Thursday, 23 April 2009

Breaking out of the game

A recommendation: Ian Watson's Queenmagic, Kingmagic (Grafton, 1988, ISBN-10: 0586074147), which Felix just lent me (I re-used the Flammarion woodcut as this is another conceptual breakthrough novel).

An expanded version of Watson's novella Queenmagic, Pawnmagic, it tells the story of Pedino, a "pawn-squire" in a world modelled on chess. Two kingdoms, Bellogard and Chorny, are locked in a centuries-long battle fought by assassination and counter-assassination among the few important individuals (kings, queens, knights, and so on) who have powers of magical teleportation and attack. The story initially follows Pedino's schooling in Bellogard, his elevation to a role in the battle, and his liaison with Sara, a young prostitute who is a spy for Chorny, but it then takes a more cosmic turn. Both sides know that the end of the war is the end of their world, and both have vague awareness of previous cycles of existence; this is leading a few mystics and academics to look for ways to break out of that cycle.

Eventually Pedino finds a way to jump with Sara into other realities based on other games: one world where snakes and ladders provide portals to enclaves of higher and lower standards of living; another based on Monopoly, where society is based on a lethal property ladder run by lottery; and a third, in which soldiers and civilians are muddling through during confused movements of military encampments, based on the scoring stage of Go. Finally he finds himself in a new cycle of existence of the Bellogard-Chorny war, his options cramped by elevation to ineffectual kingship, but with sufficient acquired knowledge to guide more focused efforts to break through the "bubbles" into other planes of existence.

I enjoyed Queenmagic, Kingmagic a lot, with some reservations; it does go on fast-forward toward the end, and some parts I suspect wouldn't be widely understood. Recognising the Russian in-jokes in proper names is a bonus - for instance, Bishop Slon = Bishop Elephant, referring to the piece's form prior to Westernisation. That's not crucial (though I'd like to know what exactly Watson meant by the repeated incantation "Opasnost po Zhivot!" which transliterates as "Опасность по живот" - "Peril to stomach". Maybe flank attack?). However, while most readers know chess at least theoretically, fewer will know Go, much less recognise the troop movements in that section of the book as a description of the rearrangement of stones during the scoring phase). But overall it's great fun, and manages to stay fresh and witty despite the fairly dark scenario of characters fighting the dissolution of their universe.

Queenmagic, Kingmagic obviously isn't the first fiction to be set inside a chess game; the best-known prototype is Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (Gutenberg EText-No. 12). 1 whose story is integrated with a real chess problem (see Gardner's classic concordance The Annotated Alice) though one that contains illegal moves. There's a detailed analysis in Glen Robert Downey's PhD dissertation The Truth about Pawn Promotion: the Development of the Chess Motif in Victorian Fiction which is very worth reading for its exploration of the long history, pre-Carroll, of allegorical chess motifs in Western fiction. In mediaeval times, a succession of authors wrote "chess moralities" that mapped the roles of pieces map on to the real-world hierarchy to morally instructive intent: for instance, John of Wales' Quaedam moralitas de scaccario per Innocentium papum (The Innocent Morality) and Jacobus de Cessolis' Liber de moribus hominum et officiis nobilium (see Power play: the literature and politics of chess in the Late Middle Ages, Jenny Adams, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006, ISBN 081223944X). The drift of such works was generally to reinforce conventional moralities, often via edifying pseudo-origins to the game, but later, Middleton's play A Game at Chess took a more subversive stance and used the chess format for political satire.

Post-Carroll, chess continued to be a popular theme for fiction, particularly science fiction; Poul Anderson's The Immortal Game (F&SF, 1954) is also worth finding for its vivid insider view of a chess game:

The first trumpet sounded far and clear and brazen cold, and Rogard the Bishop stirred to wakefulness with it. Lifting his eyes, he looked through the suddenly rustling, murmuring line of soldiers, out across the broad plain of Cinnabar and the frontier, and over to the realm of LEUKAS. Away there, across the somehow unreal red-and-black distances of the steppe, he saw sunlight flash on armor and caught the remote wild flutter of lifted banners. So it is war, he thought. So we must fight again.

