Escape Artists

News:

  • Congratulations to the winners of the Podcastle flash fiction contest!

News

Congratulations to the winners of the Podcastle flash fiction contest!

Author Topic: EP466: Checkmate  (Read 8391 times)

eytanz

  • Moderator
  • *****
  • Posts: 6109
on: October 26, 2014, 01:47:04 AM
EP466: Checkmate

By Briant Trent

Read by Mat Weller

This story has not been previously published
---

The black steamrotor chugged noisily beneath the maze of damp brick arches, cutting a frothy wake in the underground canal.  Edward Oakshott stood rigidly at the bow, leaning against his silver cane. The dank stink of London’s forgotten netherworld perspirated over the vessel’s wood, the humidity visibly beading like a spate of glassy insect eyes on the many green lamplights they passed.  Edward drummed his fingers against one clammy hand.  His sense of direction, precise as his fashionable gold pocketwatch, reckoned they must be passing directly below the evening crowd at Charing Cross’ Hungerford Market.

Yet he wondered at their boatman’s skill in navigating these dark, labyrinthine channels.  How often were customers ferried to Thoth’s subterranean bazaar?  Edward grinned in nervous anticipation and peered from beneath the rim of his hat at the constellation of green lamps marking the canal’s many twists and turns.

“We shall be late if this continues,” Sophia Westbury said behind him.  Her folded parasol looked like a pale sword against her shoulder. “Really, Edward, was there no earlier date you could meet him?  It had to wait until the very eve of war?”

“The party shall wait for me.”

“It will be a scandal,” Sophia said, though her bell-like voice belied the smile on her lips.  Edward was already the scandal of the decade. Chessmen were synonymous with shadowy, secret shufflings in the night; living legends who could be your banker, teacher, butcher, parent, or carriage driver during times of peace.  Edward’s public antics had shocked Europe into a buzzing hive.

Sophia sighed and looped her arm round his.  “What do you know about this Thoth?  Any man who dwells like a spider beneath London, spinning mechanical webs beyond the Ministry’s sight…”  She shivered.  “I feel like Faustus!”

“Henry sent a Bishop here last autumn, darling, the one who defended Cornwall.  If Henry says Thoth is trustworthy, that is good enough for me.”

At these words, the boat banked sharply through a new arch, throwing up a huge wake.  Edward steadied himself with pressure to his cane, but cast a ghastly glare at their boatman in the ship’s small cabin.

“Edward!”



Listen to this week’s Escape Pod!



EckInBlack

  • Extern
  • *
  • Posts: 8
Reply #1 on: October 26, 2014, 02:25:41 PM
As a discerning gentleman of few words I rarely pop into the forums but once again a tale has prompted me to make an appearance. I loved this week's story and would be really interested to learn more about the politics/background of the world of chess-wars.
More please Brian....



The_Hol-Man

  • Extern
  • *
  • Posts: 8
    • The Hol Story
Reply #2 on: October 27, 2014, 05:53:31 PM
This was an entertaining way to do the substitute warfare type of idea.  I did appreciate the additional layer of questioning how far is too far when it comes to becoming stronger at the potential cost of your own humanity, though I feel like that could have been better developed.  At the end, when Edward chose to die rather than risk becoming a horrible cyborg, I really didn't feel like he had a lot of information on which to base that decision.  It seemed to pretty much just amount to, "Hey, the guy who gave this to me had half a robot face, so what if it gives me half a robot face?!"

I feel like a couple other elements of the story could have used more fleshing out too.  For one, I wasn't clear what the real-world consequences of this type of warfare would be.  If a country is defeated, is it taken over by the victor?  Are its current rulers jailed?  Is its chess army dissolved at that point?  For example, I wasn't clear on whether Britain could have five more knights in training ready to be used to "win back" London (ignoring the queen's presence).  For that matter, is it just the rules of war that prevents every country from making every member of their army an all-powerful queen?  What were the powers of a queen, and what led to the other ranks being named what they were?  For a chess layman like me, at least, it wasn't easy to identify what Edward did that was particularly knight-like, nor what was rook-like about the rook's capabilities.

