All Tomorrows: Choose Your Own Adventure Edition

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.
-R.A. Montgomery

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.

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.

The End

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?

21 Responses to “All Tomorrows: Choose Your Own Adventure Edition”

  1. dispodip Says:

    not sure if they were ‘for kids’ but David Edding’s Belgariad/Malloreon series plus the Diamond Throne series were a large part of my youthful reading.

  2. Peter S. Says:

    Wow. You tapped DIRECTLY into my childhood with this one. I even find myself saying “Gleeb Fobo” for no reason before I remember it was some alien dish with a main ingredient of…me. (I think that was from CYOA #1, though.)

    Fittingly enough, I just finished rereading E.E. “Doc” Smith’s epic space opera Lensmen series. Now I’ll need to dig up my old CYOA books (purchased, no doubt, at some elementary school book fair) and give ’em a go. Maybe read them to my newborn (eighteen days old is not too soon to start warping the next generation).

  3. Heather Says:

    I LOVED those CYOA books as a child, particularly the weird, unpredictable, nihilist and non-childlike tone of them. I was always a little puzzled as to why I liked them when I had no time for other such “young adult” books like RL Stine (predictable and stupid), but now I understand. If only they could be easier to find in used book shops!

    I loved unconventional princess books, like Patricia C Wrede’s Dealing With Dragons series, where a black-haired princess runs away from her gaggle of idiotic blond sisters and volunteers to be a dragon’s housekeeper. Some of the concepts in it (feminist, magical, the nature of reality) left big impressions on me.

    Bruce Coville’s “Jeremy Thatcher Dragon Hatcher” had an awesome shop in it which only existed if you weren’t looking for it, and that also tweaked my sense of humour forever.

  4. LittleBob Says:

    oh i remember these!
    i particularly remember trying to find a way of reading them without *dying* as the ending. which i always felt was a bit harsh.
    i also remember bawling my eyes out due to ‘bridge to terabithia’…

  5. Seamyst Says:

    ….. Huh. The CYOA books sure didn’t affect me that much, evidently, because none of those ring a bell – even though I recognize the cover of the Space And Beyond and so have, presumably, read it at least once or twice. I am now very tempted to go sit in the children’s section of my local library.

    As to your question, there are only three books/series that I can recall that are fantasy/sci-fi and written for children or young adults. The first one is “Stinker”, an awesomely fun book about an alien who crash-lands on Earth and, body dying, takes up residence in a skunk. The boy who finds him mistakes his real name, “Tsynq-Ur” (or something along those lines) for “Stinker”, hence the title. Really cute, and I remember that Stinker was inordinately fond of peanut butter. There may have been a sequel, I can’t remember.

    The second book (possibly a trilogy, again – I haven’t read either of these in well over 10 years) is “The Boggart”, about an impish spirit who, after the death of his “master” (same relationship as a cat has to a human, I think), retreats into a roller desk. Said desk is shipped off from Scotland to Canada, where the boggart has fun exploring the Generic Canadian Town and wreaking havoc at home and in town.

    And the third series is Tamora Pierce’s “Song of the Lioness Quartet” (also her “Wild Magic” quartet, taking place in the same world).

  6. Ed Autumn Says:

    :O! Oh man I remember CYOA!! Though I was born in the late 80’s, I managed to get my hands on these! Old run-down libraries and thrift stores can be, quite literally, absolute treasure troves! At the moment I can’t really recall much in the likes of other books that had this effect – but that’s possibly just a side effect of my brain being packed with info relating to a midterm I have tomorrow >.>

    On the R.L. Stine note, wasn’t there a book which attempted to do this? Offer a variety of endings or paths within the story? I vaguely remember one being pretty lame and each ending was pretty boring haha

  7. Dave L. Says:

    Bruce Coville was hugely influential in shaping my thinking from childhood (I see your ‘Jeremy Thatcher’ and raise you both the ‘My Teacher is an Alien’ and ‘Aliens Ate My Homework’ series, Heather).

    My brother also forced me to read ‘A Spell for Chameleon’ (which led to the rest of Xanth) when I was in the first grade(!) which has clearly damaged me as an individual.

  8. john colby Says:

    A few years ago I was at a good will and found “Return to the cave of time” a squeal to the first book “the cave of time”. Its a very through the looking class as the character returns to the ranch and takes another trip about time. twisted youth after the fall.

    Aslo there were a few animated features made of the books . The only one I have seen is ” the Abominable Snowman.”

  9. Mer Says:

    Y’all know that CYOA just relaunched, right?

    I always loved that the writing for these books wasn’t gendered, thanks to Montgomery’s clever use of second-person narrative.

  10. john colby Says:

    Thats the best news in a long time !

  11. Wood Says:

    I had that Space CYOA book. I have no idea where it is, but I remember it being incredibly depressing. I got incinerated, mindwiped, sent back to the Big Bang, and all sorts of dead-ed just in that one book.

    It warped me for life.

  12. Jamie Says:

    I remember getting so frustrated at these books! I always wanted a happy ending and even the ones where you don’t die are bittersweet.

