Revisiting Knight Moves

by wjw on January 8, 2012

I’ve always felt a certain ambivalence about my novel Knight Moves.  (Which, I am compelled to point out yet again, is newly available for Kindle, Nook, and on multiple formats via Smashwords.)

I had barely started the novel before I had the idea for Hardwired, a book that just demanded to be written.  Unfortunately I’d just contracted for Knight Moves, so I had to write this whole other book before I could get to the one I was absolutely insane to write.

I’ve always felt that I maybe neglected Knight Moves in my haste to get on to Hardwired.  In fact I put Knight Moves aside at one point to write “Sarah Runs the Weasel,” the novelette that became Chapter Two of Hardwired.

Plus, as I have written elsewhere, my editor did his best to blackmail me over Knight Moves and another project I was working on.

Other accidents happened later, but more about these in their proper place.

Because of all the conflicts and trauma, I wasn’t exactly reluctant to revisit the book in order to turn it into an ebook, but I was decidedly unenthusiastic.  “I’ll do the copy-edit, I’ll make it available, it is what it is,” I thought.

Then I read it and I jabbered, O My God!  This is a good book!  I wrote a good book!  How did I not notice?

I didn’t just write this book, I took a baseball bat and I beat the living crap out of it.  I kicked this book’s ass from one end of Typewriter Stadium to the other, then I knocked it through the goalposts and out of the park.

I think I overcompensated for all the bad stuff that was going on around, but not in, the book.  I was over-thorough.  I was in a rage of frustration and anger, and my only outlet was to sit at the keyboard, grab the book by its neck, and then wring the neck.  Wring it maybe about fifty times. I didn’t slight anything.  I paid a lot more attention to the book than I thought I had.

The weird thing is, it’s not an angry book.  It’s a wise book.  I saved all the anger for Hardwired, later.

I was 29 when I wrote Knight Moves.  How the hell did I get so wise?

Doran Falkner, the narrator, is— as the cover copy puts it— “Humanity’s Savior (retired).”    He owns the whole planet.  He’s 800 years old and has centuries’ worth of triumph and regret.  He lives in this weird fantasy palace he’s built at Delphi (where I had visited a few years earlier), and he’s turning the entire world into kind of comforting fantasy that he can both create and live in.

Delphi was a very deliberate choice.  It was a place that was dedicated to truth and peace and that became a corrupt parody of itself.  Maybe that’s Doran’s situation at the start of the book.

In fact, the movement in the book is from fantasy (Delphi) to the real world (Kemp’s), then back to a horrifying and creepy fantasy (Zimmerman’s home, the kind of fantasy that Doran escaped living in only by the skin of his teeth), then back to reality (Amaterasu), then to a sort of synthesis.  I was working out ideas of how dangerous it is to get the things you really need.

Just how crazy is Doran at the start of the book?  He orders an entire species exterminated because they give him nightmares.  That’s how crazy.

When I started the book I had in mind a sort of Rudy Ruckeresque novel featuring extreme and somewhat goofy science, but somewhere along the way it turned into a love story.   That is entirely the fault of my friend Melinda Snodgrass.  I knew that I was going to have Doran meet an old lover during the course of the story, and I was trying to brainstorm their backstory and why it hadn’t worked out the first time.

“He’s the guy who invented immortality, right?” she said.

“Basically, yeah.”

“So she’s the woman who refused his gift.”

Well, click.  There it was.  Doran had spent the better part of eight hundred years building a fantasy, and Mary was the woman who wouldn’t live in it no matter what.   There was the argument of the book, more or less.  It’s about what life is for (if anything) and what death is for (if anything).  And also what love is for, and what it is not for.

Doran is Doran, but he shares traits with other characters I developed later: Gabriel in Aristoi and Aristide in Implied Spaces.  They’re all long-lived and very smart and to one degree or another aesthetic.  Doran was the first character I created who was a lot smarter than I am (and better-looking, but that’s normal for fiction).   I have to say that I fake the smart stuff really well.  It helps that when Doran speaks in casual conversation, I have the leisure of looking everything up in reference books to make sure he speaks with proper authority.

I hope I do not frighten the prospective reader when I mention that there is poetry in this book.  More than I remembered being there.  I think, looking back, that it’s pretty good, especially because I handicapping myself by trying to use the lyric forms of Sappho as Englished in rather wispy form by late 20th Century translators.

