In which I reaquire a childhood stash of books (or, literary influences no one ever talks about)
July 18, 2012
When people ask about my literary influences, I have my pat answers: Ray Bradbury and Robin McKinley were early inspirations and teachers, through their work. The classics I studied for my degrees have influenced me, I learned about writing series from reading Lois McMaster Bujold, Iain M. Banks’ Use of Weapons gave me the idea for part of the structure of Discord’s Apple, and so on.
I’ve long been coming to the realization that while my craft may have come from respectable literary influences, my aesthetics were heavily, embarrassingly molded by the cheesiest pop culture the 80’s had to offer. Given how much I talk about GI Joe and Captain Power, this should come as no surprise to anyone. But what does the literary side of that look like? My friends, it looks like this:
Photon. It is my understanding that the author, David Peters, is a pseudonym for the great and prolific Peter David. This makes perfect sense to me, and explains why I was so much in thrall to these things. I read them many, many times. I understand there was a TV show of Photon. I probably would have watched it, if I’d been able to (even thought the production values look about on par with those of the MST3K intros). The story has that familiar pattern I latched onto so firmly as a kid: a close-knit cadre of freedom fighters in a wacked-out universe. The storylines were pat — the only one I remember clearly is the one where Bhodi wakes up in the hospital and is told that he’s been in a coma for months and all his Photon-related adventures were a dream. In fact, he’s been kidnapped by the bad guys who are brainwashing him into becoming one of them. This is also essentially the storyline of the great GI Joe episode “There’s No Place Like Springfield,” in which Shipwreck wakes up from a coma to be told that years have passed, Cobra was defeated, and the whole GI Joe team is now retired and wearing polo shirts and playing golf. Everyone uses this story, I think because it allows so much rich psychological torture of the main characters, and that’s always fun, right?
I ate this stuff up like chocolate ice cream during my pre-teen years. And I’m not even sure why, except that I loved the idea of being part of a group of awesome people who were made of pure awesome, having really traumatic adventures. Trauma, action, betrayal, redemption, larger than life chaos that put the whole world on the line — these things had all the best, pure, essential stories.
Micro Adventure: Same damn thing. You (and like Choose Your Own Adventure these were written in second person, so it’s all about you) are part of an elite group of superspies traveling the world and doing awesome things. (The front page tells me that I am a member of the Adventure Connection Team, fighting against the Bureau of Random Unlawful Terror and Evil. That’s right, it’s ACT against BRUTE, y’all.) In fact, you’re the team’s computer expert, and the text would periodically break so that you could solve some kind of computer programming riddle by actually programming your own computer. Like this:
I should probably explain that in the early days of home computing, this was mind blowing. You, the eleven year old kid who picked up this book by chance at a Scholastic Book Fair, can be a super hacker (sort of)! Wooooo! In fact, I knew some BASIC, back in the day, and the programs were simple enough that I never bothered actually programming them, I just read them over, figured out what they did, and moved on with the story, which was way more interesting. And that right there probably explains why I became a writer and not a computer programmer like so many of my peers. (Though I am, right this minute, having to physically restrain myself from seeing if I can get a DOS prompt on this machine to try these programs out now.) All I really remember of the stories now was that there was an actual ongoing through-line — you caught malaria in one book, you had malaria for the rest of the series. And the really clever bit where the bad guys travel back in time to the American Revolution, the heroes go after them, and track them down by looking for the people with the best dental hygiene. (Isn’t that clever? I thought so, when I was eleven.)
And then there’s Choose Your Own Adventure. Full of enough WTF to make even the oddest child (me) happy. As it happens, I no longer seem to have what was my very favorite CYOA: Inside UFO 54-40. I don’t know if I tucked it away somewhere, if my brother has it, or what. But there’s a scene in this book emblazoned into my memory in a spot that will never, ever be erased: in one of the more horrifying endings, you end up in a room where your physical development starts going backwards, until you end up as a sentient fetus in a glass jar, waiting for oblivion. HOLY SHIT, PEOPLE! This is good stuff! These books are entirely chock full of existential terror, which I think is exactly what I needed as a military brat growing up during some of the most tense years of the Cold War.
If my writing, at least some of it, can be characterized by fast-past adventure, teamwork and camaraderie among characters, and odd bits of uncomfortable horror, I think I have to attribute some of that to my early reading. And I’m actually not embarrassed about it, because what I’m also coming to realize is that so many of the things I adored when I was growing up have helped make me the writer I am today, and contribute to my own unique and special writerly voice. I’m the writer I am, the writer I’m happy being, because I grew up with GI Joe and Captain Power, and reading Photon and Choose Your Own Adventure, not in spite of those things, and I wouldn’t change it.