Life’s Lottery (Kim Newman)

Screen Shot 2014-11-21 at 4.13.07 PMI mentioned Life’s Lottery a few times in my article on Nicholas Bourbaki’s If. Like If, Life’s Lottery is predominantly a novel rather than predominantly a game; it too concerns the many possible directions a life can take.

Life’s Lottery is an older piece, first published in 1999; it tells the story of a young man growing up in southern Britain. The details of his life chime with stories I hear from my in-laws: the critical importance of the Eleven-Plus exam in deciding which school you’ll be tracked into, Doctor Who on television, decisions about O-levels and colleges and universities, the Falklands war and the ascent of Thatcher.

Like If, this book makes the most sense if the reader tries to cover all of the possible branches, but thoroughly reading this is a non-trivial exercise. In contrast with If, no map is included, and there are many more branch points; what’s more, Lottery uses unusually complex instruction sets for paper CYOA. Sometimes it requires randomization with a deck of cards (though I personally ignored this instruction and just read on as I liked). Elsewhere it contains instructions such as “Read 35, then go to 47” — allowing the 35 segment to be reused as part of multiple different paths. Sometimes it gives you the opportunity to move on from a particular node or continue reading. There are 300 nodes, and the story branches hard early.

Lottery smal

A question about whether you approve of Napoleon or Ilya in The Man from UNCLE determines whether you wind up one of the bully gang or one of the victims. The Eleven Plus determines whether you go to a good school or a mediocre one. From there the story winds on until your character either dies (red nodes) or finds the set pattern for the rest of his life (purple). Death is always handled with the instruction “Go to 0”, a node that does not actually exist.

There are more bad endings than good ones, and the story runs a fair gamut of possibility — science fiction and far-future ends, endings where you’re a tycoon, a family man, a bank officer, a drug addict, a sex convict, a murderer. One particularly complex knot of nodes involves a sort of murder mystery/revenge thriller, the exact truth of which seems to be somewhat flexible. In another section, our character becomes obsessed about a literal Lottery, determined either to win or to destroy it. Actually winning the lottery is randomized and very hard to accomplish, so one suspects that hardly anyone reads those sections without having cheated to do so. Node 300 is explicitly declared (in text) to be the only winning ending, and involves a fairly startling series of events that culminate in the protagonist’s spiritual awakening and moving beyond the desire for money.

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. — Newman, posting at the Electronic Book Review

Scattered among the ordinary sections are some (blue) that aren’t connected to any of the rest of the book — a common technique in paper CYOA, except these sections provide some alternate frame stories to explain what is happening to the protagonist: all his alternate realities are coma dreams. In one, this is because giant spiders invaded the earth and he was too traumatized to process this reality. In another, he’s really a woman — Marion Keith rather than Keith Marion — who has constructed an elaborate alternative reality for herself in which her gender permits her a wider range of life options.

The spider images also appear in the main narrative as well, representing madness or the darkness in the cracks in the universe. Occasionally a node will tell the reader to read Section 13, then return to the current location (marked in green on the map). These are points where the protagonist becomes aware of a sinister force behind all things, the rot at the center of the universe, narrated in the first person.

So there are multiple levels of master narrative here: the one in which “I” is a dark sinister force, associated with spider imagery, and orchestrating the protagonist’s experiences; one above that in which doctors and nurses watch the comatose figure wrestling with the knowledge of this “I”.

There’s also a fairly substantial cast of secondary characters who return from one section to the next: your brother James and sister Laraine, the naive plump Rowena, the terrifying Mary, the bold Vic, the schoolgirl Chris, and a number of others. The book rings most of the possible changes with the female characters, assigning them variously as lovers, wives, one-night stands, exes. Sometimes their personalities shift a bit from one storyline to another, though they usually retain some critical aspects. Mary always has a streak of unpredictable potential violence: sometimes that means she becomes a criminal, sometimes a cop, sometimes just a person with a harsh sense of personal justice.

*

The choices you make in Life’s Lottery are often taken as iconic, character-forming, sometimes to the point that the distance between the cause and effect mimics propaganda videos from middle school health class. Try a cigarette, die of lung cancer. Smoke one joint, die as a heroin addict. Have a one-night stand, die as a chemically-castrated sex criminal. Slack off at school and end up on welfare. Stand up against bullies once and become permanently dedicated to their eradication.

These outcomes become less absurd if you look at them through the other end of the telescope, though: from the perspective of the man who is dying of lung cancer it is reasonable to look back on that first cigarette. The book often works best if we think about the paths as stories the protagonist is telling himself about the causality in his life — not “what would most likely result from this action?” (usually nothing), but “given this extreme outcome, what might we say led to that point?”

If Life’s Lottery is about the stories we tell ourselves about our lives, this makes sense of all the genre-shifting. It matches up with the master narrative about the protagonist reshuffling his life in a coma, but also with the way Life’s Lottery sometimes invites the reader to go back to the beginning, reconsider past actions, identify the crucial mis-step.

*

Part of Newman’s message concerns the way that some political systems lock people into the consequence of their actions:

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. — Newman, posting at the Electronic Book Review

Elsewhere, we see the protagonist’s life ruined by a prolonged jail spell, for instance, or undermined by a bad marriage; and at one point the narrator invites us to consider whether there are escapes and ways out once our course in life seems to be set:

Most people, in my experience, live And so on lives. At some point, sometimes frighteningly early, they fix their futures and just live them out. And so on. Often, the And so on point comes just as suddenly as a Go to 0. The difference is that you have to live with it.

Are the And so on lines really inescapable? Once you have received that verdict or reward or punishment or revelation, do you really have to stick with it?

Maybe not. Some people never surrender. I like them; though they can be infuriating. Perhaps they should look for satisfaction rather than adventure.

You can crap out now. Go to 300, maybe. Or 37. Whatever.

Or you can explore. Make conclusions. Make something of yourself and for yourself.

Don’t be afraid.

Just go on. — 195

In other words, Newman seems to be agitating for systems — both social and personal — that allow for second chances and changed minds and personal development. But he does this by means of a CYOA structure in which choices have extreme and exaggerated consequences. Had he actually wanted to model gradual, cumulative consequence, he would have needed many more nodes, or else possibly a copy of ChoiceScript.

2 thoughts on “Life’s Lottery (Kim Newman)

  1. Although I think it’s nice to have choices I wonder if as the author if I added too many different genres it’d get confusing for the PC? Sometimes if I find out there’s about 7 endings I have a odd urge to complete all the endings just because. Hmm–it’s interesting from the example posted how the narrator seems to be adding commentary for the choices (?). It makes it feel closer to a game than reading a book alone away from everyone.

    I have read CYOA and ChoiceScript before but I think it’s better suited to short or medium length as after awhile my mind starts drifting after a few thousands of words.

  2. Pingback: Choose Your Own Autobiography (Neil Patrick Harris) | Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

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