Entry updated 23 October 2023. Tagged: Game, Theme.
Many sf stories make use of this ancient Board Game of stylized War, which emerged in recognizable form in India and China by approximately the sixth century and spread westward, reaching Europe by the eleventh century. Its numerous appearances in Fantasy include Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-glass (1871), whose introduction of living chess pieces has been enormously influential, and which is structured around an eccentric chess game whose moves are usefully traced in The Annotated Alice (1960; rev 1970; exp rev 2000) by Martin Gardner. In Poul Anderson's "The Immortal Game" (February 1954 F&SF), sentient Robot pieces believe they possess free will but merely enact the moves of a classic game between masters; the same slightly forced pathos is evoked, though without specific details of moves, in Fredric Brown's closely similar "Recessional" (March 1960 Dude). John Brunner's The Squares of the City (1965) also replays a real master-game, this time with subtly manipulated humans as the chess pieces. These stories dramatize the Paranoia of being a literal pawn. Likewise, chess games played with human pieces in The Prisoner (1967-1968) are themselves innocuous but emphasize the Godgames to which the protagonist is constantly subjected. Such live chess spectacles date back to medieval times: Book V of François Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532-1552) includes an example.
Another Fantasy tradition is the symbolic chess match with Death, most famously represented in Ingmar Bergman's film The Seventh Seal (1957). This theme has often been adapted, for example in Roger Zelazny's "Unicorn Variation" (April 1981 Asimov's) – where the future of humanity depends on the game and the implacable opponent is a unicorn (see Supernatural Creatures) – and in Parody form in Terry Pratchett's Discworld sequence and Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey (1991) (see Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure). High stakes also feature in the obsessive chess-play of Barry Malzberg's Tactics of Conquest (1974), which will supposedly decide the fate of the universe. Proficiency at games more or less resembling chess is the key to advancement in the humanoid-Alien societies of Cosmic Checkmate (March 1958 Astounding as "Second Game"; exp 1962 chap dos; exp vt Second Game 1981) by Charles V de Vet and Katherine MacLean, and The Player of Games (1988) by Iain M Banks. In both these stories, a games expert from outside the society uses his special skills to subvert and disrupt it.
Queenmagic, Kingmagic (1986) by Ian Watson exuberantly develops the notion that chess pieces' long-range abilities of movement and killing are based on Psi Powers – notably Teleportation – and extends the conceit beyond the chessboard into other Virtual Reality "gamespace" regions governed by the rules of Snakes & Ladders, Monopoly and Go. A wider range of such game-move-like Superpowers, wielded by human Mutants, is systematized in considerable detail in Sheri S Tepper's True Game trilogy, which opens with King's Blood Four (1983). The child chess prodigy of Chang Shi-Kuo's Qi Wang (1975, trans Ivan David Zimmerman as Chess King 1986) assists his game skill with Precognition of the opponent's next move.
Variations on the basic game of chess, with changed rules and/or pieces and/or boards, are known to players as fairy chess. One notable sf example is jetan, played in Edgar Rice Burroughs's The Chessmen of Mars (1922); a full description of the rules is given as an appendix to the novel. "The Fairy Chessmen" (January-February 1947 Astounding; in Tomorrow and Tomorrow & The Fairy Chessmen coll 1951; vt Chessboard Planet; 1956; vt The Far Reality 1963) by Lewis Padgett (Henry Kuttner and C L Moore) revolves around the assumption (somewhat at odds with the actual practice of Mathematics) that only a fairy-chess expert accustomed to mutable rules can solve an intractable equation. The Martians of the mixed-race crew in Eric Frank Russell's Men, Martians and Machines (May 1941-October 1943 Astounding; exp as coll of linked stories 1955) are obsessive chessplayers who are keen on variety – playing, for example, with a being whose power of Hypnosis confuses the position on the board; at one point they propose their own fairy-chess variation. A later and far better known sf chess variant is the 3-D game which is played in multiple episodes of the original Star Trek (1966-1969). Chess with apparently standard rules but significantly changed names for the pieces is played in the fiercely competitive society of Donald Kingsbury's Courtship Rite (1982; vt Geta 1984)
Chess-playing Computers are of course deadly opponents. The Machine in Gibel' Shakhmat ["The Death of Chess"] (1926 chap) by Aleksandr Abramov causes dismay by defeating human grandmasters. One throwaway speculation in The Vortex Blaster (stories July 1941-October 1942 var mags; fixup 1960; vt Masters of the Vortex 1968) by E E Smith is that chess games between advanced machines will become too subtle for humans to fathom. A computer enters a grandmaster chess tournament in Fritz Leiber's "The 64-Square Madhouse" (May 1962 If). In the previous century, Ambrose Bierce's "Moxon's Master" (in Can Such Things Be?, coll 1909) features a chess Robot which ultimately murders its creator. The narrator of Lord Dunsany's Wellsian The Last Revolution (1951) receives a considerable shock on discovering that an unimpressive, crab-like Robot plays better chess than himself; the same author's "The New Master" (in The Little Tales of Smethers coll 1952) light-heartedly reprises the storyline of "Moxon's Master". The eponymous machine of Gene Wolfe's "The Marvelous Brass Chessplaying Automaton" (in Universe 7, anth 1977, ed Terry Carr) suggests a homage to the real-world fraud debunked in Edgar Allan Poe's essay "Maelzel's Chess-Player" (April 1836 Southern Literary Messenger), but ultimately proves to be driven by Psi Powers.
Another unusual player is the gifted rat who, thanks to his talent, is recognized as an equal by chess addicts in Charles L Harness's "The Chessplayers" (October 1953 F&SF). "Von Goom's Gambit" (April 1966 Chess Review) by Victor Contoski imagines a human player of such twisted mentality that the mere pattern of his titular chess opening can damage opponents' and spectators' sanity (see Basilisks).
Chess-related images and structures recur in the sf works of Gérard Klein, for example in his novel Starmaster's Gambit (1958; trans 1973). Fritz Leiber's love of chess manifested itself in several stories including "The 64-Square Madhouse" (already cited), "Knight's Move" (December 1965 Broadside; vt "Knight to Move" in The Book of Fritz Leiber, coll 1974) and "Midnight by the Morphy Watch" (July/August 1974 If). A useful anthology of sf/fantasy chess stories is Pawn to Infinity (anth 1982) edited by Fred Saberhagen with Joan Saberhagen. [DRL]
- Fred Saberhagen and Joan Saberhagen, editors. Pawn to Infinity (New York: Ace Books, 1982) [anth: pb/uncredited]
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