But as I said, this story was an entertaining way to look at an alternative way to conduct war.  And it had a jetpack, which is never a bad thing.

 -Andy
« Last Edit: October 28, 2014, 05:59:09 PM by The_Hol-Man »



wintermute

  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 1291
  • What Would Batman Do?
Reply #3 on: October 27, 2014, 07:05:39 PM
Quote
it wasn't easy to identify what Edward did that was particularly knight-like, nor what was rook-like about the rook's capabilities.

My guess is that the Knights have jetpacks, which let them move in a way no other piece can. Rooks, I'm guessing had more to do with the physical appearance.

Overall, I enjoyed the story; I'm not normally a huge fan of steampunk, but this seemed to be the quintessential distillation of the field. Cyborg agents fighting proxy-wars for 19th century Great Powers of Europe. I wouldn't mind seeing a longer piece that explored all the questions that have been raised about the setting, but I think think that this story did well enough at hinting that such questions have answers without getting bogged down in the details.

Science means that not all dreams can come true


Chairman Goodchild

  • Peltast
  • ***
  • Posts: 159
Reply #4 on: October 28, 2014, 12:47:07 PM
Definitely a science-fantasy piece that would have been equally at home on Escape Pod and Podcastle.  Just in case anyone out there wants to get into a huge argument as to what qualifies as science fiction...

But, yes, I think steampunk science-fantasy is well within the spirit of Escape Pod, which is an all-inclusive sci-fi podcast.  It was enjoyable, but heavy on giving character traits by use of adverbs.  I do get a bit tired of every Victorian/Edwardian Age steampunk piece having an English protagonist.  Why don't we ever see this type of fantasy world from the eyes of a German, or an Ottoman, or a Russian? 



ElectricPaladin

  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 1005
  • Holy Robot
    • Burning Zeppelin Experience
Reply #5 on: October 28, 2014, 01:40:29 PM
So, I had really mixed feelings about this one.

On the one hand, I had a rollicking good time. Wars replaced by duels! Awesome explodey steampunk cyborg fights! Neat superhero vibe! Tormentuous implications of humanity losing out to machine invasion! Also, from a craft perspective, a neat setting, characters with interesting fears and flaws, witty dialogue, and an unexpected direction to go in at the end. Well done.

On the other hand, the story left me with a bad taste in my mouth. Steampunk as a genre - its obsession with privileged white people of an era when privileged white people were even more empowered to be jerks, the way it gleefully throws itself into tropes of sexism, racism, and classism without examining them and uses "it's period!" as a defense - has already been deconstructed by critics far articulater than I. What I am going to try to show in detail is that this story swallows a lot of those tropes without pause.

I mean, sure, we had Sophia, who it turned out was secretly a queen, and that was pretty cool. And yet, even though she is secretly the most badass of the badass combat cyborgs, she was also very classically feminine, and her character as presented could be summed up as "the knight's girl sidekick." I do see how it's implied that there might be more to her... but we don't get to see a lot of that in the story. So she's a girl sidekick.

And then there's Thoth... Thoth really took me out of the story. The way the narrator dwelled on how alien and ~exotic~ and therefore nasty and dirty and untrustworthy - but also weirdly appealing, because he's so unique and different from everything else in the story - Thoth was... it did not sit well with me. Not at all. Set the story in Arizona and change Thoth's name to Carlos or Mictlantecuhtli or something and whoa boy, have we got something that American listeners will recognize as racist immediately.

And then Oakshott chose to die, basically because he was afraid of the dirty foreign immigrant technology he had bought, which would have been a great opportunity to examine how his racism and xenophobia got him killed... but instead, the author chose to make the comparison mostly about the giant hulking monstrous rook. Thoth's metal face - and his dirty foreign-ness - was only there to put the idea into Oakshott's head.

