On Life's Lottery

On Life's Lottery

2008-01-20

Kim Newman describes various methods of approaching his choose-your-own-adventure-style novel, which can be read or played because, like a role-playing game, “you are at once a reader and the main character.”

Ben Underwood:

Newman’s incorporation of multiple
popular-narrative genres into her choose-your-own-
adventure-style novel evokes the issue of properly handling genre-specific tropes that Wallis argues is essential in crafting story-telling engines for games - not only semi-playable novels.

2008-01-20

Life’s Lottery is a Choose Your Own Adventure-style novel in 300 sections, which range from a few sentences to several pages each. The reader takes on the role of Keith Marion and, by making a series of choices, guides Keith throughout his life, from his birth (in Section 1) to a number of possible outcomes. Many of the important elements in Keith’s later life are formed by childhood events: a deliberate decision to pass or fail an exam strongly influences Keith’s later economic opportunities; the decision whether to participate in a cruel childhood game (catching and passing on “Timmy germs”) affects the reader’s perception of Keith’s psychological makeup.

Structure and Design

I didn’t have the idea of 300 sections at the very beginning, but it came up fairly early in the process, maybe even in the first week of actual writing. Limiting the number of sections to 300 had no particular significance (I can’t even remember how I arrived at it), but had several practical uses, including keeping the novel to a manageable size.

I suspect I wrote the book the only way it could be written - much as it’s usually read, by following particular threads and branches through. This means that early on, I was picking numbers for sections fairly arbitrarily and later filling in between sections already written. I wanted the book to read chronologically if a reader started at page one and proceeded as in a normal novel, and so there was a certain amount of provisionality (I had a lot of Post-It notes with numbers and arrows up on a paper flowchart as an outline) until everything was set.

Early in the process, I decided to limit in some ways the paths Keith, and thus the reader, took through life, to keep the word length practical but more importantly to concentrate on the central character rather than explore his world. Given that he was born about when I was (though his background and most of his lives are very unlike mine) and I didn’t want to make the book too science-fictional (in the sense of depicting the future, which I thought would distract from the focus on the personal), there isn’t much about the character’s life past early middle age. I have a token strand or two that take the story into the 2020s and beyond, but not many. I could have had Keith symbolically born in 1900 and taken him through to old age - but that would have made the book a historical novel, inevitably getting caught up in a couple of world wars, which would be a similar distraction. I’ve written quite a few books and stories with “big-picture settings,” in which huge historical events are dealt with, and one of my self-set disciplines here was not to do that; there are lines in which Keith becomes powerful, but we don’t go there much.

Although I didn’t abandon anything I had written or outlined, I realized early on that the book was infinitely extensible. Even within the rules I’d set for myself, I could have continued forever with different timelines. In the book, the narrator’s voice notes some things that might be stacking the odds - like the disproportionate number of early deaths that occur, mostly, to tie off branches, but also to emphasize the fragility of anyone’s life. We all dodge death every day by crossing the road, and so the other possibility is always there. Section 1 - My friend, you have a choice. Of course, you have a choice. You can go this way or that. You can call heads or tails. You can have coffee or tea. It’s simple. Except maybe you don’t have a choice. Because of matters settled before your father’s sperm met your mother’s egg, you don’t have a choice. You’re set on this road. You always call heads. You must have tea. Maybe that’s the choice. To have a choice or not to have a choice. Free will or predestination. You choose. Think about it for a while. Use one side of the paper. Leave a wide margin. Don’t skip on regardless, though. Really think. It’s important. It affects everything. Get back to me when you’ve made up your mind. When you’ve chosen. When you’ve made your choice, go to 2.

Options

Certain of the book’s themes became important because they came up while I was writing and seemed like useful fulcrums. I wanted to make some events trivial and some momentous. This is a lot like my usual process of writing fiction: recurring themes or images tend to arise early on and get used throughout. Some have a personal meaning for me (the story about the buried tin of marbles is something from my childhood) and some just come up in the process and are incorporated into the fictional lives (I don’t know why there’s a pirate theme in the book - unless it’s a vague memory of the pirate theme in Watchmen).

