Choose Your Own Column!

1. Kim Newman's recent novel Life's Lottery is divided into 300 numbered sections, with cunningly different storylines emerging as you follow alternative routes through the book. It would be deeply foolish to construct a "choose your own adventure" SFX column. Now toss a coin. Heads: go to paragraph 6. Tails: 4. No cheating unless absolutely necessary.

2. Either way you reach the paragraph where the hero survives, inserted twice by the magic of Harry Harrison's word processor. Go to 14.

3. "Don't be a total idiot. Go back to 8 and choose again."

4. One pioneer was John Sladek, whose ingenious multichoice story "Alien Territory" appeared in New Worlds in 1969. That same year, B.S. Johnson's novel The Unfortunates was published as 27 unbound sections in a box, to be read in any order. (Toss a coin. Ignore the result and go to 7.)

5. As a change from tossing coins, you can always take a vote. The best thing about the dire 1988 Batman sequence A Death in the Family was that DC Comics polled readers about whether Robin the Boy Wonder should survive being blown up by the Joker, and – hooray! – the verdict was thumbs-down. Heads 4, tails 8.

6. I remembered my venture into multiple-choice fiction on reading The Sandman Companion, where Neil Gaiman reminisces briefly about how he, Kim Newman (see 1), John Grant (of whom more elsewhere) and I used to write funny articles in between the pictures of naked ladies in Knave magazine. Heads 9, tails 17.

7. Critics wonder whether Terry Pratchett's stupendously inept architect and landscape gardener B.S. "Bloody Stupid" Johnson was named in memory of a Pratchett attempt actually to read B.S. Johnson's The Unfortunates. Heads 12, tails 5.

8. Harry Harrison's SF gamebook was You Can Be the Stainless Steel Rat. This was less choice-crammed than it looked, because Harrison wasn't letting anyone steer his favourite hero to death. Example: "If you leap off the mile-high cliff, go to 3; otherwise 10."

9. Showing that everything is connected, I also spent five years reviewing books for White Dwarf magazine – founded by "Fighting Fantasy Gamebook" moguls Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone – while John Grant wrote many novelizations of Joe Dever's "Lone Wolf" choose-your-own-story fantasies. To his huge relief they let him stop after 12 novels. Next: heads 13, tails 17.

10. Alternatively, when stuck in some desperate last-ditch situation, you're told to toss a coin: heads 2, tails 16.

11. Gotcha! No, it wasn't. Go to 15.

12. Another famous narrative coin-toss happens in The French Lieutenant's Woman, where author John Fowles writes himself into the same railway compartment as his unfortunate hero – who watches, baffled, as this complete stranger tosses a florin to decide what comes next. If you still remember florins, go to 14; otherwise, 6.

13. John Grant was tempted to put a whopping cliffhanger at the very end of the last Lone Wolf novel: "as Our Hero dangles by a single blade of grass over the cauldron of bubbling lava, a crossbow-bolt is already hissing towards his groin, but if the caterpillar chews through the grass in time he'll drop just far enough that the bolt merely parts his hair rather than getting him in the chest ..." etc. Heads 5, tails 18.

14. My favourite interactive story is Edward Gorey's spoof picture-book The Raging Tide, full of weird creatures assaulting each other with unlikely weapons ("Hooglyboo and Figbash dropped a lump of suet on Naeelah.") and directions like "If you loathe prunes more than you do turnips, turn to 22." Heads 12, tails 6.

15. It was in fact Sydney Smith (1771-1845). Toss again. Heads 20, tails 1.

16. Either way you reach the paragraph where the hero survives, inserted twice by the magic of Harry Harrison's word processor. Go to 12.

17. "Bedquest" was my own naughty men's-magazine version of multichoice gamebooks, with the reader struggling to make the right decisions in order to get laid. Yes, this really was published, in Mayfair. Naturally there were booby-traps, and you couldn't "win" by dutifully following the rules. Heads 14, tails 12, edge 19.

18. The all-purpose Langford review quote for multiple-choice gamebooks is: "This one is a real page-turner!" As someone famously said, "I never read a book before reviewing it; it prejudices a man so." If you suspect this was Oscar Wilde, go to 11; otherwise 15.

19. Congratulations! You have successfully completed the Choose-Your-Own-Column Challenge, and would have won a lifetime SFX subscription if you hadn't cheated to reach this paragraph. (Be honest, now.)


20. If you prefer David Langford's columns to John Brosnan's, go to 1. If you don't, try another page.