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Jack Vance, Trullion: Alastor 2262 (1973)

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There are many reasons to love Jack Vance. Leaving aside, for now, his abilities as a prose stylist and storyteller, one of the reasons I like him, being a bit of a sucker for all sorts of apparatus and framing devices, is his brilliant use of footnotes.   (Dave Langford’s entry on him in the Clute/Grant Encyclopedia of Fantasy, mentions many other reasons to like him, and in particular says this: “His gift for appropriate character and place-names is remarkable.”)

And not just character and place names. Apart from the military wing of the galactic cluster’s ruler (or ‘Connatic’) being called ‘The Whelm’, and star-drives being called ‘whisks’, the book currently under advisement contains an example which combines both word-coining and footnotes:

‘Tomorrow we go our way,’ said Vang Drosset in a plangent, fateful voice. ‘Forlostwenna is on us, in any event; we are ready for departure.’ [48]

“Forlostwenna” is glossed in a footnote as follows:

*Forlostwenna: a word from the Trevanji jargon – an urgent mood compelling departure; more immediate than the general ‘wanderlust. [footnote to p48]

This, I think, is just wonderful: the threefold combination in the word of the elegaic forloneness of leaving home, the fear that such a departure might result in becoming lost, and the “wenn”-ness of whether you might return…Lovely.

Having said all that, the reason I love this book is, at least partly because I’m also a sport’s geek, and the plot of Trullion: Alastor 2262 involves Hussade, the most gloriously implausible, splendidly utterly barking (in a good way) future sport in the whole of sf (maybe). Typically, Vance hints at how his sport works in a footnote:

The hussade field is a gridiron of ‘runs’, (also called ‘ways’) and ‘laterals’ above a tank of water four feet deep. The runs are nine feet apart, the laterals twelve feet. Trapezes permit the players to swing sideways from run to run, but not from lateral to lateral. The central moat is eight feet wide and can be passed at either end, at the center, or jumped if the player is sufficiently agile. The ‘home’ tanks at either end of the field flank the platform on which stands the sheirl.

Players buff or body-block opposing players into the tanks, but may not use their hands to push, pull, hold, or tackle.

The captain of each team carries the ‘hange’ – a bulb on a three-foot pedestal. When the light glows the captain may not be attacked, nor may he attack. When he moves six feet from the hange, or when he lifts the hange to shift his position, the light goes dead; he may then attack or be attacked. An extremely strong captain may almost ignore his hange; a captain less able stations himself on a key junction, which he is then able to protect by virute of his impregnability within the area of the live hange.

The sheirl stands on the platform at the end of the field betweent he home tanks. She wears a white gown with a gold ring at the front. The enemy players seek to lay hold of this gold ring; a single pull denudes the sheirl. The dignity of the sheirl may be ransomed by her captain for five hundred ozols, a thousand, two thousand, or higher, in accordance with a prearranged schedule. [footnote to pp64-65]

“Sheirl” by the way, is explained in another footnote:

Sheirl: an untransatable term from the special vocabulary of hussade – a glorious nymph, radiant with ecstatic vitality, who impels the players of her team to impossible feats of strength and agility…[footnote to pp 15-16]

Nicely, various of the hussade teams are mentioned:

…the Welgen Storm-devils, the Invincibles of the Altramar Hussade Club, the Voulash Gialospans of Great Vole Island, the Gaspar Magnetics, the Saurkash Serpents… [58]

Voulash Gialospans! As we’d expect, their nickname is also glossed in a footnote:

*gialospans: literally, girl-denuders, in reference to the anticipated plight of the enemy sheirl. [footnote to p58]

Anyhoo. Another of the joys of this particular edition of Trullion is the back cover, which, one notices, after getting over the shock that, as recently as 1979, a new UK paperback cost 85p, is the absurdly over-the-top way the blurb writer tries to market this rather gentle and charming tale. DEATH WAITS IN PARADISE screams the blurb, before mentioning the “ferocious passion for gambling” that drives folk to “risk all – even life itself – on the hazardous water-chessboard gaming fields.”