The final touch for me - where the story really just fell into the uglier side of Steampunk rather than doing anything to examine or explore it - was the way that I was expected to root for Oakshott. In Steampunk, there's this bias towards Western European - often but not always British - culture over everything else, including Eastern European culture. I know that Russia is being a bunch of jerks right now in the real world, but I don't think that the author did enough to make me care how this fight turned out. Oakshott was a racist who refused to use a weapon that could have saved his own life, so I didn't really care about him. I had no reason to particularly care if Russia advanced in - or even won! - this war, because I had no reason to believe that they were the "bad" guys, except that they aren't British, and in Steampunk the Brits are supposed to be the best at everything, and always the heroes.

But honestly, in my mind, they are just another state. Unless you prove that they are the better state in this particular case, I'm not going to assume it.

So, yeah... overall, I'd call this a miss for me. Without a doubt, the craft was sublime. Very well done pacing, snappy dialogue, and evocative descriptions. But the story itself did not really appeal, and while it was fun and explodey at first listen, it gets less and less appealing the more time I have to think about it.

Captain of the Burning Zeppelin Experience.

Help my kids get the educational supplies they need at my Donor's Choose page.


InfiniteMonkey

  • Lochage
  • *****
  • Posts: 483
  • Clearly, I need more typewriters....
Reply #6 on: October 29, 2014, 05:30:27 AM
I also have a problem with steampunk, so when this started out, I was on guard.

And, I too think simply taken as a story, it's not bad narratively - with one exception. That would be Thoth. Really, what is he even doing there? Is his offer there to reenforce how noble the Knight is? Why go through all the trouble?

And the idea of human chess pieces in place of armies doesn't really hold up under prolonged scrutiny. Who would volunteer to be a Pawn? and how easy would they be to wiped out? And wouldn't  - like with war - the big resourceful states just gang up and Chess the hell out of the little countries? I mean, that Russian cyborg didn't come cheap. What chance would Belgium or even Italy have against the Great Powers? Wouldn't this make conflict *more* likely rather than less?

Conversely, why would the industrialists of the Great Powers ever go for this solution? It would cost arms manufacturers tons of cash. 

And in this particular story, it just seems odd that the Queen could pop up like that. Before that, it sounded like these conflicts were scheduled some time in advance with a lot of ceremony. Could the Queen (or any other piece) just pop up like that?



wintermute

  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 1291
  • What Would Batman Do?
Reply #7 on: October 29, 2014, 12:46:41 PM
Quote
And in this particular story, it just seems odd that the Queen could pop up like that. Before that, it sounded like these conflicts were scheduled some time in advance with a lot of ceremony. Could the Queen (or any other piece) just pop up like that?

They did specifically say that the Queen was the only piece that didn't need to announce their moves, that could be anywhere without the opponent knowing about it.

Science means that not all dreams can come true


albionmoonlight

  • Matross
  • ****
  • Posts: 213
Reply #8 on: October 29, 2014, 05:12:28 PM
ElectricP makes some great points.  There is a definite sense of us just taking this world for what it is--England Good; Russia Bad.  I don't really mind that too much (maybe I just watched too much James Bond growing up).  But EP is right that this story forgoes an opportunity to say something deeper about what makes good guys good and bad guys bad.

I was most struck by the idea of finding a pre-WWI substitute for war.  Right now, I am listening to Hardcore History's series on WWI, and I just finished My History Can Beat Up Your Politics's series on Chamberlain and WWII.  And in both pieces, I am struck by how honestly and sincerely the relevant players hated war and did not want war and tried to avoid war.  But how inevitable war seemed anyway.

So something like this--a fanciful take on how we might have avoided those horrible wars--captures my imagination.



Dwango

  • Matross
  • ****
  • Posts: 165
Reply #9 on: October 30, 2014, 02:47:08 PM
I don't take this as a good vs bad story at all.  My take is this story is about the futility of civilized warfare.  Warfare dehumanizes everyone.  Thoth represents the weapons manufacturers who make a profit at everyone's expense.  They improve the technology and take the profits.  While somewhat simplistic, the knight has to decide if it is worth winning by giving up his humanity.  He decided it was not, and the governments accepts his loss and goes to the back up plan.  The war goes on despite the losses.

