In Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 classic movie The Seventh Seal, a medieval knight plays chess with Death. And it’s not the only time this strategic board game has been played in such a way. In the following email interview with writer Etan Ilfeld, he talks about Duchamp Versus Einstein (paperback, Kindle), a new novella he co-wrote with writer Christopher Hinz in which artist Marcel Duchamp and scientist Albert Einstein match wits over the checkered board.
I always like to start with a quick overview of the plot. So, what is Duchamp Versus Einstein about, and when and where is it set?
Duchamp Versus Einstein spans some of the most monumental events of the first half of the 20th century and brings together two transformative figures of the era in art and science — Marcel Duchamp and Albert Einstein — for a surreal chess match that reshapes history. It includes elements of time travel, surrealism, and an advanced alien being who meddles in humanity’s affairs. The story takes place in New York, Princeton, Bern, and Paris.
Who came up with the idea for Duchamp Versus Einstein, you or Christopher Hinz?
I originally wanted to setup Duchamp versus Crowley. Aleister Crowley was the strongest chess player at Cambridge, and had considered becoming a professional chess player before pursuing his notorious career in the occult. However, Chris and I felt that the timelines between the two didn’t mesh well, as Crowley was a bit older than Duchamp. We decided that it would be more interesting to juxtapose science with art and picked Einstein together.
So where did you get the original idea for this story?
I have always been interested in chess, art, sci-fi, physics, and the occult. Also, I had recently read the biographies of both Einstein and Duchamp and thought that it would be fun to structure a story along their life spans. Both had failed first marriages and stable second marriages. Duchamp’s first wife was so jealous of his passion for chess that she glued his chess pieces to the board, which made him furious and precipitated the end of their short-lived marriage. Einstein played chess with his first wife, Mileva Maric, who was also a physicist.
What was it about this story that made you want to write it with someone else, and specifically Christopher Hinz?
I had been in touch with Chris, and had already collaborated with him on a graphic novel adaptation of his classic Liege-Killer book. I thought it would be fun and we meshed well together in terms of bouncing ideas back and forth and writing in parallel.
So how did you guys write Duchamp Versus Einstein together? Did you alternate chapters, did you plot it out and he filled it in…?
After developing the structure, we started writing alternate chapters but quickly progressed into taking turns to rewrite and edit all the chapters so everything really was co-written. It was fun to collaborate because we could hold each other to deadlines and maintain discipline.
Duchamp Versus Einstein has been called a sci-fi story. Is that how you see it, or are there other genres that either explain it better or are at work in this story as well?
It fits in several categories such as sci-fi, literary fiction, dystopian and first contact.
So are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on either the story of Duchamp Versus Einstein or how you’ve told it?
Absolutely. There are several chess-related fiction titles including The Defense by Vladimir Nabokov, The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis, The Death’s Head Chess Club by John Donoghue, and Chess by Stefan Zweig. I also love Walter Isaacson’s biography of Einstein.
How about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or video games; did any of them have a big influence on Duchamp Versus Einstein? Because it kind of sounds like that episode from the original Star Trek, “The Savage Curtain,” in which an alien makes Kirk, Spock, and Abe Lincoln fight Genghis Khan and some aliens.
I have to watch that episode. I love Star Trek but don’t recall seeing that!
Speaking of influences, your bio says you have a physics degree from Stanford University. How did your studies influence Duchamp Versus Einstein?
I love physics, and my studies definitely played a big impact as I was both inspired and wanted to make sure that we got the science right. I knew a lot about Einstein’s theories before writing this book but the research that I did led me to a better understanding of the man himself. He was a genius with his own set of human flaws.
And do you think Stanford physics professor Bernard Widrow — or, as I know him, Uncle Bunny — do you think he’d feel this is a good use of your degree?
I hope so. Fiction that champions science and the creative personalities behind academia increase awareness of the vital role that science and technology play. Perhaps, I could have made a different contribution as a scientist, but I love publishing and writing.
Now, prior to co-writing Duchamp Versus Einstein, Christopher Hinz wrote four books in his Parattwa Saga. Is Duchamp Versus Einstein part of a series as well?
Originally, Duchamp Versus Einstein was conceived as a stand-alone project but we’re entertaining the notion of several connected stories in the future.
Earlier I asked if Duchamp Versus Einstein had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or video games. But has there been any interest in adapting that novel into a movie, show, or game?
That’s a great question. I think it would be challenging to adapt to a movie or show but perhaps it could be a board game. I like the idea of a game whose theme is art versus science or intuition versus logic.
Finally, if someone really likes Duchamp Versus Einstein, what similar science fiction story of someone else’s would you suggest they read next, and which of Christopher Hinz’s novels should they read?
I recommend Asimov’s Pebble In The Sky, and strongly recommend Christopher Hinz’s latest book, Starship Alchemon. As mentioned above, in terms of chess fiction, you can’t go wrong with Stefan Zweig’s Chess and Walter Tevis’ The Queen’s Gambit.