It’s hard to believe it’s been more than six months since my last Choose Your Own Adventure review. My, how I’ve let this series languish! Actually part of the delay was that it took me several tries to get through the next book, Supercomputer. Every time I picked it up I was usually asleep a few minutes later. That tells you what kind of book it is.
Supercomputer by Edward Packard (illustrated by Frank Bolle)
Published: December 1984
Number in the CYOA Series: 39
If you were a kid in the ’80s, perhaps you remember a short-lived TV show called Whiz Kids. This series, which only ran 18 episodes, featured a gang of wild n’ wacky, geeky-but-hip teenagers who were, as you can guess from the title, all computer geniuses. The chieftain of the gang of geeks, played by that kid who used to be on Little House on the Prairie, used his souped-up, super-intelligent computer, named RALF, to solve crimes and protect truth, justice and the American way–mainly by means of hacking, phreaking, DDoS attacks and identity theft. This premise was salable as a TV show in 1984 because there was a perception that computers could do literally anything, and that a person who knew how to use one was some kind of superhero–or supervillain.
Although it has nothing to do with the TV program, this is exactly the premise of Supercomputer, and it’s as transparent as the title of Whiz Kids. “You” are an ordinary kid who wins a new computer in a contest, a “Genecomp AI 32” with its own name, Conrad. These computers are built with a special [fill in technobabbly MacGuffin] that could render them superintelligent. Of course, Conrad is superintelligent. Instantly upon plugging it in Conrad knows everything about you, and naturally can talk. Your first choice is whether you work with him on your own, or call the Genecomp company for advice.
The TV show “Whiz Kids” was pretty typical of the way computers were viewed in 1984. So is this book.
There really isn’t much plot beyond this. Every choice has sort of a random, check-off-the-box type quality with leads to a myriad of essentially coequal sub-adventures. You can, for instance, demand that Conrad make you a million dollars; the thoughtful computer warns you that wealth does not always equal happiness. You can tell Conrad you want world peace, and he dutifully dials up President Reagan on your 1200 baud modem. You could wind up bartering with a rich sultan for an oil lease on a Pacific Island, or headed for a planet populated entirely by computers. (I kept waiting for the line “Resistance is futile,” but alas, this story was written 5 years before the Borg were invented). The choices are fairly shallow and have a paint-by-numbers quality. There’s a space adventure, a couple of crime adventures, and an archaeological adventure in which recurring character Dr. Nera Vivaldi (The Third Planet from Altair) makes an appearance. But none of them really stand out.
Still, Edward Packard (whom I had the great pleasure to interview in 2013) does have a few interesting ideas. One of them is that Conrad’s memory circuits are partly organic, and this tidbit is used to suggest that he may be a life form as opposed to a machine. Whiz Kids never had the courage to go there. Packard also toys with the inevitable moral choices. The choices to use Conrad for your own personal gain do not always end in moralistic tragedy, although some do–if you count getting sent to fat camp (p. 63) a tragedy. I expected some pretty stone-age moralizing, but Supercomputer thankfully never beats you over the head with a lesson. Packard wasn’t firing on all cylinders this time around but there are some good elements.
Ironically I was reading this book at about the same time my husband and I saw the acclaimed 2013 film Her, starring Joaquin Phoenix as a withdrawn man in the near future who falls in love with his super-advanced “operating system.” Reading Supercomputer 30 years after its release it’s easy and tempting to simply howl at the popular culture conception of computers in 1984, that a chunk of plastic on someone’s desk, just by placing calls through an ordinary telephone line, can do anything from real estate deals to unraveling the mysteries of the universe (that is an explicit choice on page 28). Then it struck me when I saw Her: our views on technology haven’t really changed that much. Her avoids the melodrama of hacking into defense computers or crashing the stock market, but its computer protagonist, voiced by Scarlett Johanssen, is almost as omniscient and wondrous as Conrad is portrayed here. A fictional pop culture computer in 1984 could “do anything,” but so can one in 2014. It’s just our concept of “anything” has changed. No one wants to use a computer to start nuclear war anymore. But could a computer be a legitimate romantic partner, filling the void in peoples’ empty lives?
The trailer for “Her,” 2013 film. Have we really changed in our view of technology since 1984?
That’s deep stuff for a kids’ book, and I’m not suggesting that Supercomputer provokes that kind of contemplation. But, as it is largely a forgettable book in the series, perhaps its chief value is as an artifact of how we view computers and their relationship to our lives–and how little that view has changed in 30 years.
Grade: B minus
Probably my next book to review in this series is The Mystery of Echo Lodge. I think I read it once in 1985. We’ll see how it stacks up.