Revisiting Knight Moves
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.
“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.