When I was about 10 years old, I discovered a curious book in my local bookstore. It had a mean looking dinosaur on the front cover, which I immediately identified as a Tyrannosaurus Rex – I was that kind of kid (mind you, that was way before Jurassic Park, when liking dinosaurs was still the mark of being a colossal nerd). I got excited because the book looked like it was a story – not just a popular science volume – revolving around dinosaurs. My excitement grew when I found out that I could influence the story by taking decisions at certain key moments! I bought the book, headed home and finished my first game book that same day.
For some reasons, I never read many game books and the big titles like Lone Wolf and Fighting Fantasy never caught my eye – perhaps because I wasn’t really into fantasy at the time, being more a sci-fi kind of guy, or perhaps because the bookshops I frequented didn’t carry them. However, I did read several volumes of a series called Time Machine, translated as Merlins Zeitmaschine into German. Search for Dinosaurs (Im Land der Ungeheuer) was the second book of the series. The premise was that you were a time traveller looking for proof that birds evolved from dinosaurs by finding and observing an Archaeopteryx. I liked the concept of a game book and enjoyed the story very much. There was even a clever meta episode hidden somewhere: You can meet another time traveller and accidentally accompany him jumping into the present – where you end up in a bookstore, as the other guy hadn’t bought his book! The clerk makes you pay for the book again and throws you out, so you have to start all over again.
I later bought all the other volumes of the series that were available in German. There was a medieval one, one with Samurai and one taking place in the age of pirates. And then there was this:
The cover is a bit wacky, with the sinister looking Rebel and his strangely positioned tiny cannon, but this is the book that sparked my interest in the American Civil War. However, despite the title, most of the story of Civil War Secret Agent (Spion im Bürgerkrieg) actually takes place a bit earlier. Your mission is to investigate the fate of a slave named Thomas Dean. You have to join the Underground Railroad and meet Harriet Tubman to achieve that goal. In between, you also visit several key events of the Civil War.
When I recently re-read the book, I was surprised about how much it teaches about slavery, abolitionism and the Civil War. There’s none of that revisionist Neo-Confederate nonsense in there. Telling the story from the perspectives of the fugitive slaves make it abundantly clear that slavery was at the core of the war, that the South was a society based upon that institution and that there was nothing noble about the Confederate cause.
However, at the time, what really stayed in my memory was this image:
It’s the battle of Hampton Roads! In the book you end up on the USS Minnesota and witness the fight between the Monitor and the Virginia. I remember gazing at the image, fascinated by the strange shape of the ships. When I had finished the book, I immediately got a popular history book on the American Civil War from my library.
The Time Machine books were a key contribution in establishing my love of history. Even more, they also laid the foundation for my love of role-playing games and perhaps even for wargames.
Several of the Time Machine series of books are available in English as pdfs from ANNARCHIVE