Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 175: Fritz Leiber, Knight to Move (#153)

Fritz Leiber, "Knight to Move" (1965):

Here's a slice-of-life-during-wartime story that you could only really tell in the context of an on-going serial project. "Knight to Move" is a Change War story, which Fritz Leiber introduced in 1958, with The Big Time and several other stories (about 10 or 11) that introduced us to the time-traveling war between the Snakes and the Spiders. So by 1965, Leiber could be free to skip the epic war set-up and jump into a small story about a war that's almost more of an excuse for him to lay out some theory about games.

Here's the short version of this small story: a Spider agent and a Snake agent meet on a neutral planet, which is holding several game tournaments: a chess tournament, a backgammon-like game tournament, and a bridge tournament. The Snake agent survives an assassination attempt and then realizes the Spiders plan to take over this neutral planet--and so she warns the Spider agent that the Snakes have a similar plan. And we're back to perfect stalemate again.

As I said, it's a small story, with very little action--someone steps out of the way of a homing assassination missile--and a lot of explanatory dialogue. Except this dialogue isn't just clumsy world-building. Most of it is focused on the way that games can be divided into three categories: track games where there's no branching (backgammon, Monopoly, etc.); two dimensional games where the whole board is open (chess, checkers, etc.); and counter games like card games.

That dialogue leads us to the Snake agent's revelation that there's something very spider-like about chess and other board games: the board is set up like a web; and the most interesting figure--the knight--has a very spider-like set of eight possible moves... which means that chess is so widely known in the universe because it's part of the Spiders' plan. Which means that this big chess tournament on this neutral planet is actually prelude to an attack by the Spiders. Like I said, not a lot happens externally, and this internal revelation is probably the biggest moment of the story.

And it also sets up the Snake agent's counter-warning to the Spider agent: board games may be Spider's, but track games are Snake-like. So the backgammon tournament here is actually made up of Snake soldiers ready to take over the neutral planet or fight off a Spider take-over attempt. And so that perfect stalemate relies on the clever idea that there are only a few categories of games that mimic snakes and spiders.

If you know Leiber's bio, you know he was a big fan of chess, so this story can seem like an excuse for him to play with the idea of chess. (Though it does raise the question of what faction is represented by that third category of game.) But there's the usual Leiber wit and fun to make this light story go down easily, everything from the idea of the truce and game-state between two warring factions (whose real goals beyond war remain mysterious) to the fun Leiber has with names and language (the Snake agent's last name is Spider-like Weaver, while the German Spider agent slips into German occasionally).

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