In spring of 2013 I attended the launch party for Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction, the latest book by outgoing io9.com editor-in-chief Annalee Newitz. This was held at a nearly secret store in the Dumbo area of Brooklyn called Singularity & Co., which deals almost exclusively in hard-to-find & obscure sci-fi books of the past, though the store itself serves in more than a retail capacity. During her Q&A session, I asked Annalee how a balance might be struck between present day orthodoxies and a mission favoring our species’ survival over the longer term when it is so easy for such a directive to become inflexible and maladaptive. Later, she commended me on my question, saying, “It actually made me work!” That’s probably why she agreed to bum me a smoke.
Also in attendance at the party was Annalee’s First Among Deputies, then io9.com managing editor, now editor-in-chief Charlie Jane Anders. Since she wasn’t the main attraction that evening I had difficulty figuring at what angle I ought to approach her. My icebreaker came in the form of discovering a copy of what was my favorite Choose Your Own Adventure book from when I was 11 years old, The Mystery of the Secret Room. To my surprise, Charlie Jane was actually more excited about it than I was. “This is by Ellen Kushner!” she exclaimed.
“Um,” I said. “Okay, I guess so, if that what it says…”
Beyond some of the founding CYOA authors like Edward Packard and R.A. Montgomery, I’m not familiar by name with anyone else who’d written one. I’ve since educated myself that Ellen Kushner is not only a successful and well-regarded sci-fi/fantasy author and editor, but she also hosted a public radio show for 14 years and is a noted LGBTQ advocate. Her four CYOA books were indeed her first published novels. Auspicious beginnings.
If you didn’t grow up in the 1980s it’s entirely possible, if galling, that you might not know what a Choose Your Own Adventure book is. A by-product of the then-niche computer culture, they were essentially expanded flowcharts, text adventure games crystalized into print. A chunk of story would be told and then two, occasionally three options would be presented, the outcomes of which would be at certain separate pages; lather, rinse, repeat. Sometimes a clever author would manage to make a story branch off and then re-merge with a different one down the line: I remember one Egypt-themed book where, if you chose the wrong path in a labyrinth, the same three scenes of walking in the dark would repeat ad infinitum, to chilling effect.
In 3rd grade an enviably clever classmate began posting his own crude CYOAs in the hall outside our classroom, though I’ll be damned if I can remember anything of what it was about. There were spinoffs like the Time Machine series, and outright ripoffs like Pick-A-Path, Which Way and U-Decide, but Choose Your Own Adventure remained the king well into the ’90’s, perhaps only unseated by the advent of CD-ROMs. Ironic that the same field which spawned this form of storytelling should also be its undoing.
The gist of The Mystery of the Secret Room is this: Your distant, eccentric aunt supposedly has passed away and left you her home in her will. You discover a camouflaged door under the staircase that leads into an eponymous secret room where there are three boxes laid out on a table, labeled “Past,” “Future” and “Never-Was.” If you choose the box engraved “Past,” a boy pops out swinging a sword; he would seem to be some teen version of Beowulf. If you open the box reading “Never-Was,” a griffin emerges which may or may not wish to eat you. And if you want a taste of “Future,” a girl with a funky, short, half-green/half-purple, winged hairdo and a bizarre spandex outfit comes through… taking a survey.
At age 11, I thought that was pretty hot. Well, perhaps not so much the survey part, but the illustrations, especially how she was painted on the cover, sent me over the moon. The Future was one of my great obsessions. I thought, If this was how girls in The Future would look, sign me up! The fixation may be attributed to an outside resemblance to a girl who lived across the street from my dad who I would say was my girlfriend to the other boys in my class in New York. Even her name seemed exotic to me: Tiffany Woodstock Lunasdottir, or “Woody” for short. (Why anyone in Iceland of The Future would name their child after that bird is beyond me.) Curiously, of the three options, hers was the least developed in the book: Any adventures one could have with her in the present were lackluster, and if you followed her into The Future, an earthquake would hit and promptly collapse a skyscraper on your heads. Fuck you, too, The Future.
Hey, but I didn’t mind: I was a man (?) in love. I drew pictures of her and, for plausible deniability, of the griffin and the Viking kid, also. This didn’t satisfy my itch, but I knew of no further option; there was no sequel. One day in my school library my eyes alit upon the magazine rack where, nestled amongst your humdrum U.S. News & World Reports and National Geographics, was the April 1987 issue of OMNI Magazine. (Sidebar: While talking to Annalee, she confided that one of the primary models for io9.com was, in fact, OMNI.) What in retrospect was even more amazing about it being in our library was that it was published by Bob Guccione, founder of Penthouse, though the founding editor-in-chief was Kathy Keeton, his wife. Still, one wonders decades later whether our grandmotherly librarian might have had a more colorful life than we suspected.
That particular issue’s cover story was about the concept of lucid dreaming. Dr. Stephen LaBerge of Berkeley University (where else?) had for years been experimenting in consciousness within dreamspace: maintaining it, moving purposefully inside it and controlling it. Some claimed being able to problem-solve and even unburden themselves of old trauma within a state of ur-omnipotence. As I was a lonely, abused 11 year old, I was all too eager to sign up for this plan. Also, I knew I was going to attend Berkeley for college. (I did not.)
