Be an Interplanetary Spy!
“The Star Crystal” was an eye opener for me. I was maybe nine, when my brother borrowed it from a friend. The logic puzzles were fun (and still are), but it also introduced strange and exciting ideas.
It was my first encounter with the Moebius Strip. There was this ship called the Moebius Express where the action takes place, and yes it was shaped like a Moebius Strip! Not only was it my first encounter with the fabulous mathematical object (that I can make with paper! And therefore a project well within reach of kids), it was also my first encounter with unusual spaceship design.
When you’re nine, you think all spaceships look like ye olde rocket ships. The Moebius Express broke that mould. I realized that ships could look like anything, needles, saucers, rubber bands. Suddenly Soyuz capsules didn’t seem ugly. Other Interplanetary Spy books had ships looking like three-domed greenhouses, rolling pods, ships that looked like flying houses.
But the Moebius Express was unforgettable!
In later years I accepted the ship designs of Babylon 5 without batting an eyelid. All those exposed struts, unaerodynamic EarthForce ships, organic Vorlon and Minbari designs, and frankly Soviet-looking Narn ships. Some viewers hated it, it didn’t correspond to what they think ships look like.
It was Moebius Express that primed me for unusual ship designs.
It was a first encounter with aliens with different biological requirements and who saw the world differently. There were aquatic aliens with an underwater habitat. And while nine-year-old me was still grasping the idea that not all aliens breathed air, it turns out that, having eyes at the side of the head, the aliens saw the world differently as well. One of them transmitted a telepathic image of a corridor as he would see it and the reader had to interpret it according to how humans would see it.
Aquatic telepathic aliens with a very different view of the world due to different body shape! Mind blown! I’d like to think that it made me more tolerant of different points of view. Someone who grew up in a different environment might see things a little differently, express the same thing in different words, or use the same words to mean different things.
Also, don’t judge an alien just because you don’t understand what he’s saying.
There were optical illusions galore because a sculptor on board uses a… Warp Chisel! One “bad ending” has the sculptor accidentally using the chisel on you with picturesque results. My first introduction to optical illusions.
The robot designs were simultaneously interesting and simple enough that I would try to draw them (they’re boxes and spheres stuck together). It helped me to draw people later on when I realized that artists used figures like those robots to start with. It also made me realize that robots didn’t have to be symmetrical.
It was also my introduction to the multi-path adventure books that were so popular in the 1980s: Choose Your Own Adventure, Fighting Fantasy, GrailQuest, Lone Wolf, Ninja!
Choose Your Own Adventure seemed a bit limited and I soon left it. The other books, especially the GrailQuest series had me rolling dice for hours.
Unfortunately the Interplanetary Spy series is out of print, and I had to find some scan-pdf for my nostalgia strip. Indeed the whole multi-path adventure book genre seems to have petered out. Had to cheat one of the puzzles, it involved folding the corner of one page and joining the illustrations of one page with another. How am I supposed to do that with a pdf on my phone?
The Star Crystal is a favourite among old Interplanetary Spies and widely regarded as the best of the books. (On the opposite side, Robot Rebellion was pretty bad). And to my pleasure, upon finding an online copy, it’s just as good 30 years on as it was then.
Not all childhood revisits are happy. I watched The Flight of Dragons and The Last Unicorn and they were actually quite awful. Whoever wrote dialog like that? Re-reading Treasure Island? How stupid were those pirates once they got on the Island! But the Interplanetary Spy series seems to be just as fresh as it was 30 years ago.
Well, apart from some blocky drawings meant to imitate computer graphics in some of the books. Computer games really were blocky back then and it made the book seem cutting edge and computer-ish. Now it’s just silly.