I believe there was a point in European history where warfare was considered a civilized matter, where everyone lined up and formed battalions and fought.  The leaders were supposed to be captured and traded, while the soldiers were of no consequence as they were not part of important or wealthy families.  Of course, this is utter crap, as it was still about killing and over time, changes in technology such as mustard gas, repeating revolvers, machine guns, proved this fallacy.  The U.S. civil war and ultimately World War I threw these ideas out the window with trench warfare and brutal kill counts.  It still came down to killing the other guy in a more efficient way than they can kill you.

I think other posters are right about it eventually coming apart and one country throwing the rules out the window.  Blitzkrieg totally broke the rules as Germany rolled through Belgium to get to France and conquer them.  I'm sure someone would just throw their entire chess set at an enemy to win the battle, attacking civilians in the mix.

War is ugly and horrible.




Arachnophile

  • Extern
  • *
  • Posts: 15
Reply #10 on: November 01, 2014, 01:50:19 PM
I would definitely second the notion that the whole concept of sixteen person armies modeled after chess sets is kind of ludicrous on the face of it - but this has always been my problem with steampunk in general.  Virtually everything in a steampunk story is needlessly baroque and ridiculously impractical.  That's really sort of the defining characteristic of steampunk.  If you are willing to accept that about the sub-genre in general, I don't suppose there's anything especially silly about this conceit.  The point I wondered about was this, though: there doesn't seem to be any reason to suppose that the Great Powers would have any advantage at all in warfare of this sort.  It might have been more interesting to have Britain threatened by the invading army of Lichtenstein.
 



dSlacker

  • Extern
  • *
  • Posts: 10
Reply #11 on: November 06, 2014, 12:04:03 PM
Chess with units having a base strength based on their level, but with the ability to gain strength, weapons, etc via experience, buying, etc would be an awesome game.

Can't wait for it to be included in Battle for Wesnoth!



Unblinking

  • Sir Postsalot
  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 8729
    • Diabolical Plots
Reply #12 on: November 07, 2014, 04:14:08 PM
In the end I thought it was pretty fun as long as I focused on the battle itself which ended up being a kind of superhero battle.

I was skeptical of the whole chess as warfare thing, and that skepticism never really dissipated.  It would've helped if some more of the rules had been spelled out--most especially, what happens to the residents of London if Russia takes it?  (Or any other city taken over by either side)  This type of war is meant to reduce casualties, but what do you expect to happen when you hand the ruling of a functioning city to an enemy government?  Do they have the right to wreck all the roads in the vicinity of London to interfere with supply distribution, cut off food supply from the farms in the countryside so that the city starves and the farmers are sitting on a food surplus but have no access to other important things that would come from the city?  If they can do these things, then war has a lot of victims they're just not talking about.  If they can't, then what exactly can they do?  Why can't Russia just make 16 rooks?  Can they make more to fill in the rosters?  If you can choose 16 of any kind of cast, not only why would any person choose to become a pawn, why would the government want to waste a spot in the roster with such a weak piece?   

But regardless of the specific rules, I think those rules are only going to persist in use as long as both sides believe that the cost of breaking the rules is greater than the cost of following the rules.  Back one nation into the corner, and I don't think that's going to hold.  In the American Revolution days, the rules of war dictated that you weren't supposed to shoot officers.  You were supposed to stand in tidy lines wearing clearly marked clothing and keep on shooting til one side either surrendered or all its soldiers were dead.  Those dirty Americans threw all that out at the window, had the audacity to shoot from behind trees like savages, and even put bullets into officers!  Why?  Because they would have been slaughtered if they follow the rules the enemy dictated. 

ElectricPaladin has a lot of good points about the problems inherent in the setting here.



SpareInch

  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 1388
  • Will there be sugar after the rebellion?
Reply #13 on: November 13, 2014, 07:40:56 PM
In the American Revolution days, the rules of war dictated that you weren't supposed to shoot officers.  You were supposed to stand in tidy lines wearing clearly marked clothing and keep on shooting til one side either surrendered or all its soldiers were dead.

Really?