In this summary of Dr. LaBerge’s techniques there were exercises one was meant to perform, both during wakefulness and sleep, to hone one’s ability to dream lucidly. I have a feeling that even as an exceptional 11 year old there were nuances I failed to grasp, but I threw my little heart into the task nevertheless. I rarely if ever progressed past stating my intent before bed and what was meant to keep me lucid, visualizing myself spinning in a space; the former made me self-conscious and the latter was so disorienting and so taxed my ADHD it tended to wake me up. To be honest, I wonder if any “success” I ever had was simply imagination while I was in more of a hypnagogic, half-awake state. At least, that’s what I tell myself ever since I gave up on the pursuit. Or perhaps it was that I couldn’t reconcile any divinity of my subconscious in the context of my life of desperation.
There are truly only two times I recall it appeared to have worked. In the first, I was standing alone on the soccer pitch of the island in New York’s East River where my plutocratic private school conducted their oppressive, all-consuming sports program. I began to run, taking longer and longer strides, until at last I left the ground beneath me and took flight under my own power. I swooped over the baseball backstops and under the bridge, spiralled into the sky and plunged into a tailspin I pulled out of at an impossible angle, skimming over the sparkling water like a dragonfly. As I was and am a person terrified of heights it was all the more striking that I felt no fear, only exhilaration.
But it was the second success that was the true wish fulfillment: I went on an epic adventure with Woody, Beowulf and the griffin! Chopping through tar creatures, exploring lost cities, defeating the seemingly invincible boss, none of which had been in Mystery of the Secret Room. And then, after the presentation of our quartet as liberators to all the good citizenry, I led Woody by the hand into a glade, laid her down on a bed of reeds, and then… made us both feel good. Look, I was 12, tops, and though I understood sex in principle and had sexual thoughts, it was as yet merely rumored terrain upon which I would not set foot for many years thereafter.
Nevertheless it was a pleasing experience, but my pursuit of the whole endeavor ended not long thereafter. This may be due to my discovery of Bob Guccione’s other publications and their like; I remember fondly how little difficulty I had in buying porn mags off the stands before I was even a teenager. I continued my subscription to OMNI, though once Keeton, a health & longevity specialist, had a sudden heart attack and died in her fifties, it foundered for several years until it sputtered out around 1995. I never soured on lucid dreaming, but I remained an outsider to its benefits; my wish fulfillment was now trained like a spotlight on the idea of working for Disney Imagineering as an adult. I held onto my Choose Your Own Adventures through high school, then gave them all away as a token of good esteem to a little boy for whom I babysat.
Smash cut to 2007. I had been living in rural Pennsylvania with my dad & stepmom for roughly a year after bottoming out only a few months after my thirtieth birthday. I’d returned to NYC several times since to visit & keep my name present in my networks, one of which was the comic book scene. I was attending the New York Comic Con, then in only its second year and its first on the main floor of the Jacob Javits Center. It was close to Halloween, for which I would not be in the city, made all the more painful since I would miss my favorite dance party, the late great Motherfucker Ball.
I’m a longtime fanboy of cartoonist Evan Dorkin; I first met him at the Small Press Expo in 1995, though he doesn’t remember me from that. (To be fair, I was by then a total hippy type, a look I believe I’d shed by the time I saw him next.) At a particular moment at NYCC 2007 I was hanging by his and his wife Sarah Dyer’s spot at the Slave Labor Graphics booth, kitchy-kooing their toddler Emily, killing time until I could get a word in edgewise with table neighbor Jhonen Vasquez, and trying, I now see in vain, to sell Evan on The Motherfucker Ball by the inferred testimonial of a mutual friend’s preference for it.
There came an eerie moment when, just to my right, I heard a female voice all but echoing my endorsement of Motherfucker to Jhonen. I scanned over and just about fell over. Dressed in a punky explosion of clashing colors & patterns, some of them on spandex, was a woman with short, half-green/half-purple hair styled into wings.
I found my voice and corroborated her statements, but then blurted out, “Have you ever read The Mystery of the Secret Room?”
She fixed me with as much put-upon apathy as she could broadcast through her heavy mascara. “What the fuck is that?” She wasn’t cosplaying. I feel confident I began to gibber and lost the opportunity to make a better impression before she left not long thereafter; I can only hope I was not her reason for leaving. I never did get to talk to Jhonen directly.
Later a friend would inform me she was named after a post-punk icon of whom my sister was a fan since 1981. I looked her up on Myspace and tried to engage without being a creep, but I evidently wasn’t not a creep enough, because she never replied. But I could see by her public photos that although the hairstyle was relatively recent, it was in a continuum of similarly unconventional looks in which the visual noise spandex commonly featured. It was her.
I have no idea what became of her, and I don’t know if I’d be more disappointed if I learned she was a crack whore in a bus terminal in New Mexico or that she toned it down and became a suburban homemaker; both seem a different brand of ignoble fate for a dream given flesh. I can only hope she chose her own adventure wisely.
This long overdue update is in memory of Raymond Almiran Montgomery, Jr. (1936 – 2014).