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:

So what are we looking at here?

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:

From Micro Adventure No. 5: Mindbenders, by Ruth Glick and Eileen Buckholtz
I worry that actually running this program will cause my computer to start channeling Fox Mulder.

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.

From The Third Planet From Altair by Edward Packard

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.


17 Responses to “In which I reaquire a childhood stash of books (or, literary influences no one ever talks about)”

  1. Doruk Says:

    I have read quite a few Choose Your Adventure type of books as a kid as well. Unfortunately, I have no idea which ones since they were all translated :/

  2. Andrew Says:

    I loved CYOA books.

  3. Jessica Says:

    The CYOA books were beyond awesome. My cousin and I used to fight over whose CYOAs were cooler… 🙂

  4. brandyp Says:

    I loved the CYOA books as well. My pre and early teen years were filled with Chrisopher Pike, VC Andrews, and Fear Street 😀

  5. Kyle Johnson Says:

    Have you heard of interactive fiction computer games? These are like choose your own adventure, version 2.0 (you have way more control). If you haven’t, I would suggest you try playing Wishbringer (search for the app “frotz”). “Zork,” I believe was the original and most famous of this series.

    Janice sent me here. 🙂

  6. Chris Says:

    I am too old to have read the cyoa books – my son loved them! I read Cherry Ames, Student Nurse, Tom Corbet Space Cadet, every single Walter Farley Black Stallion book, (I loved series & watching the same characters I was psychologically invested in have new problems to overcome), and Robert Heinlein anything, but especially Have Space Suit, Will Travel.When I was in 3rd grade my folks signed me up for a book a month club, but we came home from vacation & about 25 books were waiting for me on the kitchen table – I was SO happy! Books like Swiss Family Robinson, Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Grimm’s, Robin Hood, etc. I still re-read them, all tattered & duct taped. I will buy many of them for my Nook, as they are old & familiar friends. When I re-read Heidi,however, I found it was too preachy for my adult tastes.

  7. carriev Says:

    I also read all of Walter Farley and Marguerite Henry.

    I was too old for most of the Christopher Pike and RL Stine stuff.

    Kyle, computer gaming never did it for me. I remember Zork, Planetfall, a bunch of others, but never got very far.

  8. Janice Says:

    How did I miss Zork and all of that? Did I live under a rock or something? But CYOA were some of my favorites. So much so, in fact, that I started the boys on them. I’m going to introduce them to Zork if I can figure it out. Seems like a CYOA on the computer, from my brief introduction to it today.

  9. steven Says:

    one way to get a command line in a windows environment is to open the task manager and got to the applications tab click on new task and type cmd.exe and them press OK.

    another way to get a command line is to go to start menu > run
    and then type cmd.exe and them press OK.

    and the finale way i know if to get a command line is to go to start menu > programs > accessories > command prompt

    and what is wrong with having you computer channel Fox Mulder

  10. chuck Says:

    I loved these things when I was a kid, and now my 10yo kid is starting to find them. I need to start haunting thrift shops again, don’t I?

    Also, I’m sure you’ve seen “You Chose Wrong” by now, right?

  11. chuck Says:

    also, my wife found severl CYOA-like interactive books out there for the kindle. They work, of course, but you miss the whole experience fo flipping pages…

  12. Carrie V. Says:

    And you can’t stick your thumb in the pages to save your place in case you made a horrible choice and go back and try again… I swear, there was one time I had every single finger stuck in the book to save various places so I could make sure I tried every single one.

  13. Jakk Says:

    I never tried Micro Adventures or Photon, but i still have my collection of Choose Your Own Adventure books. These, and the Encyclopedia Brown series, were treasures when i was a kid.

  14. Kerry S. Says:

    Oh, I loved CYOA and Encylopedia Brown, too — and really wish I’d never let my collections of those books go! I’m also glad to see a few more fans of the old Infocom interactive fiction games. I loved them all so much from middle school all the way through library school really wish more of them were available to play today. Give me the humor and cleverness of games like Zork, Wishbringer, and Deadline over fancy graphics and sound any day of the week. 🙂

  15. […] there I was poking around the web while writing that post I did on Choose Your Own Adventure books, when I made an amazing discovery:  the existence of Find Your Fate:  G.I. Joe.  A Choose Your […]

  16. stinalyn Says:

    I loved the CYOA books! I’ve even been re-reading a few that I got at the BookCrossing con in DC. That was the unofficial theme of that year’s con, so everybody’s goodie bag had a CYOA or similar book. Not sure if anybody got a GI Joe book.

    I released Kitty Goes to Washington in the con hotel. Last I heard, its adventure included going to Munich and being found by somebody named Pandamao.

  17. Ray Dean Says:

    I couldn’t help the song in my head… “Photon’s the new game, the hot game, that’s coming here to town…” which was a total LIE.. Hawaii never did get a photon training center.. lol… but yes.. I watched the horribly awesome TV show.. and read the books.. hmmm I think it would be fun to read them again..

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