Choose Your Own Adventure is all about choices. In a way it is a simulation model, an approximation of reality without the risks of the real world. You make choices leading to different endings. If you don’t like the ending, you can start again with different choices leading to a different ending.
We as individuals and as societies make choices all the time. The history of our species is amazing: fire, numbers, alphabets or pictographic language, medicine, architecture, money and banking, art, music, laws etc. Choices got us there. We are still making choices both as individuals and societies. Not all of them are good – but, we can change the bad choices, we hope.
Since the last column consisted of an in-depth tackling of Joanna Russ’ classics, I thought it appropriate to do something a little lighter for this edition of All Tomorrows.
The perfect subject arose when, while rooting around in an old box in my seemingly endless closet, I found an ancient (1980) era edition of Space and Beyond, one of the first in the famous Choose Your Own Adventure series that I’m sure many of us thrilled to as wee lads and lasses.
As I opened the somewhat frayed and yellowed volume, I anticipated a nice, clean jaunt down Nostalgia Lane.
I was wrong. Horribly, terribly wrong. I had forgotten just how bizarre some of the rants of Choose Your Own Adventure founder/author R.A. Montgomery were, and how utterly dedicated he was to mercilessly crushing any youthful fantasies of becoming a (enormously chinned, if the old artwork is any indication) sci-fi adventurer.
So, after galavanting around the universe for a little while, I run into this:
A chance to go to the unknown is probably really risky, but there is that desire in most people to take big risks. You race back in time toward the edge of eternity, the beginning of the entire universe. You achieve an elastic weightlessness, and a sense of complete peace and calm. There is no sound, no light. But no darkness either. You race back to the very beginning, to the pulsating, exciting start. You return to the big bang that started the whole thing. You are and have been a part of everything, always. The beginning is the end.
Great. It doesn’t stop there either. I’d venture to say that Space and Beyond, along with Montgomery’s similarly bizarrely philosophical entries in this series for kids are responsible for more nascent strangeness and miserabilism in my generation than any children’s book since Bridge to Terabithia.
In another thrilling installment, you, dear reader, have managed to become a dashing space pirate. What happens next? Riches? Power? Princess Buttercup?
What fun to be a pirate! It is a good life, and the treasure box on the spacecraft overflows with Universe Governing Body money.
But then, one day, you intercept a radio broadcast. The Universe Governing Body announces that all currency and money are worthless and no longer needed or used. A new system for sharing food, clothing and shelter that doesn’t use money has been set in motion. As pirates you are finished. There is nothing left to steal.
Take that, kid. Give it up and go join the frickin’ Peace Corps. And that’s the happy space pirate ending, the other one goes “Pirates live outside society; they must be banished… you are deported to a dim and distant galaxy.”
Most of the endings are like that: “Maybe it’s a hopeless task.” “There is no cure. The fever will have to run its course.” “Your freedom is gone forever.” “Well done? You aren’t really sure.” “Is this any kind of life, forever destroying things? Maybe you will quit.” And of course there’s my personal favorite: “you merge into starry emptiness.”
Despite all that, Space and Beyond, along with the other early entries in the CYOA series, was immensely popular, meaning that its influence spread far and wide over all those impressionable young minds who opened the covers expecting old-fashioned adventure and ended up curled into the fetal position, their dreams of being adventuring astronauts shattered into a million pieces. The damage to the space program alone is no doubt incalculable.
I’ve written before here about books like Delany’s Triton that subvert the very core of the old space opera conventions. I still haven’t decided if Montgomery is doing some sort of sly, brilliant send-up for the pre-teen crowd, if he was just bitter at sci-fi or if “R.A.M.” is in reality some ancient creature that feeds on the wreckage of children’s fantasy worlds, instead of a jovial, earnest peacenik from Vermont.
All that said, Montgomery was also responsible for Escape, a CYOA adventure that was one of my favorite reads as a young kid and helped develop my abiding love of post-apocalyptic worlds and political intrigue. By creating a hideously popular series that revolved around making choices (even if they mostly lead to failure and oblivion, like in Space and Beyond), he and his cohorts did encourage plenty of young minds to think about the world in terms of a huge number of paths they could choose between — and that can’t be a bad thing.
Question: What “meant for kids” sci-fi or fantasy book helped make you weird or played an influential role in your literary tastes?