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The Chess Machine
By Robert Lohr
Penguin / ISBN: 978-1-59420-126-4
As regular readers know, one of the topics that often comes up here at the CCLaP website is of the slippery line between what we commonly refer to as "mainstream" literature versus "genre;" of not only where that line should be drawn, but of how we look at books differently based on what side it falls, not to mention the different smaller lines that can be drawn once you're on one side or another. For example, I'm a general fan of the science-fiction genre, as are many of CCLaP's readers; but then within sci-fi, I myself am a particular fan of a subgenre known as "steampunk." A play on the '80s sci-fi term "cyberpunk," it is basically a mix of speculative fiction and Victorian-era (or older) historical fiction, running with science-fictiony concepts based on real events from the time period; for example, what the world would've been like if computers had actually been invented back then instead of the 1950s, which actually did almost happen in real life except for the prototypes' prohibitive costs and enormous space requirements back then. At its aesthetic heart, steampunk is basically the attempt to take various high-tech concepts from our real present day, and "retrofit" them into beautifully-designed wood and metal forms, to imagine a world where robots work off of burning coal and double as exquisite objets de art, all for the good of our Glorious Queen and Her Empire.
That's why I was so excited, after all, to pick up German writer Robert Lohr's first novel, the very smart and fun action adventure The Chess Machine; because it too can be technically counted as a steampunk novel, although in this case is set around a hundred years before most of the genre's other examples, or in other words the late 1700s. And that's because, interestingly enough, the core of the novel's storyline is based around an actual object with shady origins: an actual "Mechanical Turk" chess-playing automaton, in reality an elaborate hoax, well-known as a touring historical item in the 1800s but with society having collectively forgotten its beginnings. Lohr uses this lost origin to his advantage, taking the object itself and moving backwards in time creatively to imagine a colorful and danger-filled Vienna, when a cloudy haze existed between magic and science and where lots of hucksters were ready to step in and take advantage of it. The result is a delightfully exciting story, one that has more potential mainstream appeal than other steampunk novels because of it being rooted in reality; it is a book sure to thrill not only nerdy hard-edged sci-fi fans such as myself, but also those who love the mystery genre and straight-ahead historical fiction as well. There's a reason, after all, that the book rights have already been sold in twenty countries, and it wouldn't surprise me to hear of a major Hollywood deal at any moment too.
So as mentioned, probably the best place to start a discussion of The Chess Machine is regarding its actual historical origins -- that the titular machine at the center of the plot actually used to exist, created by an Austrian named Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen in the 1770s, at a time when such other "automatons" as mechanical cuckoo clocks and artificial writing machines were being unveiled in Europe as well. And although it was filled with real mechanics, Kempelen's chess-playing machine was in fact an elaborate hoax; it was a chess-playing human inside of it the whole time, with an ingenious series of sliding cubbyholes within the contraption, so that the player could shift from space to space as Kempelen opened the various doors of the device one at a time. It was a time when so-called "miraculous" things were being done every day, aided by the newfound popularity of the scientific process; that's why few people questioned the idea of a brass-and-wood machine somehow having artificial intelligence, and why so many people took the Turk's ability to play chess at face value. The machine in fact ended up touring for almost 80 years under various owners, with various small periods of "retirement" for continual technological improvements to the hoax; among other storied destinations, the real Turk ended up playing such luminaries as Benjamin Franklin, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Edgar Allen Poe, before accidentally being destroyed in a warehouse fire in the 1850s. And believe it or not, despite several dozen people learning the secret of the Turk over those 80 years, not one of them blabbed it in public until after the Turk had been destroyed; Kempelen in fact spent his entire life being regarded as a mechanical genius, going to his grave in the early 1800s without any of his peers being the wiser.
What Lohr does, then, is take all the elements of the real story I just laid out, then start filling in the holes with fictional details; of what kind of person Kempelen might have been like, for example, to want to pull a fast one on both royalty and the general public for so long, or of what kind of person might have been actually inside the machine and playing the chess matches back then. And this is in fact an important thing about The Chess Machine to know right away; that when such details are at the discretion of Lohr, he deliberately chooses outlandishly entertaining options, in order to weave a semi-fantastical and always-thrilling action-based plot, one not really grounded that much in reality but definitely a gripping yarn. In Lohr's world, for example, the first hidden player of the Turk's history is none other than a mentally brilliant dwarf who happens to be a criminal, and just happens to be a strict Catholic, and who just happens to be terrified of small, enclosed spaces as well; yes, it's quite lucky that all those traits happen to be the most entertaining ones that we as readers could've had in such a situation!
I guess the point I'm trying to make is that it's adventure-novel logic on display in The Chess Machine; that much like the Indiana Jones movies, you need to be ready to go down that non-real road that Lohr is leading you, and accept all the freakishly coincidental and always visually arresting things going on within this far-fetched storyline. If you're able to do that, though, you're going to find a briskly-paced thriller with all kinds of fun almost magical elements, a story that always stays rooted in reality but sometimes only barely. It's a world of royal courts and shadowy back roads; a world of both political intrigue and soap-opera-like melodrama. At the same time, though, it's an ingenious look at retrofitted technology as well; a step-by-step guide as to how such a machine actually worked, using techniques relying on magnetism and other scientific principles that would take another hundred years to catch on with the general public. It's a nerd action tale that doubles as a historical murder mystery! I love it!
In fact, I'm having a hard time even coming up with anything specifically negative to point out about The Chess Machine, except of course for the obvious one -- that no matter how well a genre piece it is, it's still a genre piece, which means that people who don't like this genre in general are bound to not like this novel either, and will never end up liking it no matter what changes are made. I admit that I'm a fan of not only historical fiction but also caper tales and also steampunk settings; this novel combines all three, so of course I'm going to eat it up like the freaking genre sheep I am. It's part of the natural biases that come with me being a human being as well as an arts critic, that there are certain subjects I personally gravitate towards and certain ones I simply don't care for; in general I think it's simply best to acknowledge this bias and move on, instead of pretending my bias doesn't exist in the first place. All you Nerdy McNerds out there like me are bound to love The Chess Machine, while others are bound to roll their eyes and mutter "Ugh!" merely at the sight of the front cover; as is sometimes the case here, I guess I'll just leave my review at that, and simply admit that I definitely am one of those Nerdy McNerds who adores elaborate little stories like this, although also acknowledge that it's not for everyone.
Out of 10: