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22 Games of Chess in Fantasy and Science Fiction

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The game of kings is a mainstay of science fiction and fantasy. Sometimes it’s on screen or on the page, and sometimes it’s indirect—an influencing factor in the lives of authors and filmmakers. Here are 22 famous examples of chess in fantasy and science fiction.

1. Star Wars

Wookieepedia

The only rule I really know about Dejarik holochess is that it’s best to let the Wookiee win. But this being science fiction and all, there are elaborate rules for the holographic pieces fighting on a circular board.

2. Harry Potter

Hermione Granger thinks wizard’s chess is “totally barbaric.” Thankfully for everyone involved, Ron Weasley was a pretty good player, and eventually leads giant pieces into battle while chasing down the Sorcerer’s Stone (or Philosopher’s Stone. Pick your poison).

3. Star Trek

Chessblog.com

Kirk and Spock famously spar over the tri-dimensional chessboard in the original Star Trek series. My guess is that some prop designer thought it might look neat, and that in the future we’d have all memorized the 10^50^50 number of moves possible in a standard game of chess. Star Trek fans just couldn’t leave it alone, though, and we ended up with this.

4. Fallout

Fallout wiki

Not even a nuclear apocalypse can end the madness that is chess, as evidenced in the video game Fallout. One particularly avid player is ZAX 1.2, a supercomputer.

5. WarGames

Linkmachinego.com

If only Matthew Broderick had listened to the computer and played a nice game of chess, a lot of headaches might have been avoided. Instead, after hacking into NORAD, he decides to play something called Global Thermonuclear War, and almost starts a global thermonuclear war.

6. 2001: A Space Odyssey

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An early hint that HAL 9000 might be losing his mind is revealed during a chess game against Dr. Frank Poole. "I'm sorry Frank,” says HAL, “I think you missed it: queen to bishop three, bishop takes queen, knight takes bishop, mate." HAL is, of course, mistaken. Queen to bishop 3 is an illegal move on the board in question; the correct move would have been queen to bishop 6. A devoted chess player like Stanley Kubrick would have known that. It’s almost inconceivable that with his famous attention to detail he’d have missed it.

7. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

Wikipedia

In Michael Chabon’s novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, a chess player is murdered, with a presumably unfinished game of chess left at the scene of the crime. Or is it unfinished? Dun-dun-DUNNNNN.

8. Unsound Variations

SFRevu

In Dreamsongs, an anthology of short stories, George R.R. Martin writes about the repercussions of a missed sacrificing attack during a collegiate chess tournament. Martin, for his part, is a Life Member of the U.S. Chess Federation.

9. Deep Thought

Movies Era

In Douglas Adams’s novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a powerful supercomputer named Deep Thought is built to find the ultimate answer to life, the universe, and everything. It makes perfect sense, then, that when IBM engineers built a powerful chess computer in 1989, they borrowed the name. Former world chess champion Garry Kasparov bested Deep Thought in both games of their match.

10. Through the Looking-Glass

Wikipedia

Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass is based on a game of chess, with characters often represented as pieces, and scenes as squares on a board. Alice is, of course, a pawn; if she makes it to the eighth rank, she will become a queen.

11. Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey

After Bill and Ted are killed, the Grim Reaper promises to resurrect them if they can beat him in a game of chess. They opt for Battleship, Twister, and Clue.

12. Nightfall

Wikipedia

In Isaac Asimov’s Nightfall, a multiplayer chess variation is played that makes tri-dimensional chess seem reserved. “The men about the table had brought out a multi-chess board and started a six-member game. Moves were made rapidly and in silence. All eyes bent in furious concentration on the board.”

13. 1984

Goodreads

Syme, who works for the Ministry of Truth and is helping write the next edition of the Newspeak dictionary, is on Oceania’s chess committee. Winston knows that Syme has been vaporized when the latter’s name is quietly removed from the committee roster. “It looked almost exactly as it had looked before—nothing had been crossed out—but it was one name shorter. It was enough. Syme had ceased to exist: he had never existed.”

14. The Tempest

Wikimedia Commons

In the final scene of Shakespeare’s romance The Tempest, Ferdinand is found to be playing a game of chess against Miranda. Chess is an important symbol in the play. Prospero has moved the characters around his island much like a chess player might move pieces. Likewise, Prospero is, in a way, trying to capture a king—Ferdinand’s father, Alonso.