Eh? Calm down…

The cover above, by Peter Goodfellow from the ’79 Mayflower edition I purchased in Exeter’s much missed Read ‘n’ Return bookshop, is splendid and appropriate, but other covers of this book have been, well, less so. For example, this one, which, apart from anything else, seems to be alarming pre-cognitive of a Lady Gaga concert…



Have updated this and re-posted from an ancient blog of mine following a conversation about sports on twitter.  The comments there reminded me that there’s a another Alastor cover [Wyst this time (though that’s a card game, not a sport though, isn’t it?] cover which worth mentioning:


The bloke with the 70s haircut and silly shorts seems to be reaching towards the breasts of the woman in the bikini walking past him, while she seems determined to make every possible effort (and quite rightly so, he’s clearly a drunken menace) to avoid even looking at him…


It’s Just Like Byrne-Fischer All Over Again…

The above, as attentive viewers of Terminator: The Sarah Chronicles will remember, is a quote from Queen’s Gambit (Episode 5 of Season 1) spoken by the saviour of mankind, John Connor

Before we get on this specifically, one might ask, more generally:

Why are depictions of chess in fiction so rubbish?

[Before we go any further, I’ve not gone out of my way here, but: “POTENTIAL SPOLIERS WARNING!!!” – at least if you’ve not seen Season 1 (or followed all of the links that the above hyper-stuff will take you) of The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and, possibly, if you’ve not read The Fionavar Tapestry, or are unaware of Byrne-Fisher 1956…]

This moan, in my case, goes beyond any complaints about the usual “it’s a game of chess out there!” or “chess is like war!” (or vice versa) clichés: as someone who used to (at an extremely amateur and inauspicious level, let’s be honest) play league chess and compete in congresses back in the last century, it’s the way that actual games are depicted.  (To be fair, I feel a little bit guilty about picking on The Sarah Connor Chronicles as the heading for this bijou moan, since the opening clichés about chess and war in “Queen’s Gambit” are much better done than most…So it goes…

Anyway, it will therefore be necessary, for a bit, to switch:

[chess geek on]

Let’s start with “Queen’s Gambit” (and, in passing, ignore [sort of] the fact that Byrne-Fisher 1956 was an example of The Grunfeld Defence, and not, in fact, the Queen’s Gambit.)

What set my geek alarm bells off (after, to be honest, when it became clear where the chess game was going) was the comment by the commentator in this episode that “the Japanese seize control of the center with Bishop to c5.” The Japanese (i.e. the Black pieces in this episode) are appearing in the role of Fischer, yet in the game (see link above) it was Byrne (with the White pieces) who played Bishop to c5…The position (after Byrne’s 16th move [Bc5, indeed]) was:

Argh. Later, John Connor seems to realise this:

“That bishop on c5 totally hammered them, Black’s in total zugswang,” he says, with possibly quibble-able use of chess terms, and, to boot, a rather different idea of who’s played what in the current episode (though to be fair, later shots of the board back up the actual Byrne-Fischer game with a White bishop on c5)..

Anyhoo, after 16…Rfe8+, 17 Kf1, Be6!!, as occurred in the game, and is depicted in the programme, the commentary says:

“An unorthodox move from the Japanese, leaving their Queen hanging on b6 sqaure.”

Urgh. As surely any computer would agree, there is no way out for White now. Try playing through, rather than 18. Bxb6 [as portrayed here, and as played by Byrne in the game against Fischer] and the alternative: 18. Bxe6 Qb5+, 19 Kg1 Ne2+, 20 Kf1 Ng3++ etc…(Byrne was presumably hoping for 17…Nb5? 18 Bxf7! etc…)

[I’m less inclined (at the moment) to carp about John’s fluctuating chess knowledge, or the fact that he knows Bryne-Fischer but only recognizes it right at the end of the game…, but….]

To end though, (albeit ignoring the fact that surely a computer would have realised long before, and despite the witless commentator’s comments in the episode about “victory being immanent for the American team”), “Rook to c2 checkmate” was, indeed, for once, how things actually ended (on move 41) in Byrne-Fisher. (Play through it, seriously, it’s great!)

Also, to pick another one I feel extremely guilty about, since it’s one of my favourtie books, there’s a bit in Chapter Five of Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Summer Tree where Paul Schafer plays a game of chess with Ailell, the High King of Brennin, which, whatever the passage’s splendour, breaks the narrative spell, if, like me, you’re inclined to react with a cry of “hang on!” to mentions of how an occasional player marshals his pieces into “a vortex of attack”, only to be met by, “a defence of intricate, resilient, subtlety.”

Yes, I know, it’s probably (and doubtless rightly) only me…

[/chess geek off]


PS: All this has reminded me that a] my favourite review of the first Harry Potter film occurred in the excellent Malcolm Pein’s chess column in the UK’s The Daily Telegraph. (I’m quoting from a long since decayed and fallible memory here, but it was something along the lines of “the Scandinavian Defence seems an odd choice when your life depends on it…”) and, b] my old chess club still has a splendid web presence…