What Lies Beneath The Clock Tower (Margaret Killjoy)

What Lies Beneath The Clock TowerWhat Lies Beneath The Clock Tower: Being An Adventure Of Your Own Choosing is a choice-based steampunk story. “As a novel, this isn’t a novel,” writes Jim Eaton, its reviewer at fantasybookreview; and while I tend not to bother arguing labels like “novel” and “game”, I think it’s fair to say that it doesn’t present a number of features that I might ordinarily expect from a genre fantasy novel. The plot(s) are deeply odd, the protagonist hard to know and hard to relate to, the emotional scope a bit dry, the setting too whimsical ever to develop fully. During perhaps my first hour with the book, I would also have said it was not particularly successful as CYOA, full of false starts and arbitrary endings. But I’ve backed off that view a bit: I came to like it better by the time I was done mapping the story, and had had a chance to work out that it’s activist satire with a comedy steampunk gloss.

It begins with a passage about your character that would be verbose but not otherwise out of place in response to an >INVENTORY command:

At the beginning of this tale you are wearing a fashionable, if cheap, suit—complete with black wool overcoat and starched-felt bowler. You have a pocket watch on a chain. But this is no ordinary pocket watch; this pocket watch has been over-wound and is in need of repair. Your wallet is empty of money; they seem to have taken it all at the bar. In one hand you bear a simple, bronze-headed cane of stained wood, born as an affectation. In your trousers pocket you have a silver ring that you won in a game of chance, a ring you were hoping to give your lover. And, of course, you would not leave your room without an ample supply of intoxicants, which may be found in various flasks and bottles upon your person.

This beginning omits most of what one might otherwise expect of an opening, though: we don’t get much of a sense for the protagonist’s daily life or personal ambitions before he hears some thumping noises and can decide whether or not to investigate. The book, in fact, gives us not one but several options that essentially boil down to “decide not to play along with the premise of this story, and opt out of having any adventures.” It several times acknowledges this in a total destruction of the fourth wall:

“Well aren’t you an insufferable bore?” the demon asks.

“Well you see, I couldn’t go and have an adventure,” you defend yourself. “These letters, I am behind on my correspondence. What would my friends think?”

“I thought better of you, dear reader,” the furious-hell-beast says calmly. “You don’t deserve to read this book.”

This business of being a tedious letter-writing fellow who has multiple opportunities to decline to participate in the adventure — this felt to me like a cold start. It’s not quite as bad as “You wake up in bed” or “You’re in a strange location and can’t tell where you are or remember how you got there,” but it’s still an opening that gives the protagonist no momentum and little personality (other than his absinthe-based affectations) before he drops into the story.

Once we get past this opening, we find that the cipher-like protagonist is meant to be a relatively transparent lens through which we can observe a possible revolution involving three underground-dwelling races: the enslaved goblins, the enthralled but somewhat more pacified kabouters (who turn out to be genetically related to grues), and the overlord gnomes. The scenarios take us through a sequence of possible ways for the protagonist to (usually) ally himself with the goblin cause. He can join in their fight directly as a foot-soldier, which makes for a brief but generally glorious and unproblematized career. He can try to rouse the kabouters from their complicity in the regime. He can approach the gnomes directly and attempt to broker a deal more favorable to the goblins. The more the protagonist tries to take a sophisticated or nuanced approach to the problem, the more pointed the book gets, with barbs about middle-class resistance to change, thuggish policemen, condescending “enlightened” gnomes who claim to want to help the goblins but don’t respect them as persons, and so on. We encounter lines like “Never underestimate the civilized’s contempt for the tribal.” from one of the goblins, or this bit in one of the endings:

You are to be displayed as a pacifist, the most rare and least capable of nature’s creatures. You will be well fed, cared for, and drugged at your wish. But only as long as you continue to orate.

I found I liked the book more as soon as I gave up the idea that it was really about the protagonist or that I was supposed to care strongly about him as a person.

What Lies Beneath The Clock Tower branches early and then has several major strands that are roughly linear, though with judicious branch-and-rejoin segments. These correspond to the several ways you can join in the revolution. I’ve colored red endings in which you either die (whether gloriously or not) or berate yourself for non-involvement; purple endings are more mixed, and blue perhaps genuinely optimistic. (There aren’t many of those.) This is inevitably a little bit of a judgment call, so someone else mapping the story might assign these differently, but:


There are a couple of clever bits in the way the map splits and rejoins. Section 91 tells the fate of Trevor and Gu’dal — one dies, the other survives and gives you heartfelt advice about carrying on with life — but this reads very differently depending on which of them is your lover when you get there. Elsewhere, the splitting allows you to ask different conversation questions before moving forward with the same major action.

But mostly, I think, the book isn’t concerned too much with experimenting in CYOA structures, and neither is it meant to be a game or puzzle in a traditional sense. You’re mostly going to die and die and die, and that’s basically fine. To the extent that the CYOA structure is meant to be playful, it matches up with the goofy steampunk-fantasy trappings, as ways to enliven what might otherwise be a rather starchy read about the difficulty of bringing about social justice without bloodshed.

There’s an interview with the author at Tor.com, which includes this paragraph:

My favorite quote describing anarchism actually comes from Ursula K. Le Guin, from her “The Day Before The Revolution,” a story in the same timeline as her more well-known anarchist novel The Dispossessed. The quote is “[An anarchist] is one who, choosing, accepts the responsibility of choice.” And what that means to me is that both freedom—choice—and responsibility are important and what we should strive for as both individuals and as society.

The protagonist (and player) have a measure of freedom, of about the kind one would usually expect from a strict, non-gamebook physical CYOA: that is to say, a handful of choice points per readthrough. And the protagonist’s actions sometimes have consequences, though in a somewhat limited way. The author has chosen not to tell a version of the White Man Saves The Natives story. Our protagonist at most assists in a revolution that was in progress before he arrived and that involves forces beyond his understanding. But the fact of choosing is critically important, and this retroactively makes sense of the early bits of the book. When the reader opts to have the protagonist stay in his room rather than investigating the start of the story, it’s opting out of choice, avoiding responsibility at some fundamental level. Later in the story, the protagonist also has the opportunity to withdraw from the conflict, go home, resume writing the correspondence he left behind. And these withdrawals are pretty much always presented as a failure, as bad as or worse than most of the individual actions you might otherwise choose to take.

It is an argument first and foremost for engagement: that we should be present in our political lives, that we should not stand aside while other people choose, even if our contribution will be small and far from individually decisive.

7 thoughts on “What Lies Beneath The Clock Tower (Margaret Killjoy)”

  1. During perhaps my first hour with the book, I would also have said it was not particularly successful as CYOA, full of false starts and arbitrary endings. But I’ve backed off that view a bit: I came to like it better by the time I was done mapping the story, and had had a chance to work out that it’s activist satire with a comedy steampunk gloss.

    Could you expand on this? I am not certain from your review why being an activist satire somehow makes the false starts etc. work. Is it simply the aspect of ceasing to care about the fate of the protagonist?

    1. The book is partly about what is wrong with not making choices and failing to engage with things that matter. When I first encountered them, these “go write more letters” options seemed boring — why give the reader the opportunity to opt out of the story before it even gets rolling? But after I’d taken on more of the work, those options at least became a bit more thematically relevant, even if they still led nowhere.

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