15. The Chessmen of Mars

Encyclopedia Barsoomia

Edgar Rice Burroughs was an avid chess player, going so far as to invent his own variant, called Jetan, in his 1922 novel The Chessmen of Mars.

16. Unicorn Variations

Wikipedia

Here’s how Unicorn Variations came about: author Roger Zelazny was asked to contribute to two different anthologies. One anthology asked for a story featuring a unicorn. The other anthology wanted a story set in a bar. Zelazny’s friend, George R.R. Martin, mentioned a third anthology with a chess theme, and suggested that he save himself a lot of work and just write a story about a unicorn playing chess at a bar. Zelazny went on to win a Hugo for the story.

17. The Seventh Seal

The Telegraph

In the 1957 Ingmar Bergman film The Seventh Seal, a knight challenges Death to a game of chess as a way of delaying his own demise. This film totally ripped off Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey.

18. X-Men

Screenrant

At the very end of the first X-Men movie (the only good one), Professor X and Magneto play a game of chess. The pieces are, of course, made of glass.

19. Superman II

YourChess.net

In Superman II, Lex Luthor creates a hologram of himself playing chess, and uses it as a distraction for him to escape prison. Had Michael Bolton actually gone to a minimum-security prison in Office Space, he probably would have thought of this plot device and used it to make his own escape.

20. Jason and the Argonauts

jackveasey.blogspot.com

In the 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts, the unfolding tale of Jason’s pursuit of the Golden Fleece is depicted as a chess game between Zeus and Hera.

21. Discworld

Wikipedia

In Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, the Ankh-Morpork Assassins' Guild plays a variation of chess called Stealth Chess. Two files, one on each side, widen the chessboard and these squares—called “the Slurk”—are colored red and white (as opposed to black and white). Only one piece moves on the Slurk: the assassin.

22. Blade Runner

itsvery.net

Tyrell and Sebastian play a game of chess in Blade Runner. It’s based on “the Immortal Game,” a very real and celebrated 1851 game between Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzky, in which Anderssen sacrifices his major pieces in order to checkmate Kieseritzky with minor ones.

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12 Facts About Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness
George C. Beresford/Getty Images
George C. Beresford/Getty Images

Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella about venturing into the moral depths of colonial Africa is among the most frequently analyzed literary works in college curricula.

1. ENGLISH WAS THE AUTHOR’S THIRD LANGUAGE.

It’s impressive enough that Conrad wrote a book that has stayed relevant for more than a century. This achievement seems all the more impressive when considering that he wrote it in English, his third language. Born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in 1857, Conrad was a native Polish speaker. French was his second language. He didn’t even know any English—the language of his literary composition—until age 21.

2. HEART OF DARKNESS BEGINS AND ENDS IN THE UK.

Though it recounts Marlow's voyage through Belgian Congo in search of Kurtz and is forever linked to the African continent, Conrad’s novella begins and ends in England. At the story’s conclusion, the “tranquil waterway” that “seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness” is none other than the River Thames.

3. THE PROTAGONIST MARLOW IS CONRAD.

The well-traveled Marlow—who appears in other Conrad works, such as Lord Jim—is based on his equally well-traveled creator. In 1890, 32-year-old Conrad sailed the Congo River while serving as second-in-command on a Belgian trading company steamboat. As a career seaman, Conrad explored not only the African continent but also ventured to places ranging from Australia to India to South America.

4. LIKE KURTZ AND MARLOW, CONRAD GOT SICK ON HIS VOYAGE.

Illness claimed Kurtz, an ivory trader who has gone mysteriously insane. It nearly claimed Marlow. And these two characters almost never existed, owing to their creator’s health troubles. Conrad came down with dysentery and malaria in Belgian Congo, and afterwards had to recuperate in the German Hospital, London, before heading to Geneva, Switzerland, to undergo hydrotherapy. Though he survived, Conrad suffered from poor health for many years afterward.

5. THERE HAVE BEEN MANY ALLEGED KURTZES IN REAL LIFE.

The identity of the person on whom Conrad based the story’s antagonist has aroused many a conjecture. Among those suggested as the real Kurtz include a French agent who died on board Conrad’s steamship, a Belgian colonial officer, and Welsh explorer Henry Morton Stanley.

