Thursday, December 11, 2014

Choose From One Possible Ending

Note: I know this post is almost a month out of date, but it's all part of my goal to hit as many lingering post topics as I can this month. So start getting your Thanksgiving travel plans in order and pretend that you're in early November.

A big part of my childhood, and no doubt the childhoods of countless others, author R.A. Montgomery recently concluded his own adventure the other day. As anyone who knows me can attest, I was a massive fan of the Choose Your Own Adventure book series growing up. I would probably say that the series has a whole (of which I read clear over a 100 entries, the overwhelming bulk of the series) was the most influential piece of literature I ever read. They instilled in me an early love of reading and writing that continues to this day (despite how infrequent I update this blog). They where my first exposure to literary genres like science fictionwesternsmysteries, and metafiction (I could write a whole post alone about what a mind fuck"Hyperspace" was to an 9 year old). Plus they provided me an unflinching introduction to my own mortality. However most importantly the CYOA series, with their trademark second person narrative and ability to choose different story tangents, taught me to view the world with a different perspective; that everything didn't have to follow an ordered linear narrative, and that many things you thought were impossible or you never even considered could become reality if you would only make the effort to choose.

Considering how many of these books I've read, R.A. Montgomery and CYOA creator Edward Packard are from a pure numbers view the authors I have read the most in my life. I suppose that's the case with children's book series with many people; I'm sure if you were a hardcore Goosebumps or Fear Street reader growing up, you've read more books by R.L. Stine than any other author. It's just a matter of quantity. Still, it felt like kind of a big deal for me when I heard that one of the authors of whom I so prodigiously consumed their bibliography had passed. So I figured as a little tribute to one of the main architects of the CYOA series and of the game book genre itself, I'd try to recall my top 5 most memorable Montgomery books.

A word of warning, I haven't read any of these books in about two decades and childhood memories could sometimes be unreliable, so if you're some CYOA expert or a modern day kid who just read these books for the first time please forgive me if I get a detail or two wrong or I miss out on some important plot point:

5. House of Danger
If Edward Packard was the father of the CYOA series, then R.A. Montgomery was the weird uncle. Truth be told, going by total body of work Packard is my overall favorite CYOA author. However, while Packard cranked out solidly plotted, fun, interesting stories, his stories never went off the rails or took crazy risks (with the exception of a few standouts like the previously mentioned "Hyperspace"). His stories were usually based around standard genre narratives like solving a murder or searching for buried treasure or landing on an alien planet. Montgomery in contrast would have some of the most straight up bizarre setups, which sometimes would come at the cost of making a coherent or fair story . Case in point is "House of Danger". Just look at that dogeared cover and try to figure out what the hell is going on here. There's a sadistic Confederate general, crazed apes, murderous neanderthals, a runaway stagecoach, a modern home, and a cut rate Scooby Doo team. As I recall all these things do show up in this book. I believe the general idea was that you and your friends investigate a mysterious house that has rooms that lead to different times and dimensions. I also recall that this was a brutally difficult game book with very few non-death or generally successful endings; which was sort of a Montgomery trait.

4. Trouble On Planet Earth
It's like "House of Danger" but everything is set to 10. Instead of some mystery house on your block, you and your friend who kind of looks Paul from the Wonder Years meets Shock G get involved in a bunch of potential conspiracies that threaten the entire Earth. I know there were some plots that involved aliens and the Pyramids and often times you would end up abducted on a spaceship. The grotesque fat and his buddy Joe Biden were part of some other story line where they reveal themselves to be from some sort of secret Illuminati-type society with plans of world domination. I would also say that I can't recall ever getting a good ending in this mad fever dream of a book. This was Montgomery at his absolute craziest. It's not the best written CYOA adventure but it's one of the most unique.

3. Journey Under The Sea
R.A. Montgomery's first book, and the second book ever in the CYOA series, Journey Under The Sea is one of his most straight forward books (and possibly his best plotted). One of the great things about the early CYOA books were the high volume of endings they contained. With most long running series the writers just had more ideas early on. Some of the later CYOA books started to repeat stories and barely contained double digit endings. At a whopping 42 possible endings, this may be the most prodigious book in the series. The story was pretty straightforward, you are some underwater explorer searching for treasure and new underwater discoveries (think Bill Paxton in Titanic). I think the main victory story line involves finding the lost city of Atlantis. I recall you might also fall in love with a mermaid. Of course there are plenty of grim drowning deaths also waiting for you.

2. The Race Forever
Another fairly straightforward effort by Montgomery. The premise is you're a race car driver competing in two different marathon races in Africa. There's an off road race involving jeeps and a faster 24 hours of Le Mans style race with smaller race cars. The first decision you make is choosing which race to enter then which one of two cars; and assuming you're not gored to death by a rhino or your aren't immolated when your car bursts into flames you get to do the other race afterwards. In fact, you can technically put yourself in an infinite loop of races by always choosing the other race after finishing one (I always suspected that's why the title was called "The Race Forever"). Here's a spoiler: the car you choose totally determines if you win the race. In the jeep race pick the Toyota over the Land Rover and in the small car race I think it's the Saab over the Lotus. You're not guaranteed to win with those cars, but at least you won't be guaranteed to lose as is the case with the other cars.

1. Escape
One of my all time favorite CYOA books and probably my favorite Montgomery contribution. Escape takes place in a dystopian America sometime around the mid 21st century. The United States is split into three separate nations (kind of like the Hunger Games) and you are a member of a group of spies from the one democratic state who have to escape the hostile territory of the evil totalitarian state to warn your state of an imminent attack. This was most likely my first introduction to dystopian fiction and the idea of a book set ever so slightly in the future rather than a distant Buck Rogers rocket ship future. I remember the first page had an alternate map of the US split into three and the whole idea fascinated me. I recall plenty of action and surprises in this one and overall the book had a sense of suspense given the high stakes and dangerous situation. You never knew who to trust (potential spoiler, I believe the guy with the glasses in your party turns out to be a double agent) or which path to go as you tried to make your titular escape. Interesting note, this is one of the few CYOA books to have a sequel, the not as memorable "Beyond Escape". I think with a few tweaks this story could be modified into a successful modern teen dystopian trilogy.