Again? He pulled his mind from the frightening dimness of that word. Had they ever fought before?

(The title and plot refer to the classic "Immortal Game" played between Anderssen and Kieseritzky in 1851, famous for Anderssen's win by audacious sacrifice of major pieces. The final moves of the same game are quoted in the game between Sebastian and Tyrell in Blade Runner).

The Greenwood encyclopedia of science fiction and fantasy: themes, works, and wonders has more examples of this theme.

Ongoing: I recommend A haphazard way to move through life and treasure... at The Growlery, which has further recommendations (that I second) for the works of Ian Watson. Felix mentions that he "personally liked the Go section, finding it the most evocative of the whole book", and I can see why: it is the most realistic depiction of the human condition, akin to the age-old situation of refugees, airdropped supplies haphazardly, being shuffled around between temporary encampments in furtherance of a war whose tactics are indiscernable. I just didn't think it a wise choice of game given - at the time - its relative obscurity (outside cognoscenti) to a Western readership. Now, Internet accessibility, through IGS Pandanet for instance, has greatly increased its player base.

Go itself does have a considerable role in literature and art. Although the absence of identifiable special pieces doesn't lend it to personification in the style of chess, it has attracted a large body of philosophy in relation to war, business, and life in general (the two stone colours map readily on to the yin and yang of Taoism). I'll leave that aside mostly - except to recommend Japanese Prints and the World of Go, by William Pinckard, for its nice overview of its omnipresence in Edo period depictions of legend and everyday life - and move to the narrower field of its manifestation in Western fiction. Go in Western literature, by Brian ‘Chiwito’ McDonald, is a slightly out-of-date but still pertinent commentary on the relatively few Western works to feature Go in a major role. Iain Banks is mentioned (I'd forgotten that his Walking on Glass contained a number of variants on board games) along with Ian Watson, as well as a number of other familiar faces: some members of the aforementioned Oulipo were into Go. McDonald also debunks the common belief that Hermann Hesse's The Glass Bead Game is about - or even inspired by - Go, explaining how Hesse's game isn't physical, and even in its historical form within the book's mythos, used a wire-and-bead system unlike Go.

Oh, I've just recalled too that Katin in Nova knows about Go, but then he would.

And lights dimmed.

The captain hooked in. The grafitti, the scars on the walls, vanished. There were only the red lights chasing one another on the ceiling.

"A shook up go game," Katin said, "with iridescent stones."

Addendum, Friday 28th August The Guardian Books Blog has a piece by Stuart Evers, Why chess is a perfect game for fiction, which recommends the anthology of chess stories, The 64-Square Looking Glass: Great Games of Chess in World Literature (Burt Hochberg, Times Books, 1993, ISBN-10: 0812919297).
- Ray

1. Alice Through the Looking-Glass is a common misnomer.
2. Also worth looking at for Go and the 'Three Games', which explores the idea of three region-related philosophical subtexts to historically classic games: the Middle Eastern backgammon as Fate-dominated; chess playing out the "great myths of the West ... the overthrow of a hero and the crowning of a new hero ... a hierarchical and pyramidal society with powers strictly defined and limited", and the Eastern Go representing processes of pure mentation. Maybe - but this reeks of national stereotype, and ignores that chess - as shogi - is also highly traditional and highly popular in Japan, and that backgammon has been extremely popular in England and Europe: Chambers's Information for the People: A Popular Encyclopaedia, 1854, said of it:

the game has been long established in the country; and, as a fireside amusement of a decorous and exciting nature, is a favourite among clergymen, squires, farmers, and retired professional persons.


  1. What's that? A book opening that makes prominent use of the rook?

  2. I like rule #3:

    3. Do not meddle with the nature of causality.

    "Agnes Nitt who wondered how he could play an organ." Well, yes. Of course. One always wonders. [1]


    [1] "he could screw a man's head off with his feet" [<--- footnote]