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Brad Leithauser: Hence

I picked this up probably a decade ago, because it was a novel about computer chess with some promising blurbs, but never got around to it until now. It was written in 1989, 8 years before Deep Blue beat Kasparov, and takes place in 1993, at which point the fictional best computer chess program in the world is pretty evenly matched with the fictional US junior champion.

All the chess stuff is fairly accurate, which is a nice thing to see in a literary novel, though naturally I have a few niggles (e.g., a strong player wouldn’t talk about “the twenty-seventh move” being a blunder (they’d refer to the move itself, like “knight f5”), nor would they refer to “advancing a bishop”). The portrayal of chess players and the way they think was pretty well done too.

As far as the novel itself goes, it was fine. The characters aren’t particularly sympathetic but they’re well drawn, and the themes may not be stunningly novel but they’re used well and you aren’t hit over the head with them. What I don’t really understand was the need to surround the story with two metafictional shells; the story starts out in the first person before switching to third a few chapters in, and preceding that is an introduction by yet another fictional character. They both seem totally unnecessary unless I’m missing some subtle connection, plus both characters’ voices are pretty annoying (intentionally, I’m sure, but still). Once I got to page 40 without giving up, I enjoyed the rest of the novel, but it was a weird way to start the book and subtracted from the book rather than adding to it, for me. The back cover claims that “Hence is rife with puzzles and narrative jokes in the tradition of Borges and Nabokov”, which would have been great, but except for those two extra narrative layers that I didn’t like anyway, I didn’t catch any of the promised fun.

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