6. COLONIZING WAS ALL THE RAGE WHEN HEART OF DARKNESS APPEARED.

Imperialism—now viewed as misguided, oppressive, and ruthless—was much in vogue when Conrad’s novella hit shelves. The "Scramble for Africa" had seen European powers stake their claims on the majority of the continent. Britain’s Queen Victoria was even portrayed as the colonies' "great white mother." And writing in The New Review in 1897, adventurer Charles de Thierry (who tried and failed to establish his own colony in New Zealand) echoed the imperialistic exuberance of many with his declaration: “Since the wise men saw the star in the East, Christianity has found no nobler expression.”

7. CHINUA ACHEBE WAS NOT A FAN OF THE BOOK.

Even though Conrad was no champion of colonialism, Chinua Achebe—the Nigerian author of Things Fall Apart and other novels—delivered a 1975 lecture called “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” that described Conrad as a “thoroughgoing racist” and his ubiquitous short classic as “an offensive and deplorable book.” However, even Achebe credited Conrad for having “condemned the evil of imperial exploitation.” And others have recognized Heart of Darkness as an indictment of the unfairness and barbarity of the colonial system.

8. THE BOOK WASN’T SUCH A BIG DEAL—AT FIRST.

In 1902, three years after its initial serialization in a magazine, Heart of Darkness appeared in a volume with two other Conrad stories. It received the least notice of the three. In fact, not even Conrad himself considered it a major work. And during his lifetime, the story “received no special attention either from readers or from Conrad himself,” writes Gene M. Moore in the introduction to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness: A Casebook. But Heart of Darkness managed to ascend to immense prominence in the 1950s, after the planet had witnessed “the horror”—Kurtz's last words in the book—of WWII and the ramifications of influential men who so thoroughly indulged their basest instincts.

9. T.S. ELIOT BORROWED AN IMPORTANT LINE.

Though Heart of Darkness wasn’t an immediate sensation, it evidently was on the radar of some in the literary community. The famous line announcing the antagonist’s demise, “Mistah Kurtz—he dead,” serves as the epigraph to the 1925 T.S. Eliot poem “The Hollow Men.”

10. THE STORY INSPIRED APOCALYPSE NOW.

Eighty years after Conrad’s novella debuted, the Francis Ford Coppola film Apocalypse Now hit the big screen. Though heavily influenced by Heart of Darkness, the movie’s setting is not Belgian Congo, but the Vietnam War. And though the antagonist (played by Marlon Brando) is named Kurtz, this particular Kurtz is no ivory trader, but a U.S. military officer who has become mentally unhinged.

11. HEART OF DARKNESS HAS BEEN MADE INTO AN OPERA.

Tarik O'Regan’s Heart of Darkness, an opera in one act, opened in 2011. Premiering at London’s Royal Opera House, it was reportedly the first operatic adaptation of Conrad’s story and heavily inspired by Apocalypse Now.

12. THE BOOK ALSO SPARKED A VIDEO GAME.

In a development not even Conrad’s imagination could have produced, his classic inspired a video game, Spec Ops: The Line, which was released in 2012.

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Design
A Cartographer Is Mapping All of the UK’s National Parks, J.R.R. Tolkien-Style
Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park
Dan Bell

Cartographer Dan Bell makes national parks into fantasy lands. Bell, who lives near Lake District National Park in England, is currently on a mission to draw every national park in the UK in the style of the maps in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Kottke.org reports.

The project began in September 2017, when Bell posted his own hand-drawn version of a Middle Earth map online. He received such a positive response that he decided to apply the fantasy style to real world locations. He has completed 11 out of the UK’s 15 parks so far. Once he finishes, he hopes to tackle the U.S. National Park system, too. (He already has Yellowstone National Park down.)

Bell has done various other maps in the same style, including ones for London and Game of Thrones’s Westeros, and he commissions, in case you have your own special locale that could use the Tolkien treatment. Check out a few of his park maps below.

A close-up of a map for Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park in central England
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Cairngorms National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Cairngorms National Park in Scotland
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Lake District National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Lake District National Park in England
Dan Bell

You can buy prints of the maps here.

[h/t Kottke.org]

All images by Dan Bell

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