Those dirty Americans threw all that out at the window, had the audacity to shoot from behind trees like savages,

But British units, like Rogers' Rangers did that in the Seven Years War.

and even put bullets into officers!

I bet American officers were quick enough to demand parole and exchange when THEY were captured though. ;)

  Why?  Because they would have been slaughtered if they follow the rules the enemy dictated. 


And yet, the redcoats still had to resort to some pretty transparent stratagems to make sure you won and America was written off the Empire's ledgers. Any European army that lost a battle, and Washington was an expert at losing battles, would have expected to be chased down after the first defeat and smashed utterly so they couldn't regroup and have another go later on, but Britain notably declined to do this in Washington's case.

So next 4th of July, remember to propose a Loyal Toast to Her Majesty, and thank Britain Almighty for making you a republic. ;)

Fresh slush - Shot this morning in the Vale of COW


Unblinking

  • Sir Postsalot
  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 8729
    • Diabolical Plots
Reply #14 on: November 13, 2014, 07:52:34 PM
And yet, the redcoats still had to resort to some pretty transparent stratagems to make sure you won and America was written off the Empire's ledgers. Any European army that lost a battle, and Washington was an expert at losing battles, would have expected to be chased down after the first defeat and smashed utterly so they couldn't regroup and have another go later on, but Britain notably declined to do this in Washington's case.

So next 4th of July, remember to propose a Loyal Toast to Her Majesty, and thank Britain Almighty for making you a republic. ;)

:)  I didn't mean to make any particular point except that:  rules of war only matter if someone follows them.  And if there's no all-powerful entity whose job it is to enforce the rules but which somehow also has no interest in the outcome of the fight, just that the fight is fair, then the rules are probably only going to matter until one side feels that the cost of breaking the rules is preferable to the costs of getting beat off the map.



SpareInch

  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 1388
  • Will there be sugar after the rebellion?
Reply #15 on: November 13, 2014, 07:55:08 PM
As for the story.

Thanks, Unblinking, for pointing why this just missed the mark by a smidgin for me.

Superhearo, one on one combat for the future of the world just doesn't do it for me. It's all just too simple for superheros.

I mean, OK so he died... But at least two other people know that all you have to do is press the button on the box and he'll be fine again, right? And they have a surprising amount of time in which to act. The body doesn't actually stop being living tissue until some time after you stop breathing. Just push the button as you carry the corpse out of the arena - Job's a Good'un!

That aside, the idea of a single combat between champions to avoid heavier casualties from set piece engagements is as old as war itself. The Chess Wars are just a very extreme example. Everyone SAYS they have no conventional armies, but I wouldn't believe that for a moment.

Fresh slush - Shot this morning in the Vale of COW


slic

  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 727
  • Stephen Lumini
Reply #16 on: November 16, 2014, 05:37:35 PM
I pretty much had all the same pluses and minuses regarding the story as everyone else.  My biggest annoyance is Unblinking's point - rules of war only get followed until they get in the way of winning.  The one on one battle could have been arrived at from another direction (at the moment I'm think of something like the Casino Royale opening (Daniel Craig version)).

On the other hand, the story left me with a bad taste in my mouth. Steampunk as a genre - its obsession with privileged white people of an era when privileged white people were even more empowered to be jerks, the way it gleefully throws itself into tropes of sexism, racism, and classism without examining them and uses "it's period!" as a defense...
I think this is a real opportunity to be seized.  Why does it have to be white folk, why does it have to be British?  This is fantasy - why can't there be others involved.  In Blazing Saddles, they had a black sheriff and really played into the racism.  Eugene Jacques Bullard flew airplanes for France in World War 1, so it's not pure fantasy...

Why don't we ever see this type of fantasy world from the eyes of a German, or an Ottoman, or a Russian? 
You might want to check out Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leviathan_%28Westerfeld_novel%29 - it's classified as YA Fiction; my kids told me about them and I enjoyed them quite a lot.



ElectricPaladin

  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 1005
  • Holy Robot
    • Burning Zeppelin Experience
Reply #17 on: November 16, 2014, 05:40:06 PM
The biggest thing is how you don't need "fantasy" to justify diversity. Very few of the ancient monocultures were really that segregated.

