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Friday, 6 November 2015

The road more traveled by

Following on from the previous post, I don't want to give the impression that all of my collaborations with Jamie consist of me writing something and then him taking over and cutting out half of it. They do say murder your darlings and, as Hitchcock and Highsmith pointed out (above), it helps to get a friend to do it for you.

Here's a case where it went a little differently. We were talking to the Fabled Lands agent, Piers Blofeld, about digital gamebooks. I mentioned time travel and how for it to really grip as a story it has to be personal. We talked about the old Falcon gamebooks that Jamie wrote with Mark Smith in the 1980s, and how those were very much in the 2000AD adventure style, but how maybe they could be rebooted with a little more relatability for a wider audience.

So I wrote this as a possible new way in to the story of a protagonist who gets to "fix" mistakes in time:
You always had a sixth sense. And people laughed at you for trusting it. But you knew better. The time your friends at high school piled into Billy’s older brother’s car to drive out for a picnic, and Billy had only had one beer but you felt something like a physical dread. Couldn’t get in the car. You watched them drive off and six hours later you watched the crane haul the car out of the west river.

“Why didn’t you go with them?” the cop asked.

“I had to study.”

Because you’d already learned not to talk about your glimpses of the future, even then. When people thought you could see what was coming up, they blamed you if it went bad. Best to say nothing. Keep the sixth sense – or whatever it was – to yourself.

But you learned to trust that sense. Right up till the last day of your life.
Okay, so then there's an elision to a scene in which you are in a plane crash...
A bang. It just sounded like a tyre blowout until the gravity switched off.

You wake up in the wreckage. Not too badly hurt, as far as you can tell, but you’re completely trapped in a cage of twisted seats and crushed fuselage. A liquid drips on you, causing an icy stab of panic until you realize it’s not aviation fuel but some kind of air con coolant. Even so, you can dully hear screams through the wreckage, and the smell of burning.

An overhead locker pops open and a bald man in a neat dark suit and grey trilby hat drops into the crumpled seat beside you. “You’re thinking you should’ve trusted your instincts,” he says.

“What? Who are you?” You strain to look past him into the locker. Is there a way out?

“I’m just guessing,” he goes on. “I can’t read minds or anything. Though I know what you’ll do now.”

You strain as far as the vice-like grip of your crushed seat rest will allow. The locker is empty, no escape route through to the outside. “Where did you come from? What happened? Was it a bomb on the plane?”

“A bomb?” He’s amused. “Like a terrorist incident? That’s ego talking, my friend. No, no terrorists. The universe has plenty of ways to kill you all on its own.”

He drones on and you listen with half your mind. He's telling you that many pasts and futures exist. Likens it to driving along a motorway. Spacetime can drift like a driver who’s nodding off, and that’s okay as long as the driver gets jolted awake when the tyres hit the hard shoulder. But if not he can go right off the road. And then there’s no getting back.

“Romulus can kill Remus, or vice versa, and you’re still on the blacktop. But if the wolf eats them both – that’s what we call a train wreck for time.”

“I thought we were talking about cars?”

“Ha! You see, right there, that’s what I’m looking for. You keep your wits about you. And then there are your premonitions, of course, where you see a few tracks over, what might happen or what could have been… That’s why we want you to join us.”

“Join you? Who the hell are you?” You struggle in the seat, but a wave of pain tells you there are at least a few broken bones. To think, you’re going to bleed to death or burn in the wreckage and your last conversation is with a madman.

He takes out an old-style fob watch with too many dials. “I’ll need your answer within 32 seconds. The fire hits the tanks then. To answer your question: we are the Curators. We locate the precious key moments of time, and if there’s an instability – a crack, if you like – we fix it.”

“And you want me to do that? But I have a marketing meeting in Seattle in four hours.”

“No you don’t. You don’t have a future. You don’t have a life. And you most certainly don’t have four hours. You have – “ he consults the watch “ – fifteen seconds. Yes or no? In or out? Life or death?”

Either way, this is the last day of your old life. But you could have a new life. If you agree to his offer, turn to 1. Just don’t take fifteen seconds to think about it.
We didn't use it. Why? Because we realized that the folks buying those old gamebooks aren't looking for a reboot. They want the untouched text. The classic edition, if you like. That's why we eventually released Blood Sword without completely overhauling the baroque tactical combat rules that I loathed. And similarly, Falcon came back to life exactly as if the intervening 30 years had never happened. And that's real time travel, I guess.

POSTSCRIPT: The time repair agency concept is one that's often explored in classic SF. To take one example: Philip K Dick's characteristically paranoid  "Adjustment Team", which inspired the movie The Adjustment Bureau. A rather more successful film adaptation was Predestination, based on Robert A Heinlein's short story "All You Zombies".


  1. I love that intro paragraph! If I can get my hands on a TARDIS anytime soon, Dave-of-the-past might expect a visit from future-me, to tell him that the fate of humanity depends on him continuing to write this book. Or something similarly grand.

    1. You mean the Hitchcock para, Paul, or the Billy-in-the-river bit? Either way, I'm looking forward to that TARDIS visit. I mean back.

  2. Hello Dave

    You're right re leaving text untouched and avoiding unnecessary amendments, regardless of medium. I hope you're reading this George Lucas! I'd buy new gamebooks based on your opening though, providing you wrote them of course!


    Andy Fletcher