This novel feels like two separate stories connected by the presence of the dueling machine. The story when the dueling machine is a dueling machine and the story when the Bova decides that the dueling machine is also teleportation device and a therapy device and only occasionally used for duels. The first part of the novel deserves five stars while the second (after the machine’s use transformation) flounders around at the level of dismal cliché.
(When the Dueling machine is a Dueling machine)
This part is simply amazing. It conjures images of Asimov’s Foundation series with some forward plot movement. Dueling machines invented by Dr Leoh (one of the main characters) have helped to bring stability to the galaxy since when people get very angry at each other they simply hop into the box and fight in imaginary worlds they have created in their minds: on planetoids with pebbles, on horses with pikes, in deserts with clubs, on glaciers with oxygen bombs, and in a lab that explores the basic rules of physics with physics.
This does present the greatest confusion of the story, how in the world can a mind create worlds as complicated as these? Does the machine add stability to an imaginary world? But, Ben Bova raises interesting questions about the effect such a machine would have on society and politics.
The plot is simple, a purely evil Kerak Dictator has his assistant infuriate people so that they initiate duels and then somehow (contradictory to the supposed nature of the machine) actually kills them in the imaginary world so that he can gain political advantage and take over neighboring systems. The novel should have ended here. Except….
(When the Dueling machine fills in whatever science fiction gimmick he can imagine)
Ben Bova decides that 69 pages is not long enough for a novel and embarks on a great mindless adventure using the dregs of Sci-Fi’s rehashed ideas.
Dueling in cool worlds with unusual weapons is not enough, the machine also has to be a teleporter (since Kerak is initially defeated he has to have another nefarious scheme up his sleeve) etc.
The influence of the machine on society is not longer important but rather all the problems that science fiction plots routinely have to deal with (extreme distances between planets, telepathy, etc) are all solved with the dueling machine. The ending is anti-climatic, although Bova does throw in some wacky-sentence structure mind-melding a la the conclusion of David Brin’s Kiln People, for kick.
Overall, this is a fun (ny) read. While some parts are laughable, others are positively mind-tickling and genuinely entertaining.