Retro Book Review: Survival at Sea (Choose Your Own Adventure).

After a number of clangers–some of them pretty egregious–Edward Packard, creator of the Choose Your Own Adventure series and author of five of its first ten books, finally gets back on course with a rip-roaring nautical adventure involving an aquatic dinosaur, a sailboat, an exploding volcano and a lot of “exotic South Seas” stereotypes. Get ready for Survival at Sea.

Survival at Sea by Edward Packard (illustrated by Paul Granger)
Published: 1983
Number in the CYOA Series: 16

I consider Survival at Sea to be a direct sequel to my favorite CYOA book, The Third Planet From Altair, also by Packard. Why? For starters, it features a return by Dr. Nera Vivaldi, a scientist who first made her debut in Altair; the mission is at least somewhat similar; and illustrator Paul Granger portrays “you” as the same curiously androgynous blond-haired being that “you” were in Altair. This is the first real sequel of the CYOA series.

The set-up: Dr. Vivaldi, an anthropologist specializing in interspecies communication, calls you and asks you to join her in the South Pacific on a hunt for an aquatic beastie called the Arkasaur, which may somehow have escaped the mass extinction of the dinosaurs. You’ll be sailing on a 40-foot sloop called the Allegro with the sailing master Eric, his nephew Pete, and deckhand Jack Maiko. This conveniently fills out the same sort of ensemble cast with which you took to space in The Third Planet From Altair.

The first choice is not whether you join this curiously Gilligans-Island type junket–of course you want to go! In fact the book is pretty slow to get to the first choice, and Ed (Packard) gives us an unusually large amount of exposition for a CYOA book. After a teaser that indicates the Arkasaur does exist (of course it does), you sail on the Allegro and a warning comes along that there’s been a massive volcanic eruption under the ocean. In fact, a new island is rising from the sea. You’re on watch and you have to decide, in light of possible tsunamis caused by the eruption, whether to sail into the danger zone or not–the up side is that the eruption might bring the Arkasaur to the surface.

But wait! In a curiously mean bit of chicanery, the first choice turns out to not be the first choice, because whichever page you turn to is the same situation: a massive wave suddenly approaches the boat. The first real choice is a three-way decision tree as to which way you steer as the wave approaches. But even one of those choices leads to an unusually quick “The End,” so you really only have two choices.

Whew. That’s a lot of waves, steering and page-turning. After this slow start the book finally does validate its title, as most of the adventures in it involve staving off nautical disaster somehow, with the hunt for the Arkasaur receding into secondary importance. In one plot you get set adrift with Pete; in another, you’re alone in a raft, dying of thirst; in still another you have to sail the Allegro through a disastrous typhoon. The nautical flavor of the book is very strong, and many of the choices really are difficult and thought-provoking, though there are a fair amount of clangers too.

The centerpiece of the book, structurally, is a very large central decision tree (p. 27) with four main choices, all based on which direction to steer. Ed implores you to study Paul Granger’s map on page 13 before you make your choice, and warns you to have your mind made up before you choose. (The map is maddeningly vague, and never tells you the position of the Allegro vis-a-vis the various dangers it describes, so it’s a bit of a cheat). This is a great idea, but isn’t used to its full potential. Ed seems to have gotten impatient in filling out all the various choices, so a few of them lead to abrupt ends, effectively limiting your options if you want the story to keep going.

This is the main problem I have with Survival at Sea: it’s unusually hard to just keep going. The number of endings in CYOA books was beginning to shrink about this time, and Survival at Sea has 26 of them, but they sure get in the way.

Nonetheless, there are some good elements, such as:

  • The nautical flavor of the book is very consistent. You can tell Edward Packard has been sailing in the Pacific in real life, and his expertise comes through powerfully.
  • The subplot about Maiko wanting to take over the new island for himself is interesting and provides some real danger. (p. 30)
  • The new volcanic island is a very forbidding locale, described as eerily hostile and outer-space like. The illustrations of it, however (like the one on p. 56-57) remind me uncomfortably of Dianetics.
  • When the Arkasaur does finally show up, it’s not nearly as cheesy or ridiculous as I was expecting.
  • Paul Granger’s illustrations of waves are beautifully reminiscent of Japanese prints by Hokusai.

The down-sides.

  • Stereotypes. Survival at Sea is a tour through every 1940s-style “South Pacific” trope in the book. Case in point: “You awaken to find yourself lying on a cot in a thatched-roof house. A woman is standing over you. She smiles and hands you a mug. You drink eagerly. It’s fresh, cool pineapple juice–the best you have ever tasted.”
  • The plot involving greedy businessman Jason Lucus, who wants to take over the new island, is pretty flat and cheesy.
  • Dr. Vivaldi, who is a great character, isn’t given enough to do. Mostly what she does is make exclamations of one kind or another, or suggestions on where to find the Arkasaur. I was waiting for a plot where she actually tries to communicate with the monster–that is her expertise, isn’t it?–but it never happens. Wasted opportunity.

This isn’t a bad book, and at times it’s quite entertaining. As a sequel to The Third Planet From Altair, though, it just doesn’t measure up. It has none of the mind-blowing concepts, the symmetrical plot arcs or the agonizing choices, although some of Survival at Sea‘s choices prove surprisingly difficult. Ed can crank it up when he wants to, and he was doing much better with this one, but it’s not on par with the original.

Still, this is far and away Packard’s best book since Altair itself. It also firmly established Dr. Vivaldi as one of the series’s most endearing characters. The “teens” of the CYOA series (books 10 through 20) are notoriously uneven, but among them, this one is decent.

Grade: B

A special note about the androgyny of the “you” character: the illustrations in Altair of the same “you” seemed to be largely androgynous, but this time around Granger seems more willing to show “you” as definitely being a boy. You are depicted as wearing male clothing, and on p. 46-47 you go fishing topless, which would presumably be absolutely out of the question as a depiction of a female character in a kids’ book (though “you” are shown, notably, only from behind). So far as I know, the “you” that is drawn this way never makes another appearance in the series.

Next up: R.A. Montgomery hits the road in one of the CYOA series’s most memorable books, The Race Forever.

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