Retro Book Review: The Third Planet From Altair (Choose Your Own Adventure).

This is my third Choose Your Own Adventure review and one I’ve looked forward to doing all week. The Third Planet from Altair by Edward Packard is not only probably my all-time favorite of the entire CYOA series, and one of the favorite books I recall from my childhood, but it’s fair to say it’s one of my favorite books of all time, and one that has had a profound impact on my writing and my life. Yes, this otherwise unremarkable, 117-page YA series fiction from the 80s. It’s that good.

The Third Planet from Altair by Edward Packard
Published: 1979

Note: this book’s alternate title is Message from Space.

This is number seven in the CYOA series, and the second to have an outer space theme, the previous entry being Space and Beyond by R.A. Montgomery, a thoroughly forgettable book. Not so for Altair. This book is unusual in the CYOA genre for having a very cohesive plot and an overall story arc that is discernible in most of the major pathways through the various books. Thus, although “you” meander through various permutations of the story, almost all of them illuminate the major story idea in some way, and the fun is going through all the different pathways to see the facets of the main story.

The set-up is uncommonly simple for a CYOA book. The Mauna Kea observatory in Hawaii records a mysterious signal from outer space, undeniably sent by intelligent beings. The signals are traced to the third planet from the star Altair, 16 light years from Earth. “You” are chosen as a member of the crew of the Aloha, a spacecraft sent to the planet of the title to make contact with whoever sent the signals. Your companions–who in the illustrations by veteran CYOA sketch man Paul Granger (true name Don Hedin) look more like futuristic hotel bellhops than astronauts–are especially rich. There’s Bud Stanton, the lantern-jawed commander who resembles no one as much as a spacefaring Mitt Romney; Pickens, described as a “cosmologist,” who is the spitting image of Einstein; and Dr. Nera Vivaldi, who will eventually become the most memorable recurring character in the entire CYOA series.

What’s interesting is that Packard spends not even a word describing who “you” are, what your qualifications are, or what your role is on the Aloha‘s mission. The reader is a blank slate, which is an interesting tack. There’s also no discussion of whether the book takes place in the present or the future, though one assumes it’s supposed to be the future, as the Aloha is depicted as possessing faster-than-light travel and various other gadgets unknown to late 1970s technology.

Altair opens with a pretty clunky choice. The ship passes through an antimatter storm, Captain Romney–er, I mean Stanton–turns to stone, and you have to decide whether to continue on course or turn back. Turning back initiates a pointless subplot with an alien mind force that takes over members of the crew. If you manage to shake it off, which isn’t hard, eventually you reach Altair, and discover the remains of an advanced civilization. There’s just one catch: everybody’s gone, having vanished from the planet to parts unknown. Discovering what happened to the Altairans–and what implications their disappearance has for Earth–provides the balance of the plot.

Despite the very hackneyed first choice, most of the decisions you’re called upon to make in The Third Planet From Altair are intelligent, some even agonizing. When Altair is struck by a severe antimatter storm, for instance, you must decide whether to return to the safety of the ship at the cost of abandoning your mission, or risking the lives of your crew to complete it. On page 45, after you’re thrown either backwards or forwards in time, you must decide whether to activate an experimental device called the chronistan in order to get back to your own time–but the chances of success are only 32%. Packard presumes the readers, even though many are children, possess intelligence, logic and compassion. I think that’s why The Third Planet From Altair remains absorbing even for adults. You really have to think before you turn the page.

Plus, it’s a very fun, almost reverent send-up of Star Trek and 2001, done with a very subtle tongue-in-cheek. The illustrations by Paul Granger add a lot to the book’s texture. Despite being a kid’s book, the science fiction scenarios are done very thoughtfully and provide some real otherworldly charm.

Here are some of my favorite elements of the book.

  • The deserted cloud city made of crystal (p. 10-11) certainly evokes Bespin in The Empire Strikes Back, but this book was originally published a  year before the film’s release.
  • “You are now but a single cell in some great cosmic mind.” (p. 24) Trippy, man!
  • “Bluenose,” the underwater robot. This gadget comes in quite handy for exploring the Third Planet’s moon, which is entirely covered with water. Lots of interesting concepts here.
  • The creatures with a “frightening appearance” that you meet on p. 40 are epic. You have to see the illustration to get the full effect.
  • The unexpected appearance of Easter Island-style moai (p. 65-66), which tie into an “ancient astronauts” narrative–not true, of course, but a fun story.
  • “Through the windows you can see an array of stars unlike any you have ever seen before. Either you are still dreaming, or you are awake in another universe.” (p. 78)
  • The very 2001: Space Odyssey-like ending on p. 116-17, which could be my all-time favorite ending in any CYOA book.

There are very few elements of the book I didn’t like. Just for the sake of balance I’ll try to find some.

  • I never liked the rat creature on p. 38-39.
  • “Welcome. I am sure you will enjoy your new world…if you will just obey orders.” (p. 97) Pretty weak ending.

Overall this is a smashing triumph in the series. The ideas of universes beginning and ending, repeating themselves, and a single species propagating and re-propagating itself on different worlds, as different civilizations, strikes the same chords in me that Borges does. Yet it delivers these concepts in a kid-friendly, exciting science fiction adventure. I liked this book so much that I included several homages to it in my own novel All Giamotti’s Children, such as naming a technological device a “chronistan.” There’s also a book-within-a-book mentioned in All Giamotti’s Children which is intended to resemble The Third Planet From Altair.

Grade: A+

Despite my nearly unequivocal praise for this book, it is not remembered as a particularly outstanding book of the series. I don’t know if it’s been reprinted in the new series, but if it isn’t, it should be.

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17 Comments

  1. “The deserted cloud city made of crystal (p. 10-11) certainly evokes Bespin in The Empire Strikes Back, but this book was originally published a year before the film’s release.” Yes, but the Paul Granger illustrations were done later. The 1979 illustrations are by Barbara Carter, and they’re quite different (and VERY strange).

    1. Both cities were likely inspired by Stratos, the cloud city depicted in the Star Trek episode “The Cloud Minders” which aired in 1969. The design of Bespin especially evokes this. Packard wrote “The Third Planet from Altair” in 1976 or early 77 (I know that because I asked him).

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