I had a specific political purpose in the sections dealing with the British education system as it was in the 1970s - and which some people tend to agitate for a return to even now. I wanted to show the injustice of deciding a child’s educational future on one exam taken at the age of ten or eleven - which is why I had a branch in which Keith fails the exam and then tries to catch up later but can’t. I was aware that the book has to cheat a bit here, and assume the boy has a choice to pass or fail - but I didn’t think I could get away with including an exam paper and asking the reader to take it, then self-assess which school they would have gone to. Apart from anything else, very few readers will be the actual age the exam was designed for.

An equivalent “game” like that of “Timmy germs” was played at my primary school, and I’ve no idea how it affected the girl (a gypsy, I think) who was its victim. I wanted to keep stressing choices between easy morality (we all think as adults we wouldn’t have done things like that) and the pressure to take part in an unjust society (as children, we mostly did - all these years on, I can’t even remember whether I did or not).

Here, my assumption was that most readers would “do the right thing” on the first run-through, whether they would have or not in real life; the point of a lot of these choices is multifold: first to make you ask what you would do in this situation, then to empathize with Keith and ask what he would do, and finally to read all the options and consider the consequences. This is a way in which the LL format differs from “normal” fiction - here, you are at once a reader and the main character, and so the “Keith” of every person who reads the book is a different, unique character created in collaboration between the reader and the author.

Quite a few story possibilities also “double back” on themselves, merging with the outcomes of other possible choices. This is partly because I wanted to make it clear to the reader that it was all right to turn back the pages and explore different timelines - that their initial choices weren’t definitive. I did hear of one person who read the book by making a series of choices, reading those sections, and thought he had finished when he came to a death or an “And so on” - then put it aside without considering the rest of the text, which is fair enough, but not what I hoped for. By including certain literal time travel elements, I assumed people would get the message that they could go back and start again, or read in parallel sections that show different outcomes from choices. One conception of the book is that it’s de facto science fiction, since it deals with alternate realities (there are alien invasions and time travel and other things, but that’s science fiction furniture rather than theme).

Novel or Game?

I think LL is designed to seem like a game, but not be one. There is no true or correct or winning path - the point is to consider all the losing options. The book is probably disproportionately downbeat, because happy, uneventful lives would have been dull to read about. Readers (and writers) are in a thorny relationship with fictional characters: in theory, they might like them, but in practice they want them to have difficult, often painful lives so they are interesting to read about. Here, I make more explicit this sadism - often, choosing a path that’s bad for Keith makes for more fun for the reader. A great deal of Keith’s character is provisional, dependent on choices the reader makes, which the author then shores up in the consequent section by making him (perhaps retroactively) the sort of person who would have taken that route.

All the possibilities were equally real to me, even the obviously fantastical ones (which are used quite sparingly). I deliberately incorporated strands that took us out of “social realism” into various forms of fantasy - for instance, if the reader commits Keith to a vigilante revenge storyline, the book turns into an action movie scenario that is probably less “convincing” than other paths, if more satisfying in some ways. I took care to work in a whodunit, horror stories, social satire, perilous journey, farce, noir-like crime, etc., because all of those are possible genres that a book could turn into. One of the things about the postmodern generation, of which Keith and I are members, is that we are aware of genre and pop culture, and that it shapes the way we see or label things, which is why there’s so much discussion of films, TV, pop music, etc. in the book.

Arbitrariness and Socially Formed Character

When I set out to write the book, I was torn between believing that every little choice we make can have a butterfly effect and reshape our entire lives, and that nothing we do matters because blind chance can whisk us off on paths we didn’t even consider. I tried to keep that balance in the book - partly because it seems that the balance exists in life, and partly because it made LL “work” better.

I did include deliberately misleading choices - like a bit about seat belts, where Keith ends up in one of those accidents where taking the safety precaution gets the passenger’s neck broken. (I’m not sure of the statistics on this, but I suspect they’re higher than the automobile industry would have you believe - though less so with the extensible belts now in use than back when this scene was set.)

