Review of Bova’s Dueling Machine

The Dueling Machine is a novel by Ben Bova from 1969. It is part of his loose Watchman quartet about a space opera future where Terra dominates the galaxy. This story is set around the use of a psychotronic device capable of two participants entering a virtual reality with almost universal sensory immersion.

The two participants will most often use the device to conduct a duel to settle arguments. The rules of the duel is that each combatant takes turn picking the scenario, weapon, and environment for the duel. Some of the dueling scenes in the novel are quite creative. In the end no one is hurt, until one day several people start dying in the use of the machine. The Terran Commonwealth is fearful and calls in the inventor of the Dueling Machine to figure out how a small third party nation is using the device to assassinate rival nation leaders in duels.

The social set up is obviously from the 50s and 60s with women’s hearts to be won, and public courage is considered a vital part of social acceptance of a man’s masculinity. These are only secondary factors, and quite common in science fiction of the time. No reader should let that distract them from an otherwise interesting story.

In many ways this was one of the early novels to deal with the idea of virtual reality and what it could do for humans. It is comparable to Roger Zelazny’s Dreamshaper in how it tries to show how virtual reality has many potential usages for entertainment and other social functions.

The style of the novel is not the best Bova wrote, but it is a good straightforward way of telling the story. The story is interesting and lively.