  13. Jerem Morrow Says:

    Ha! I had a ton of these! Fantasy and horror stuffs too. And I’ll be damned if those didn’t almost always end poorly, even if I reread them to all ends. Thanks for the soul-crushing reminder D! Hahaha.

    My earliest reading didn’t contain many sci-fi books. Although, I watched loads of sci-fi flicks (Did read a bunch o’ Dragon Lance. Read one again last year…and oh gawd, was it terrible!). I leaned more towards Poe and Lovecraft. Scary stories to Tell in the Dark. Monkey’s Paw. And random books on movie monsters. Folklore.

  14. squidella Says:

    I had this book, and a few of the others. This makes me want to dig around boxes and see if they still exist in my possession.

  15. Miss E Says:

    To Ed Autumn
    I know what your talking about with those R.L. Stine books. It was like Goosebumps choose your own adventure something or other. I had one that was something about a carnival and it had a giant purple alligator on the front. It was made of seven types of lame toast and it seemed like whatever I did I always ended up dying in some horrible fashion. The Animorphs series tried the same thing a couple years later. It was also made of lame toast.

    I’ve never been a big fantasy/sci-fi fan but, the CYOA books, Tamora Pierces “Circle of Magic” and “The Circle Opens” books, Phillip Pullman “His Dark Materials” books (I HATED The Golden Compass movie), the Animorphs series and and The Ear, the Eye and the Arm all left pretty strong impressions on me.

  16. andrew Says:

    i used to love these! i’d buy them as they came out and also tracked down the earlier volumes one by one (i think my first was #7 The Third Planet from Altair – eventually i had them all up to #30 before i lost interest). i’d go through and do every option to figure out every type of ending possible. my only frustration being that i often wanted to do something not from the choices. i think this was the first link that turned me onto role playing games in the early 80s. well, that and that dungeons and dragons was deemed the devil’s work. nothing more enticing than that…

  17. Peter Tupper Says:

    Now that I think of it, there was this vague sense of frustration and dissatisfaction when I read the CYOAs. They were ostensibly about decisions, but the endings were so flukey and existential that I felt like those decisions didn’t matter.

    I might be interested to see where a given decision took me, but I never felt like I had assessed the situation and made a good decision. The books present a universe with free will, but with fate so capricious you might as well not bother.

  18. misty Says:

    I LOVED these books. I liked the endings, they were unexpected and realistic, no false fairy tale princess happiness there. I would mark the pages where I made major decisions that concluded in death, and go back and methodically read each and every possible outcome in the book.

  19. GlamaRuth Says:

    Elidor, Spaceling, Hamburger Men from Mars.

  20. David Forbes Says:

    Fortunate to have a teacher and avid reader as a mom, I got exposed to plenty of subversive and wonderfully strange “children’s” literature throughout my childhood.

    Two of the books that stand out, though, were 2041 A.D., a sadly out of print sci-fi collection that assembled such lights as Connie Willis, Jane Yolen and Coville to write tales surprisingly dark, beautiful and funny.

    I revisited 2041 recently and it holds up. Yolen’s “Ear” was stunningly prescient, ditto for Willis’ “Much Ado About (Censored),” a story that’s also freaking hilarious at any age. Coville pulled off probably the best writing of his career with “Old Glory,” which still remains utterly terrifying.

    The other book was Why I Left Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers. While it came from the same Scholastic Books warehouse as 2041, it didn’t seem to be intended for kids at all. It was an early exposure to good, dark sci-fi, and has such gems as the title story, as well as strong pieces by WIllis, Yolen and Isaac Asimov.

    Anyhow, onto the comments!

    Peter S: Yes! Gleeb Fobo also shows up in Space and Beyond as the common universal greeting. It seems to be an inside joke for the series’ writers.

    Mer: Huzzah! Yes, I did notice that cunning (and excellent touch). THe CYOA books were ahead of their times in several ways.

    Wood: Excellent! Yeah, I could almost see Montgomery sitting down to write, being like “Ok kid, you want to be a space adventurer. Bam! Mindwipe. You want to try again? Bam! Explody death! Give up yet?”

    Jamie: Yeah, I read a whole bunch as a kid, and I remember very, very few unabsashedly happy endings.

    Jerem: Yeah, the only good thing about Dragonlance was that my dad saw me reading them and sagely opined “Oh, it’s time for you to read Tolkien now.” Unfortunately, not all childhood things hold up.

    Miss E: The Ear, the Eye and the Arm still sticks with me. A surprisingly dark, deep book with a fascinatingly different perspective.

    Andrew: Researching for this piece, I’ve found a fair number of CYOA enthusiasts who will swear that “Third Planet from Altair” is the best of the entire series. Unfortunately, I never got to read it.

    Peter: Free will crushed by capricious fate is definitely the feel the CYOA books give you. Perhaps they were trying to send a demented little life lesson with that.

    misty: Ha! Yes! That’s exactly what I usually did too. Methodical planning FTW.

  21. Super Doomed Planet » Blog Archive » Choose Your Own Oh My God Says:

    […] recently stumbled across an interesting review of an old Choose Your Own Adventure novel, Space and Beyond:As I opened the somewhat frayed and yellowed volume, I anticipated a nice, clean jaunt down […]