Readers have tended to note that Knight Moves is influenced by Roger Zelazny, an analysis to which I am happy to cop.  (The same readers tend not to notice the equally heavy influence by Delany on Hardwired, but there you go.)  But re-reading Knight Moves, I felt another voice creeping in on passages here or there, and I recognized it as being that of John Fowles, whose Daniel Martin had appeared a few years earlier.  Zelazny might have taught me how to write about aesthetic immortals, but Fowles taught me how to write about intricate relationships.

I noticed, by the way, that there are no villains in the book.  Everyone is doing the best he can, even if they fail horribly and tragically.  Most everyone in the book is motivated by love.  Even the deeply disturbed and creepy relationship between Zimmerman and Dorcas is one of love.

So here I was, age 29, writing about love.  What the hell did I know?  A fair amount, apparently.

I finished the book, did a final pass, and then tried to print the manuscript . . . at which point the text file simply disappeared.  I went to the backup, and that was gone, too.  Then I went to the backup I kept at someone else’s house, and found that the second backup had been eaten as well.  It couldn’t have been a virus, because there was no Internet for my computer to be connected to— but in those early days, it was all too easy to hit a fatal error running DOS on a machine with only 48k of RAM.

Fortunately I had a recourse.  At the end of each day’s work, I’d printed the new material— on fanfold paper, in nine-pin dot matrix.  I could retype the whole thing.

I made the mistake of calling up my editor to tell her I’d be late.  “How late?” she asked.  I told her I didn’t know.

What she did, apparently, was move the scheduled publication of Knight Moves by several months.  Which delayed publication of Hardwired, and in fact everything else. I would really have liked Hardwired to be published about a year earlier than it was.   The timing would have made a major difference in my career.

In the end it took me only three days to retype the manuscript.  I was disappointed because I didn’t think I was as “hot” as I was on my final pass a few days earlier.  I sent it to my editor, and I got an odd sort of call.  “The book is pretty good,” she said.  “If we worked on it for a couple months, we could make it absolutely brilliant.  But unfortunately I don’t have the time.”

That did wonders for my morale, as you might imagine.  And downgraded my own opinion of the work until I finally re-read it, in December 2011.

The book was published to terrific reviews, and then it sort of disappeared, on account of the Pinnacle Books bankruptcy.  Tor was distributed by Pinnacle in those days, and when Pinnacle went under, all Tor books, pretty much the entire inventory, were locked in the warehouse to await the decision of the receiver.  (Fortunately— and I have no absolute knowledge whether this is true— I hear that the warehouse guys were bribed, trucks slipped into the warehouse on midnight wheels, and the books were salvaged.)

Anyway, the book was unavailable when bookstores wanted to reorder, and I think my sales suffered.  (It should be noted that when I mentioned this anecdote to Tor’s very own Patrick Nielsen Hayden, he looked up my sales figures, and said they were perfectly respectable figures for a second novel.  I think they would have been a lot more respectable if Pinnacle hadn’t gone under, but there’s no way to prove this one way or another.)

The book was nominated for a Philip K Dick Award, and I duly went off to Norwescon for the ceremony.  What followed soured me for awards more or less forever.  (I’d do away with all of them if I could.)

I knew practically nobody at this convention, but people were willing to assume I was interesting on the grounds of my nomination, and I was well on my way to enjoying myself when, on Saturday afternoon, I began to notice that people were treating me differently.

I had, for example, met a young lady who I invited to dinner.  She then asked, “Can I bring Friend X?  Can I bring Friend Y?”  Yeah, sure, fine.  By the end of the afternoon, I was told there was no longer room for me at the table.

I was disinvited from my own dinner party.  But by that point that was kind of typical of the attitude people adopted toward me.  In a single afternoon, I’d gone from a promising young writer to a capital-L Loser, and people were treating me as such.

What had happened was that word of who had won the award had been released, and everyone at the convention knew.  Everyone, that is, but me.

Perhaps this humiliating episode— plus of course the frustration, the blackmail, the vanished text files, the delayed publication, the phone call from my editor, and the disappearing distributor— prejudiced me against Knight Moves.   My memories of it were far different from the work that I actually produced.

My 29-year-old self really knew how to sling the words around. It’s really great to know that.  It was a wonderful rediscovery of something I didn’t even know existed.

Maybe it’s time for the book to be rediscovered by others.  We’ll see.

