The 64-Square Madhouse

Somebody in the bar was droning on about those animated chess pieces in the first Harry Potter book (or film), and I wouldn't have objected if they hadn't called it a jolly original idea. That's the sort of thing that sets your columnist going. After mentioning the jolly original living chessmen in Alice Through The Looking Glass, I smugly pointed out the quite stupefyingly original self-playing magic chess set in a 14th-century Welsh legend from the Mabinogion. Crushed, the Potter fan informed me that I needed to get out of the house more, and I got my coat. That is, my anorak.

At least this stopped me babbling about chess games played with live, human pieces, as in that cult TV favourite The Prisoner and (oops, here we go again) in Book V of Rabelais's bawdy 16th-century fantasy epic Gargantua And Pantagruel. Not a lot of people wanted to know that.

All the same, chess fascinates SF writers. Certain stories – perhaps I should issue a spoiler warning here – are patterned on classic games between real-life chess masters. One is Poul Anderson's "The Immortal Game" from 1954, in which the computerized pieces don't know they're merely acting out old moves, and develop various strange delusions involving free will, loyalty, melodrama, and purple prose.

More interesting is John Brunner's underrated novel The Squares Of The City (1965). This begins with the SF idea of social engineering via manipulation of traffic flow in an imaginary Latin American city. Rather than openly bulldoze the slums and shanties where political undesirables live (this is all very 21st-century, isn't it?), the traffic-analyst hero is commissioned to rearrange transport patterns so these urban sinkholes will be "naturally" swept away. It becomes a complicated game of modern progressives against stubborn peasantry, white against black, and proves to be very literally a chess-game played on the squares of the city. Ingenious and rather chilling.

Ian Watson is always strong on ingenuity, and his light-hearted Queenmagic, Kingmagic explains the moves and striking powers of the humanlike chessmen as psychic talents. Not content with being put back in the box until the next game, the Watson characters learn how to penetrate into other kinds of "gamespace", such as the worlds of Snakes and Ladders, Monopoly and Go. Finally they make it into our own reality ...

Chess games for enormous stakes are surprisingly common in folklore. Fairies, it seems, were notorious chess hustlers who'd let an unsuspecting human sucker win the first two games before moving in for the kill. Fairy chess, however, has nothing to do with fairies but means chess with variant rules. The best known SF example is the 3-D chess in Star Trek. Forty-odd years before that, Edgar Rice Burroughs gave full rules for jetan, or Martian chess, in his Barsoom adventure The Chessmen Of Mars.

The symbolic chess game with Death in The Seventh Seal is famous, and every Discworld fan knows that Terry Pratchett's Death dislikes such encounters because he can never remember how the knight moves. Barry Malzberg's typically paranoid, obsessive SF novel Tactics Of Conquest raises the stakes even higher: "You mean we're truly going to play for the fate of the universe?" "Exactly."

Let's not bother with mere passing appearances in SF, like the video chess with HAL in 2001 (Clarke wanted a pentomino game but Kubrick insisted on something more recognizable). My candidate for the genre's most gruelling chess match is Chapter 11 of Beyond The Void by that master of padding, Lionel Fanthorpe. This wondrously awful novel retells The Tempest as SF, and while Shakespeare disposed of his young lovers' game in just a few lines, Fanthorpe was made of sterner stuff. Eleven pages of small print record and annotate every move, and even I can't bring myself to quote the full, interminable description of the checkmate position. There are things which our puny minds were not meant to comprehend.

Such terrors include Victor Contoski's delirious story "Von Goom's Gambit". Warped chess genius Von Goom devises an opening whose mere pattern on the board brings convulsions, insanity or death to his opponents. Spectators are turned to stone. It takes the combined efforts of the world's finest chess masters to defeat Von Goom's Gambit. Their counter-strategy, though brilliant, is unorthodox and may bend the rules a little. They shoot him.

David Langford pinched this column's title from a chess story by the late great Fritz Leiber.