Across From Her Dead Father, Chess, the Roaring Twenties

In a steam-driven Victorian England, war is not fought with massed armies, but rather with duels between specialized combatants for the fate of a nation. This is the idea behind “Checkmate”, my contribution to Rhonda Parrish’s Clockwork, Curses and Coal and now available.

I would wear those glasses every day if they came back in style….

The game of chess has a history that seems a fairy tale itself. Evidence suggests it emerged from the royal courts of India around 1,400 years ago and traveled along the Silk Road into Persia. As Islamic conquests absorbed the remnants of the Sassanid Empire, the popularity of chess exploded, and when worlds collided during the Crusades it continued its journey across battle-lines into Europe, where its pieces adopted the now-familiar shapes of rook and knight and pawn. It became the strategy game of the west, and has enjoyed an unending popularity as other board games of the past fell into obscurity.

My father taught me chess when I was very young; I still recall the wonder evoked by handcrafted wooden chess pieces which had passed to him from his father. They suggested tales of wonder, and when I wasn’t learning the game’s rules I was creating adventures with the pieces… noble knights escorting queen and king into valleys of plastic dinosaurs to face an opposing army. (Alas, I never did formalize the rules of Dinosaur Chess.)

Chess was further stoked in my imagination by the famous scenes in Through the Looking Glass, where Alice sees the little pieces come alive, and later interacts which such iconic personas as the Red Queen.

The idea of war being settled by living chess pieces occurred to me many years ago, and I made a primitive attempt at writing the tale. Back then (banging out the story on my Brother 11 typewriter) I set the action in the far future, where the combatants are cybernetically enhanced individuals restricted to specific hexes on a lunar surface. I never got around to finishing it, but the story’s was built around a duel between a Knight and an enemy Rook.

Many years later, the idea reemerged (as ideas tend to do). This time, I felt more prepared to take it on (I wasn’t ten years old anymore, after all), though I did elect to shift the genre from cyberpunk to its more gentlemanly and far better dressed cousin: steampunk.

And for some reason, that did the trick. The story seemed ready-made for the Victorian steampunk conceits of “civilized warfare for a civilized age,” as one of the characters observes. The main character is Edward Oakshott, a scandalous Byronic hero who finds himself fighting for London… a contest which will pit him against the terrifying, barely-human combatant known as the Rook. Of course, there’s a good deal more going on, but I won’t spoil anything for readers.

Suffice to say that there are ample clockwork gadgets, curses of nightmarish technology, and coal-driven abominations to be found within. And chess!


Speaking of recently published stories:

“He lowers his drink and grins, the foamy white moustache providing a brief glimpse into what he might look like if alive today, part Santa Claus, part Mark Twain.”

This month, my flash piece “Across From Her Dead Father in an Airport Bar” is published in Flash Fiction Online. This is a kind of prequel to “The Memorybox Vultures” in that it introduces the technology which makes it possible for the deceased to communicate with us today.

And the thing is, that technology isn’t far-fetched in the slightest. I fully expect that there are people today who are preparing their infomorphic identities for survival beyond death.


With 2020 in the rearview mirror, we are now officially in the decade of the Twenties. I’m a fan of the last go-around, with Fitzgerald (I always prefer him over Hemingway) and all the wonder of the Lost Generation (I am Generation X, after all, and feel a certain kinship) along with the passion and excitement of the Roaring Jazz Age. I even adore the fashions, and of course remain a longtime devotee of the pulps that decade produced.

It’s no secret that I’m not an optimist, but I will concede that this new decade will yield some extraordinarily optimistic things. 

For starters, we are on the cusp of a brave new space age. Buried amid all the politics, last year we scooped material off an asteroid, saw multiple countries go to the moon, and launched missions to Mars. The sheer activity and scope of participants is unprecedented. I also think there’s a sporting chance we find compelling evidence for extraterrestrial life (I’m looking at you, phosphine-on-Venus and methane-on-Mars). 

We’re also perched on the doorstep of a Golden Age in medical advancement. Last year we made progress in folding proteins. MRNA vaccines are now a reality and have revolutionized our response to pandemics. Advancements in CRISPR will address a spectrum of genetic diseases and new treatments for cancer (something that mRNA is already doing, by the way).

Transportation is about to be changed forever by self-driving cars. Augmented reality will be a daily reality (I have yet to play Half Life: Alyx but I’ve seen enough to know that this is what I want.) Telemedicine is here to stay.

Even food will radically transform. There is every indication that lab-grown meat will become a visible and much needed presence in the marketplace, which will begin to abolish the absolute horrors of factory farming. Food-printers are also on the way, but probably not until the ’30s.

But just in case anyone thinks I had too much sugar today, my optimistic forecast doesn’t ignore several dark clouds. Our social media hygiene will continue to be terrible. QAnon and related conspiracy theories will metastasize into a religion. Pseudoscience isn’t going anywhere. We will persist in allowing ourselves to be vectors for disinformation brokers, and online mobs will remain the rampaging Visigoths that they are today.

And the COVID-19 variants are out there, grimly nipping at the heels of our advances.

But that’s enough optimism for one day.

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