Mat January 8, 2012 at 7:14 am

I very much enjoyed reading “Knight Moves” when it came out. After reading “Hardwired” at around age 12 I think, I always kept a lookout for your other books in the various bookstores that I spent my youth haunting, in those days before The Internet brought everything to our fingertips 🙂
“Knight Moves” on my first few reads seemed to be a tightly crafted sleek story that was more in line with 70’s era utopian scifi, that the cyberpunk-ish (sorry, I know your probably sick of that description) “Hardwired” & “Voice of the Whirlwind.” It wasnt until much later subsequent reads that I started to pick up on Doran’s casual meglomania and emotional impotence.

David W. Goldman January 8, 2012 at 10:09 am

I think that Knight Moves was the book I happened to pull off a bookstore shelf which first taught me your name. After a few pages in the bookstore I had to buy it, and have been buying everything of yours ever since.

Of course I recognized the Zelazny influence right off. (And apparently subsequently missed the Delany in Hardwired.) But it quickly became clear to me that while Zelazny had broken ground in writing adult science fiction about real people, you were surpassing him on many fronts.

These days I fear those occasions when I feel a need to double-check a memory from Knight Moves. Because that will inevitably turn into yet another re-read of the entire damn book.

Dirk Bergstrom January 8, 2012 at 5:13 pm

I just re-read Knight Moves a couple months ago (probably my fourth or fifth time through). It stands up as good sci fi and a fine story. Based on your “review too late” of Angel Station I’ll probably pick that one up again soon. I’d buy the ebook (thank you *so* much for making DRM-free versions of you books available), but I’ve still got a copy in my increasingly-dated trove of 80’s and 90’s SF paperbacks.

John Appel January 8, 2012 at 10:16 pm

I’m one of those who missed this the first time around, but am snarfing it for my Nook tablet ASAP.

wjw January 8, 2012 at 10:45 pm

Mat>> A friend of mine once started reading Knight Moves and then told me reluctantly, “I really don’t like it. It’s just a huge male power fantasy.”

“Keep on reading,” I told her. I believe she revised her view.

Michael Mock January 9, 2012 at 4:59 am

I picked it up late, and secondhand.

I think what happened is that I read Hardwired. And then a year or so later, I read Hardwired again. And about two years after that, I read Hardwired again, and my brain finally caught up with me.

And I went and found everything of yours that I could. This included Aristoi, Angel Station, Knight Moves, and City On Fire. I was not disappointed, and I felt like a great bleeding idiot for not having picked them all up earlier – as they came out, say.

All of which is basically an overlong way of saying that I really, really enjoyed Knight Moves. And I saw a resemblance to Zelazny not just in the immortal aesthetic protagonist, but in the constant interplay between narrative and philosophical exploration.

As for Hardwired… maybe Zelazny fans just don’t read enough Delany?

James Davis Nicoll January 12, 2012 at 6:38 am

Although I read Cat Island and Ambassador of Progress first, I am pretty sure Knight Movesis what put you on my Buy on Sight list.

Clyde January 12, 2012 at 7:03 am

I had wondered about your ambivalence about Knight Moves as I have long considered it to be one of your best books. Thank you for telling the back story — very interesting and a bit poignant at points. Good to know that the revisit has changed your opinion.
I’ll get the eBook. My paper copy probably wouldn’t survive another reading anyway.

Clyde January 12, 2012 at 7:11 am

BTW — I notice that you are using the original 1985 cover art! I believe that is a first for your new back-list ebook releases.

Riley37 March 30, 2015 at 8:36 pm

Yes, it’s a very good book. It certainly resembles Zelazny’s “This Immortal”, in good ways, but it’s not derivative junk. I consider “Ambassador of Progress” your best work; Knight Moves is in the top tier.

I’m running a D&D group, in which one player has a warlock character; I write the warlock’s patron as a knock-off of the (spoiler) who appear towards the end of Knight Moves. It is curious about 3-dimensional intelligences, and it offers what seems, to 3-d people, great power.

AndrewB August 7, 2017 at 7:02 pm

I am re-reading your early works on Kindle. I have not read Knight Moves in 15 years or more, but this is likey at least the 10th time I have revisited. A different experience in the waning days of middle age, to be sure, but still one of my favorite books. Thank you.

wjw August 8, 2017 at 2:03 am

You’re more than welcome, Andrew. It’s always nice to be revisited.

Duane N Larkin August 10, 2021 at 12:05 pm

I love reading, and always re-read the ones I love best. I think I’m on re-read four of Knight Moves and have replaced my paperback with the Kindle version (as my vision is not what it was in 1985). Thanks for making it available again, and for writing it in the first place.

wjw August 10, 2021 at 1:23 pm

My pleasure. And thanks for all the kind words.

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