Book number twelve in the CYOA series takes to the skies in a spaceship shaped like a vibrator, populated by glowing basketballs, a floating blob of fur and a woman from ancient China, and named after a political slogan referring to the boundary of Oregon. If that sounds like this is going to be a really strange book, you’re absolutely right. It is.
Inside UFO 54-40 by Edward Packard
Mr. Packard–let’s call him “Ed”–has had a mixed record up until now. Although he invented the Choose Your Own Adventure book concept and wrote five of its first ten books, his pretty stellar successes (The Mystery of Chimney Rock and The Third Planet From Altair) are mixed with some real duds (Your Code Name Is Jonah, Deadwood City). Here Ed returns to a straight-up science fiction context, with decidedly mixed results.
“You” are basically you–the book does not give you any background or special circumstances at all, and illustrator Paul Granger depicts you as a pretty normal-looking teenage boy. For some undisclosed reason you’re flying on the Concorde from New York to Paris. At the moment the plane reaches latitude 54, longitude 40 (how’s that for a title?), you look out the window and see a huge white cylindrical ship flying right toward the plane. A moment later you rematerialize inside the UFO.
After waking up in a plain white circular room, you hear a voice inside your head which speaks annoyingly in ALL CAPITALS. The voice tells you that YOU ARE ABOARD THE SHIP RAKMA AND YOU HAVE BEEN KIDNAPPED BY THE U-TY MASTERS TO BE A SPECIMEN IN SOME SORT OF GALACTIC ZOO. Why they picked you isn’t explained; you’d think if it was zoo entertainment they wanted, they’d be better off with Octo-Mom, or one of the Kardashians or something. Oh, and IF YOU REFUSE TO COOPERATE YOU WILL BE SENT TO SOMO, wherever that is. Your first choice is what to say to the U-Ty Masters–demand to be returned to Earth (yeah right, I’m sure they’ll let you right out), or ask more about the U-Ty.
Okay, this isn’t a bad premise. “UFO kidnapped” stories have been a staple of science fiction for decades. Unfortunately, after this first choice, Inside UFO 54-40 just sort of wanders. You kinda/sorta want to escape, but most of the action is you wandering around the ship bumping into various other aliens the U-Ty have kidnapped over the years. Usually your encounter with one of these aliens results in some sort of short “adventure” where you either try to get off the ship or hijack it and return to Earth. Sometimes you’re successful, sometimes not.
The companions you meet aboard “UFO 54-40” are kind of forgettable. Just paging through the book here are the companions you meet:
- An alien, named Incu, made out of shadows who has something to do with Easter Island. (You don’t think there’s an ending later on where you find out that the Moai of Easter Island were built by aliens, do you? *GASP* Who saw that coming?)
- A human girl, Kim Lee, who was kidnapped in ancient China. And she hasn’t even aged! *GASP* (Okay, I’ll stop doing that).
- Similarly, an Earth boy, Ingmar, kidnapped in Sweden 400 years ago.
- A Viking who was kidnapped 1200 years ago.
- A shaggy creature like a ball of fur that can float in the air, and is drawn to look like the love child of Chewbacca and Sonic the Hedgehog. This thing is called Bru.
- An alien named Mopo who is described as “a big, half-deflated ball” with numerous eyes, mouths and tentacles.
The problem is that all these characters go by so fast, and there are so many of them, that Ed never develops them as real characters. They’re just set dressing, pretty much, and their adventures are boring.
There is, however, an interesting feature of Inside UFO 54-40. The only thing really resembling a plot is when you find out that the U-Ty Masters are searching for a planet called Ultima, supposedly a paradise. You can run around and around in the various choices relating to the search for Ultima, but you never get there. However, there is an ending–it’s on pages 101-104–where you do find Ultima, but you have to cheat in order to get there. That means that no choice in the book leads there. You have to turn to the page deliberately.
This is a really nice touch, because it’s quite “meta.” I’ve been convinced since the beginning of the series that the authors are well aware that readers “cheat” at these books all the time, meaning, they go to pages they aren’t directed to. The Ultima plot plays perfectly on that expectation. This is the CYOA series winking knowingly at us, saying, “It’s all right, I know you guys cheat all the time–it’s OK.” Cheating at a CYOA book is pretty low-stakes, and in this one you get nice “Easter Egg” by flipping through the book searching for Ultima. Presumably Ed would assume that readers would get frustrated by going through all the Ultima plots and not reaching it, and would finally, in exasperation, scan the book to see if it is even possible to reach Ultima–and thus find the Easter Egg pages.
I really like this gag. In fact, I liked it so much that I used it in the first draft of my own book, The Valley of Forever (which was, for a time, interactive). Ed himself uses the gag in another book, his next one, The Forbidden Castle. Then evidently it got ruled off-limits, because to my knowledge no other “Easter Egg” endings appear anywhere else in the series. Maybe the publishers thought it was verboten to acknowledge that kids cheat at these books.
Anyway, the Easter Egg is about the best thing Inside UFO 54-40 has to offer. Otherwise it’s just dull, dull, dull. Ed was sort of phoning it in when he wrote this one. If you’re a collector, it’s a must-have for the Ultima gag alone. Beyond that, you won’t enjoy it much.
Grade: C (would have been D without the “Easter Egg”)
A special word about the title.
You have to admit “fifty-four-forty” sort of rolls off the tongue. Why is this the title? As I mentioned, latitude 54, longitude 40 is where you supposedly see the UFO (which is depicted as resembling nothing so much as a vibrator). I’m convinced Ed dreamed up the Concorde scenario just to justify the title.
If you’ve heard of “fifty-four-forty,” you probably heard about it in history class. “Fifty-four-forty or fight!” was a slogan used by the Democratic Party during the presidential election of 1844. It refers to the boundary dispute between the United States and Britain at that time, for territory located in what’s now the Pacific Northwest. Expansionists who wanted to claim more U.S. territory wanted to press Britain to cede this territory all the way up to the line of 54 degrees, 40 minutes north latitude. In fact, after the Democrats won the election and their guy James K. Polk got into office, they abandoned the claim for 54 degrees 40 minutes, and ultimately settled the dispute where the northern border of Washington State and British Columbia now lies–farther south.
So in history, the “40” in “54-40” refers also to latitude–forty minutes–while Edward Packard makes it refer to longitude, forty degrees. I looked up 54 00′ 00″ N, 40 00′ 00″ W on my Google Earth. It is in fact in the North Atlantic, 400 miles south of Greenland. So far as I know, no UFOs have been reported there.