Sometime in 1981 a man named Edward Packard sat down in front of a pinboard covered with meticulously linked system cards, had a sudden idea, and wrote a time-bomb into my life.
The bomb was written into the twelfth in the Choose Your Own Adventure series, titled Inside UFO 54-40. In each CYOA book, the reader makes decisions to jump from page to page, hopefully to reach a successful end. The best possible ending may be reached by wise choices during the story. This applies to every title in the CYOA series.
Except Inside UFO 54-40.
In Inside UFO 54-40 the reader is kidnapped by aliens seeking a ‘planet of paradise’ called Ultima. Only enlightened humans can reach Ultima; the aliens cannot. The book begins with a ‘SPECIAL WARNING!!!’ which reads, at least in part, as follows:
[…] many never reach Ultima, because no one can get there by making choices or following instructions!
There is a way to reach Ultima. Maybe you’ll find it.
A quick flip through the book by a sufficiently frustrated ten year-old reveals that there is a page on which the reader reaches Ultima, but it is not linked to from any other page. Yet the reader has been assured that there is a way. The reader might, if the reader is the kind of credulous and hopeful young reader who believes that if a way is promised a way must exist, if only the reader is clever enough to find it, tear Inside UFO 54-40 to pieces, both figuratively and literally, searching for that way.
The reader may, after months of fruitless analysis, eventually give up in shame, losing the memory of Inside UFO 54-40 but carrying around for decades a nameless, gnawing sense of failure.
Then, very early one morning in early 2008, during a series of long, sleepless nights tending a baby, the reader’s delirious, near-delusional mind will suddenly spark on Inside UFO 54-40 and be instantly visited by a devastating revelation.
There is only one way to reach Ultima in Inside UFO 54-40. You cheat.
You just turn straight to the page. There is no system. There is no cleverness. The reason the reader can go where the aliens cannot is by exiting the diegesis, breaking the book’s rules and cheating.
Boom, goes the bomb.
This is wrong. Packard cheated. I was cheated. A book must have a system. Choose Your Own Adventure books must have a system. If it’s okay to cheat Inside UFO 54-40 where is it not okay?
Packard made a fool of me. I felt like an idiot. I was naive. I was hopeful. I was …
I was a child with a moral system so optimistic he believed there must be an honest way, and so strong he refused to accept there was not for thirty five years.
There is no way to reach Ultima in Inside UFO 54-40 without cheating. This is my complaint to Edward Packard. It is also my thank you.