I also decided that the narrator of this second-person book would not be me, but a fairly demonic, though mostly honest character, which means he’s playing with the reader even as some readers are trying to “play” the book. The red wire/blue wire choice was an obvious one to put in, since it’s in all those bomb disposal scenes in films - which rarely deal with the fact that people who build bombs (unlike those who build useful appliances) can use whatever color wires they like, and so disposal experts in real life have to ignore such signifiers.

One of Keith’s unhappier storylines allows him a choice between a sad sexual fantasy involving Star Trek’s Lieutenant Uhura and one involving Doctor Who’s Jo Grant. I happen to prefer Doctor Who to Star Trek, for quite cogent reasons that are beside the point in the terms of the novel. (I’ve just done a book for the British Film Institute on Doctor Who, which goes a bit further into this.) This is why things work the way they do when the choice is made - but beyond that, both series had episodes with “evil alternate universe” doppelgangers.

This is something at the heart of LL, but still unusual in the alternate history sub-genre. In most AH novels, any real historical characters included - usually presidents, etc. - have recognizably the same characteristics they had in the real world (Adolf Hitler is a fascist bastard, etc.); but Star Trek and Doctor Who, in the “Mirror, Mirror” and “Inferno” stories, posit that if the world were different, people we know (recurring characters) would be different too, which suggests (bluntly) that if society were more rotten than it is, we would be more rotten too (and Spock would have a beard). Though LL isn’t much concerned with changes in society, I did want to show character as defined by circumstance - things we think of as inherent and inbuilt, like sympathies or sexuality, might be up for grabs if our lives were radically different.

The Lottery

The book’s recurrent lottery theme is partly topical - when I was writing the book, the United Kingdom had only recently introduced a national lottery and there was still a lot of fuss about it. It may even be arbitrary in that having decided this title (my alternate was Choose Your Own Adventure) I was more or less forced to put the real lottery into the storylines. Nevertheless, it does connect with the tension between the illusion of effort (picking “lucky” numbers, using “systems,” as in roulette, etc.) and the reality of random chance. I was not aware when I wrote the book that the term “life’s lottery” was used by right-wing Americans to caricature a liberal position on the underprivileged - suggesting that leftists feel whole segments of society are “losers in life’s lottery” because they have been excluded by birth from all manner of advantages, whereas they themselves believe anyone can rise from anywhere and become an American success story (which usually has tragic connotations of its own).

I’d be interested to read an American version of LL, which might diverge in significant, interesting ways from the British. I’d also like to see an equivalent book written by a woman with a female protagonist - obviously, the choices women make or are faced with, and the interests they have, would be very different also.

Section 13

The second sidebar reprints Section 13 of Life’s Lottery. This particular section crops up in Keith’s life unexpectedly, in many of the storylines. The reader is instructed to read Section 13, and return to the storyline they came from. It’s a bit of a cheat, I admit - but I thought it necessary, partly as a signpost for when we were entering more fantastical areas. (Some readers view this as similar to Freud’s “uncanny,” but I could as easily have pasted in Rod Serling’s “Next stop … the Twilight Zone.”) It was useful also partly to remind readers that this was not a story with one reality, but a book in which they were encouraged to take multiple passes through a multiple universe. I was also gluing this book to some of my earlier fictions, which have more supernatural material - in particular, my novels The Quorum and Jago, and the short story collection Where the Bodies Are Buried, feature some of the characters and settings (even events) of LL, and readers who’d been following me from book to book (as opposed to those who just picked up this one) would get another variant experience (for instance, knowing more about “Derek Leech,” the actual narrator). Section 13 - Sometimes, you step off the path, through the cobweb curtain, into the shade. This is where you meet me. This is where I live. Most people step off the path at one time or another. If you press them, they’ll tell you their stories. But not willingly. It’s private. Between me and them. You’d be surprised how many people you know who’ve stepped off the path and met me. That, though you don’t quite realise it yet, is what’s just happened to you. Can you feel the scuttling caress of tiny spider-legs on your hackles? Have you noticed time has changed, slowed to a tortoise-crawl or speeded up to a cheetah-run? The air in your nostrils and the water in your mouth taste different. There’s an electric tang, a supple thickness, a kind of a rush. If you come through the shade whole, you’ll want to scurry back to the light, back to the path. Most people have an amazing ability to pretend things didn’t happen, to wish so fervently that things were otherwise they can make them so, unpicking elements from their past and forgetting them so thoroughly - at least, while they’re awake - that they literally have not happened. All of you can affect the warp of the universe, just by wishing. But to wish, you need motivation. What has just happened might be motivation enough. At first, you won’t be able to stop thinking about it, asking what has actually happened, looking for a comforting ‘explanation.’ Maybe it was mirrors, maybe you were given drugs, maybe aliens abducted you. Who knows? Maybe you’re right. I don’t know everything. From time to time, you run into me - sometimes because you get itchy and stray, sometimes by accident. From time to time, I like to catch up with you. I like to catch up with all my friends, Keith. For now, you’re shaken. Perhaps you can’t believe you’re alive and sane. Perhaps you aren’t. Whatever the case, you must put the shade behind you. For the moment. We’ll meet again. Before you know it, you’ll pass through the cobweb curtain and be back. Years may pass between your detours, but when you step off the path again those years will be as seconds. Maybe life is only truly lived in the shade. Well, enough deep thought for the moment. Get on with things. Try to pretend there is no shade. I’ll see you soon. Go on.

