Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Have your own Extra-Terrestrial Adventure by Douglas Hill

The genres of science-fiction and gamebooks have always been something of an odd couple. Fighting Fantasy flirted with sci-fi on and off during its early run before terminating the relationship following the enigmatic Sky Lord, and the only series to really make a fist of it was Mark Smith and Jamie Thomson’s Dr Who-esque Falcon sequence that finished after just six books. This mismatch is even odder when you consider the glut of youth science-fiction being published at the time (presumably riding the Star Wars wave), and one of the leading exponents of this genre was Canadian author Douglas Hill, with his Last Legionary, Huntsman and Colsec series. At some point however, Douglas was obviously encouraged by Sparrow Books to hitch up to the burgeoning gamebook bandwagon of the early eighties, and the result was the solitary though intriguing Have your own Extra-Terrestrial Adventure (henceforth: HYOETA). This erudite tome was traded around my Year Six classroom in Hong Kong with some alacrity, so having acquired a copy for the reasonable sum of A$2.50 over the Christmas holidays, I was keen to wallow in nostalgia and revisit those days of yore.

Theme - 4/5
In HYOETA, you the humble reader play the role of Del Curb, interplanetary investigator and an amusing amalgam of Sam Spade, James Bond, and The Stainless Steel Rat, with the extravagant sartorial leanings of Cugel the Clever thrown in for good measure. Don’t believe me? Check this out:

That day I was wearing a canary yellow, one-piece suit, trimmed in terra cotta and sky blue at the collar, shoulders and wrists. My belt and boots, made of the multi-coloured hide of a Frygian sand-dragon, were almost conservative. As for the rings on my fingers, the jewelled pendant around my neck and the jewelled headband that held back my hair, they were modest compared to the decorations of most city folk.
(Hill, 1983, p. 6)

Del Curb is clearly the main man! He’s also the man the Federation Police (Earth Division) turn to when they need an unofficial ‘splat job’ carried out on one of the planets that form the Federated Human Worlds.

The intended target for this attempted capture/terminaton is an alien (or “exter”) called Rimeq the Renegade:

He came originally from a distant planet, Kalgor. There he had joined a vicious terrorist gang and begun to prey upon his own world, which gave him his nickname, the Renegade. Later he moved on, to look for new prey on other exter worlds and in the Human Federation. Interplanetary criminal, terrorist, mass murderer – that was Rimeq. He was probably insane, and was certainly the most savage, bloodthirsty killer the galaxy had ever known, who had left a trail of slaughter and destruction across hundreds of planets.

Rimeq was a humanoid exter – that is, he had the same number of arms and legs and heads and so on as humans have. But really he was a monster, and was said to be a mutant. He was big and powerful, with a scaly, mottled, purplish hide as thick as armour. He had claws like steel hooks, fangs like daggers, and red eyes set deep in dark sockets that glowed like torches in haunted caverns. He looked like the demons that ancient Earth people used to believe in. And maybe he was, not just because of his bloodthirsty ways, but because of his other powers. For Rimeq had an eerie mental ability, like dark magic. He could grasp and move physical objects with his mind...
            (Hill, 1983, p. 7)

Cover by Ian Craig (from Hill, 1982a)

Rimeq the Renegade has developed a nullity bomb and will use it to destroy Earth, unless given his own personal planet to rule. You, as Del Curb, have two days to scour the galaxy (or maybe just two planets in the galaxy), and stop him! Dare you accept the challenge?

Immersion -3/5
I like the cover by some unfortunately nameless science-fiction artist, and while it’s very typical of science-fiction art from the late 70s to early 80s period, it has nothing at all to do with the adventure itself. Inside the book there is no artwork, but the immersive quality of the writing more than makes up for this. You start with a choice of two planets to explore in your search for Rimeq: a swamp planet called Hallipor, which bears more than a passing resemblance to Dagobah, or the free world of Xyry, whose capital, the Labyrinth, appears like a giant version of Mos Eisley. In fact, Hill is an imaginative writer, and the story is replete with strange alien creatures, explosive weaponry, and barbaric exter mercenaries. A brief sampling:

‘The man who killed the spymaster of Aldebaran, and trapped the kidnappers of the Callitee princess?’
(Hill, 1983, p. 5)

For a while I wandered slowly through [the gambling den], acting like a tourist, placing a few small bets – one on a fight between two toad-like Myterean tree-killers, another on a race among tiny, hundred-legged crustaceans from Korbel III.
(Hill, 1983, p. 19)

Five problems, in fact – five exter guards, ranging from a squat, metal-skinned Brygonian to a spidery, ten-limbed thing from Dree.
(Hill, 1983, p. 83)

Gameplay - 2/5
The structure of HYOETA is that of simple branching chapters, with two only onwards choices per chapter. No chapter revisits an older one, so that essentially it forms a continuously branching narrative, albeit a fairly short one. There are nineteen chapters in total, of which ten chapters are final endings, though all are successful. As a result, while the different endings detract from the overall story-consistency, within each chosen narrative is a short but gripping and internally consistent yarn. Where this scores over a similar style in The Forces of Krill, is that there are no wrong choices and thus no ‘Gotcha!’ mentality common to other gamebooks. In addition, the variety of endings can only contribute positively to replay value as you return to this book to try out all the other choices (and their consequences) that you could have made.

Cover by Terry Oakes (from Hill, 1982b)

 Exposition - 5/5
Even though, or perhaps because this is self-labelled as Children’s Fiction, I find the writing in this book to be superb. It’s a perfect blend of science fiction and film noir, and has a looser feel to it that Hill’s more serious proper fiction. One might say HYOETA is over the top and tongue in cheek, but it’s also imaginative, fun, and the sort of cracking read that makes you go back and read through all the other options. If you’re thinking of writing a science-fiction themed gamebook, you couldn’t do worse than scan this book see what you should be aiming at in terms of the power of your prose.

A sample:

I had spent a quiet morning fiddling with my new miniature therm-grenade. It had cost more than I could afford, but it was worth it. Though it could turn an ordinary room into a charred ruin, it was small enough to be set into a ring, like a jewel. And that’s where I carried it – along with several other rings – which were only a few of the mini-weapons scattered about my person.

It’s not that I’m a violent man. I’m more of a careful man. In my line of work, I find that it’s usually other people who get violent. So I like to be ready for anything, any time...
(Hill, 1983, p. 5)

Rules - 1/5
There are no rules for HYOETA, thus garnering it the minimum score of 1. This is a bit of a shame, because the writing is so good it makes you feel like bolting on the Fighting Fantasy rules from Starship Traveller, (and padding out the choices), which would make it a million times better than that book ever was.

Total: 15/25

Have your own Extra-Terrestrial Adventure is a great story hampered by both brevity and lack of a decent rules system that would have bred suspense and added to the narrative. Its final ranking of ‘Decent Snack’ reflects this premise adequately, and if you have any interest in science-fiction gamebooks, the works of Douglas Hill, or the quirky approaches that gamebooks took in their early Golden Age, you should check this out. It’s difficult to find on eBay, although BookFinder and Amazon (UK) seem to stock a fair few cheap copies. My tip (and this is how I came by my copy over the Christmas break), is possibly only valid for Commonwealth countries with good second-hand bookshops: basically, wander into any such emporium and look for Douglas Hill books in either the science-fiction or children’s fiction sections. If you find one, buy it, as it’s definitely worth a read!

Hill, D. (Editor) (1982a). Alien worlds. London: Pan Books.
Hill, D. (1982b). Young legionary. London: Pan Books.
Hill, D. (1983). Have your own extra-terrestrial adventure. London: Sparrow Books.