playing (LARP). The geeks have successfully inherited the earth.
"Gaming" is a combination of physical skill, strategy and some pretty phenomenal holographic technology. Players wear special lenses that let them "see" things based on their character's powers and skills. Holographic special effects abound, but there's also a lot of climbing around, leaping off of things and whacking at props with foam-rubber blades.
The lion's share of the trilogies entertainment value comes out of these scenes. Not just watching the characters crawl around being chased by tentacle-monsters, but also seeing how those tentacle-monsters were brought to life. The California Voodoo Game goes a step further than the other two books in the series: the teams in the Game are competing against one another - something like the SuperBowl of Swords n' Sorcery.
If there's a flaw in the series, it is the heart-on-its-sleeve charge to promote LARPing. My 13-year-old self may have glided past the heavy-handed messaging in search of more action (or the sex scenes), but my 30 year-old self didn't. Like with Piers Anthony's Killobyte, the authors of the Dream Park series aren't happy to let an entertaining concept sell itself. Showing that fantasy/sport sword-gaming will be COMPLETELY AWESOME is a very easy pitch. Showing LARPing as the means to send people to Mars, end terrorist conflicts and even get nerds laid... that's over-egging it.
More skillfully done, each of the novels combines a murder mystery with a Game. Although using a Game to cure eating disorders is a stretch (seriously, that's book two), the combination of fantasy escapism & professional sporting is a fantastic foundation for intrigue. The California Voodoo Game is a particularly well-crafted mystery - the reader knows whodunnit from the early pages (hell, everyone does) - but the "why" is a tangled mystery that isn't revealed until the very end.
Of the three books in the Dream Park series, Voodoo is perhaps the most entertaining - but also has the weakest characters of the lot. The series protagonist, Alex Griffin (the theme park's head of security) is almost a background character. A host of other characters return from the first book in the series, including the man-eating Acacia Garcia (don't worry, man-geeks, she's swiftly put back in her place).
If anyone shines through, it is Nigel Bishop, the book's villain. A recently-reinstated Gaming legend, Bishop literally wrote the book on Game strategy. A villain and a genius, the majority of the book is spend with his intellectual inferiors (the good guys) trying to figure out what he's doing. He's also a gourmet chef, a ninja warrior, an umpteenth-level wizard and a tiger in the sack. If it weren't for his sociopathic tendencies, he'd be a fantasy reader's aspiration. As it is, he's still the most compelling character in the book.
Although it is indefensibly cheesy, The California Voodoo Game is now even more entertaining than ever. It is also a two-decades old, charmingly optimistic look at a geektopia future, where nerds of all descriptions have come up with a way to be publicly lauded for their geekery. It is an undeniably appealing future - and that's part of the book's escapist appeal.