People and Places

There is a certain sense that Keith displaces quite a bit of water with the people he knows - so that they are different in his differing realities, but less extremely than he is. In almost all the branches, Keith meets most of the “important” people in his life as a child or a relatively young man, and I deliberately didn’t do that much with his many possible children (who mostly seem like a phantasmal melange rather than discrete characters).

Certain places (such as Sutton Mallet) and events also take on multiple significances depending on the reader’s choices. I was quite pleased with the way this turned out, since it was tricky to manage: the idea is that certain events or places in the novel should be mystifying or easy to overlook the first time you read about them, but increase greatly in meaning with each return. Sometimes, the reader learns more from multiple paths than Keith ever does from his single experiences - I think only the reader ever fully works out who kills who and what happens on that Welsh mountainside, for instance.

I went to Sutton Mallet in a key scene in The Quorum (which includes a semi-autobiographical account of the night I wound up in the real village while trying to find the much larger and more significant town of Shepton Mallet) and it made sense to me to go back there for added weirdness this time round (my as-yet-unpublished An English Ghost Story goes back again). Given that so many places are returned to in so many contexts in LL, I also wanted to leave areas mysterious - and that house in that village is one of them.

Reading Life’s Lottery

I’ve not done any research on how people read the book, and I didn’t want to dictate any correct way of reading it. I expect most people “explore” the book as much as they “play” it. The first readers of the manuscript dealt with it on disc, and could use the search function as a primitive hyperlink - which they seemed to like (they could also tick off the sections they’d read and consume the whole book piecemeal that way). Later an actual e-book edition was released. Besides the obvious advantage of being able to click to the section you’ve chosen and insert multiple bookmarks, the most interesting aspect of the e-book was putting in all the footnotes to explain “Britishisms” to American readers (or even British readers born much later than me). I’ve always been dubious about e-books, but I could see the point of doing LL in that way, since it actually uses the electronic medium rather than simply being a book on a screen.

Of all my books, LL has probably got the most attention in the United Kingdom - in terms of media attention, reviews, reader feedback, etc. I’ve had people come up to me in the street to talk about it. It seems to have sold quite well. However, it’s never been published in the United States, so there must be some sense that it’s too strange or “British” to travel. What I wanted to do at the outset was write something that was at once experimental and accessible. Apart from the people who read it straight through (for whom I wrote some sections you can’t get to any other way), I assume every reader’s path through the book is unique. As usual with my stuff, some people love it, some people hate it, some are indifferent - you tend to hear word back from the folks at the extremes. It’s certainly a book people are still interested in talking about.

Reference

Newman, Kim (1999). Life’s Lottery. London: Simon & Schuster UK Ltd.