Slightly modified and edited by Simon Osborne (Nov 2003)
It was with a heavy heart that I read paragraph 300 of The Hunger Of Sejanoz and realised that the New Order series of Lone Wolf was being cut short by four books. It was depressing to note that the Legends series finished just as it was getting good, but now that I as Lone Wolf, or a Grand Master, can no longer adventure in and explore the fabulous world of Magnamund, I am forced to relive past glories, some of which I calculate I have read more than fifty times. But it isn't just Lone Wolf.
The Fighting Fantasy series introduced me to the concept of gamebooks--a world of your own imagination. They were going strong, rattling them off like there was no tomorrow. The various authors wrote fifty in ten years, the fiftieth book being a direct sequel to the 1st. And they planned to make the 100th book in 2002 to be a direct sequel to book 50. This isn't going to happen. The series ground to a halt over the next four years and finally finished at book 59. Book 60, Bloodbones, was, as far as I know, never published.
These two long-running gamebook series have ended prematurely. I am sure that you agree, we have explored less than 20% of Magnamund. So why are gamebooks so unpopular these days? When I read my first Fighting Fantasy book (c. 1987) they were just becoming en vogue in my school. Soon everybody was reading them--and here comes the first in a series of reasons why I think gamebooks are so unpopular these days: we were discouraged from reading them by our teachers.
It truly is hard to believe that teachers, supposed luminaries of education and thought, regarded these books with contempt. I was told on more than one occasion that I should be reading "proper" books. We were limited to reading one gamebook to one proper book. Regardless of the fact that the school had such a low budget that most of the books in our "Reading Room" or Library were woefully out of date, or just plain old and excruciatingly dull. Who wants to read about some dumb girl and her pony (for example) when you could be battling orcs and saving the planet?
This contempt was not all-encompassing, though. Do you remember those small, white-spined books called Choose Your Own Adventure published by Bantam? In those, you became an "ordinary" person getting involved in saving Robin Hood or surviving in the wilderness. Our teachers loved those. Perhaps it was a combination of the facts that (i) there was no combat involved; (ii) the inside page of the books, where you normally get an extract from the book as a taster, had quotes from teachers who said how much they loved the series; and (iii) girls enjoyed reading these books.
Please do not take me for a misogynist because of my citing reason (iii). But throughout the whole schooling system, I found that both the teachers and the curriculum--even the teaching style--is geared up for the female psyche. An experiment was carried out on a BBC TV programme (called QED I believe) where a normal mixed-gender class was split into male and female classes. The girls were taught the "normal" way while the boys were taught in a more "masculine" way--the books they read and studied were more adventure oriented, while the girls' books were more character oriented. The result, amazingly, was that while boys underachieve in the current schooling system, in a specially developed system they equal the fairer gender, some even actually out-achieving them. Despite these findings, I recall several teachers who tried to stifle my creativity and love of the art-form that is the action-oriented gamebook. Perhaps you would like to examine my writing style and usage of the English language. Do you think gamebooks have retarded my command of the English language?
The second reason for the drop in sales is because the market is flooded. As an avid collector / reader of gamebooks / RPG systems I have come to the conclusion that gamebooks came to their peak in 1986. It was in this year that more gamebooks were published than in 1988 to 1992 put together. Those of you who are also gamebook connoisseurs may know the names of Jamie Thomson, Dave Morris, Mark Smith, Oliver Johnson and others. But even Joe Dever was at his peak. In this year he wrote Lone Wolf 7--Castle Death, The Magnamund Companion, the Combat Heroes series, consisting of four books, and he edited three of the four World Of Lone Wolf gamebooks about Grey Star the Wizard.
But gamebooks have always been looked down upon as the poorer second cousins to "proper" books. If you are past about 14 and you are still reading gamebooks, people think you are a little strange. They tell you to go out and buy some "proper" books. But dare you do that?
Fantasy has gone through something of a renaissance in the past twenty years. And now people are bored of it. Every week more and more drivel is being put out by half-talented authors using second-hand characters living in unrealistic worlds following derivative storylines full of obviously sign-posted plot devices. Yet because they are released in hardback first, we are supposed to see them as "proper" books, the sort that grown-ups read. Because youth books have a much smaller audience, any long-running series is constantly in danger of being retired because it is no longer popular enough to generate sales of 20000+, which is an average print run. The smaller the number of books printed, the higher the cost of the book has to be to recuperate the overheads and make a "healthy" profit.
I have read with disdain many novels written by well-regarded authors and I feel cheated when I reach the end of a book to find yet another cliff-hanger. Perhaps I have been around the fantasy block too many times, but I scarcely even care what happens to the boring protagonists in these dry books.
Lone Wolf is different. Because I am Lone Wolf or Grand Master I care what happens. Because the world of Magnamund has been well developed over many years I am interested in where "I" adventure. Because Lone Wolf is powerful, but not overly so, there is always a chance he/I will lose. In many of the Lone Wolf adventures I have been surprised at the plot twists--that rarely happens to me in straight novels these days. The development of Magnamund shows, I believe, that Joe Dever is not just interested in writing any old rubbish, but actually wants his readers to enjoy their dallyings in Magnamund. I get the impression that most authors do not care as long as they get the royalties. Just think: How many series' of novels end (Book 12) and then begin again and then switch to having a different protagonist (Book 20)? It is a risk to do either of those things--but it prevents the series from becoming stale and keeps it interesting.
The third reason is a much more insidious reason which reaches to the very core of society itself. We in the West just have too much money. I am not speaking for myself or any individual, but as a group we are too wealthy. This means that while we used to buy books, we now buy computer games and CDs. We teach our children that it is more important to win the lottery than it is to get a decent education. Perhaps that sounds a little hypocritical coming from a guy who is on the Internet, but I haven't lost my love of the English language. If Shakespeare had had pots of money, would he have written his plays? If Tolkien had been brought up in a climate of Street Fighter, do you think he would have come to love writing and words as much as he did? Would he have written The Lord Of The Rings--recently voted the greatest book ever in a poll in The Times? Would Lovecraft have devised his Cthulhu Mythos, or Robert E. Howard his Conan character, if people of their generation didn't need to buy pulp fiction to escape, they could buy videos instead?
And while computer games are becoming increasingly more affordable, the price of books (certainly in the UK) is skyrocketing. I remember that my first Lone Wolf book cost me 50p from a second-hand shop. I'd never seen one in the shops, but I thought that I'd give it a whirl. It was The Chasm Of Doom, and to this day it probably is still one of my favourites. The price on the back of it says £1.75. The price of a similar book today is a minimum of £4.99. Remember, these books are supposedly aimed at a young persons. Think of most adolescents you know--would they buy a book or buy a music CD? Or a computer game?
Books are by their very nature challenging. We have to visualise in our mind just what someone looks like, or how large the lajakeka is. With computers we are shown what everything looks like with our latest consoles and our PIV 2GHz processors. But our brains are much more powerful than these bits of plastic and metal. We do a better job of visualising than any computer can do.
Unfortunately, what this means is the "MTV" generation are securing their place in society by ignoring all that has gone before. Soon there may be nothing left of our great learning, of proper art. Not the art of terrorism of the enfant terribles--attention-seeking idiots. Music with a tune and lyrics--and lyrics that mean something at that. We are fighting what may seem to be a losing battle. But fashion is a fickle mistress. In five or ten years time, people will turn off their games consoles in boredom and say "I want to do something new." They will open up a book--hopefully a Lone Wolf book--and begin to read and become captivated by the beauty and the terribleness of its tale of heroism.
And perhaps that will lead to a better society. Perhaps.
But probably not.