Captain of the Burning Zeppelin Experience.

Help my kids get the educational supplies they need at my Donor's Choose page.


SpareInch

  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 1388
  • Will there be sugar after the rebellion?
Reply #18 on: November 19, 2014, 10:00:34 AM
And yet, the redcoats still had to resort to some pretty transparent stratagems to make sure you won and America was written off the Empire's ledgers...

:)  I didn't mean to make any particular point except that:  rules of war only matter if someone follows them.  And if there's no all-powerful entity whose job it is to enforce the rules but which somehow also has no interest in the outcome of the fight, just that the fight is fair, then the rules are probably only going to matter until one side feels that the cost of breaking the rules is preferable to the costs of getting beat off the map.

I know. But sometimes you just gotta tease. :P

Fresh slush - Shot this morning in the Vale of COW


Unblinking

  • Sir Postsalot
  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 8729
    • Diabolical Plots
Reply #19 on: November 19, 2014, 03:12:17 PM
And yet, the redcoats still had to resort to some pretty transparent stratagems to make sure you won and America was written off the Empire's ledgers...

:)  I didn't mean to make any particular point except that:  rules of war only matter if someone follows them.  And if there's no all-powerful entity whose job it is to enforce the rules but which somehow also has no interest in the outcome of the fight, just that the fight is fair, then the rules are probably only going to matter until one side feels that the cost of breaking the rules is preferable to the costs of getting beat off the map.

I know. But sometimes you just gotta tease. :P

:D



hardware

  • Matross
  • ****
  • Posts: 192
Reply #20 on: November 26, 2014, 12:32:34 AM
I kind of liked this story, usually I don't go for steampunk so maybe that made me enjoy this as a little oddity based on a pretty absurd idea. Not that I will remember it very long or anything.  For those who wonders what happens when the aggressor wins: I assume they will win the right to tax and trade.

For the somewhat surprising focus on some kind of indirect racial or genderbased stereotyping, I can agree that  the author didn't go out of his way to change up the usual picture, which is perhaps a missed opportunity, but hardly something I would hold against the story. It was kind of a throw-away story that relied on well-worn tropes to get to it's point (but then again, if I read a lot of steampunk, perhaps those tropes would annoy me more).



Nerdpool

  • Extern
  • *
  • Posts: 1
Reply #21 on: November 27, 2014, 06:32:01 AM
I really liked this story. :D It gave me the feeling of the British Avenger movie.



Devoted135

  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 1252
Reply #22 on: December 01, 2014, 02:37:03 AM
Soooo behind....

I thought this story was a pleasant enough way to pass the time, but the comment that this was a "throwaway story" is pretty telling in my mind. It seems like various elements were slapped together to arrive at the final question "how far before one loses one's humanity" without enough emphasis being placed on creating a coherent, sustainable world.



beachbum21k

  • Extern
  • *
  • Posts: 1
Reply #23 on: December 02, 2014, 05:21:38 PM
I thought this story was okay. I would have liked there to have been more character development. I didn't really get a sense of Edward except that he apparently was really scared of becoming a robot, and even that I didn't get until the end. The word choice was nice though and it painted some fun pictures. I just felt that I had no reason to care about Edward.

Another point that I found a little odd was that there was constantly a question about why the rook wanted to become a rook; I think that would have been an interesting story, or perhaps why Edward chose to become a knight. If there's no risk of dying in war why did he choose to fight? And what are the stakes? Does Russia get to take over England?

If I had a little more back story, I think that I would have had more reason to root for Edward.

Aside from that, as I said earlier, I thought that the word choice was nice and overall the descriptions were very well crafted.



El Barto

  • Peltast
  • ***
  • Posts: 132
Reply #24 on: December 29, 2014, 04:38:39 PM
I'm not much of a fan of alternate history or steampunch but this was very nicely done with nice twists. 

Also, it is interesting to think about how this is actually possible now if we would only agree on it as a collection of countries -- and if any one country tries to go rogue the others take collective action.  In theory.