Friday, March 04, 2016

Les Chesseurs Britanniques de Paris: Part 5 The Robot

So far in this series we have tracked the fortunes of the British Chess Club of Paris (1926 to 1938/9) and some of its more famous, and infamous, members. In this final post we continue to dog the footsteps of one of them: George Langelaan. Apart from his escapades with the BCCP, his heroic war service in occupied territory, and his association with Planète, he will be known to many readers as the author of The Fly, published in the States in 1957, then in Belgium as La Mouche in 1962.

In 1986 it was famously made into a film by David Cronenberg - and before even that, a 1958 original starred Vincent Price.

At the time it created quite a buzz.
In this episode we will examine another short-story by Langelaan, a sci-fi not-so-far-in-the-future shocker also published in 1962: the chess-themed Robots Pensants. 

This is where you would have found both La Mouche and Robots Pensants. 

Published by Marabout, Belgium, in 1962.
Over 50 years later you will still have to read the Robots in French. So, as a service to our English speaking readers, we offer a synopsis of sorts below, along with a discussion of the chess, of sorts, integral to the plot.   

The story opens at the dead of night in a Parisian cemetery, where our hero Lewis Armeigh (an Englishman attached to the Embassy, and "nearer forty than thirty") is surreptitiously poking around the tombs in the family vault of his recently deceased best friend Robert Tournon (killed in a car accident). Lewis is there at the behest of Penny - betrothed to Robert shortly before his unfortunate demise. I'm guessing that Lewis still harbours his pash for Penny (an American in Paris) - she likes him a lot, but she chose Robert. 

The inscription on Robert’s tomb tells us that the setting for the story is 1971 (then ten years into the future). Next to his tomb he sees the space that was awaiting Penny herself, in the fullness of time, as Robert’s intended wife. As for Robert's freshly installed coffin: it is empty. There is no Robert therein. Dead or alive.

In the debrief, Penny, on thinking about it, can’t recall ever seeing Robert’s body after the accident, and she is sure that the chess-playing mannequin demonstrated by the perfectly-mannered Count of Saint Germain – she saw it give a display just the other day at an "ultra-chic reception" - looks a dead-ringer for her presumed deceased fiancé. She had confirmation from his father that Robert had a habit of twiddling a piece between his fingers before completing a move, just like the Count's automaton. Uncanny. Robert incidentally was sometime Paris champion, and a pretty decent player. Penny is a pretty (and) decent concert pianist. She and Lewis remark upon the Count’s notoriety for constructing life-like, and life-size, mannequins.

The story, by the way, was made into a télé-film in 1976, shown in France with the title of Le Collectionneur de Cerveaux. There are various extracts on-line (see Acknowledgements). This is Penny and Lewis in earnest discussion.
François Dunoyer as Lewis and Claude Jade as Penny
The two of them take a spin down to Rouen (please drive safely!) for the next demonstration of the dodgy Count's chess automaton. Again it fiddles with its bits while it trashes its opponents. Here is the robot at play in the film:
Jean-Pierre Hiercé as the Robot
This is one of those occasions when it is better left to the imagination. The filmic robot looks rather too obviously like an actor in studio make-up, whereas the Count's robot was - as was plain for all to see in the story itself - manifestly a mannequin, but one that could play chess as if human.

Back to Langelaan's original story: when showing off his creation the Count goes to great lengths to convince the audience that there is no-one hidden inside - in all other respects, he says, it is an “exact copy” of Van (sic) Kempelen’s Turk. To prove his point he leaves all the cabinet doors open at the same time as his robot is powered up and is pushing its pawns.

A representation from 1789 of von Kempelen's Turk
 - actually of a model of it by Joseph Racknitz , with all
the doors open (see plate 3 below).    
As a further aside, compare this with the ingenious arrangement devised by von Kempelen whereby the real and human “Director” inside could slide back and forward, within the cabinet, on an adapted seat running on rails. Thus could he escape detection (see below). The various doors were opened in a pre-determined sequence (and never all simultaneously) - and closed again before play began; though the exact details of the original were lost when the machine went up in flames in a museum in Philadelphia on the 5th July 1854.
From an article by Ernest Wittenberg in American Heritage in 1960, 
showing a plausible reconstruction  of how the Turk did it 
- though the the Director looks a bit on the small side.    
When, in Robots Pensants, Lewis has his first encounter with the Count's chess automaton, we get a description of its embodied workings seen when he, and others in the audience, are invited to inspect it on-stage. Lewis sees "tubes, wires, and condensers very similar to those of a radio or television. There were also lots of mechanical parts, axles, cogs, springs, levers, pinions, small chains, cables, and several glass tubes more or less full of a green liquid." At the demonstration the power comes from the mains when "there is a hum of an electric motor, the cogs begin to turn, small lamps light up, and bubbles appear in the liquid pumped through the glass tubing." (My translations) Although an apparent copy of the original Turk, the Count is at pains to proclaim the technological superiority of his creation over von Kempelen's.

Lewis, our hero, discreetly checks out the premises, but there is no-one in the adjacent rooms pulling strings (as you might say) by transmitting the moves. Nothing in the Count’s "camionnette" either, parked outside - such as a short wave radio transmitter as suspected by Lewis. Here Langelaan might be referencing Mephisto, the Victorian chess automaton of the 1880s who was, it seems, directed by such means, but of a primitive sort; however Langelaan does not have the Count, or Lewis, explicitly make the connection.
Mephisto; here with the black pieces.
Sadly, not mentioned by Langelaan.  
Before witnessing the robot in the flesh, as it were, Lewis was sceptical of Penny's scepticism. Now he is not so sure. Lewis is convinced that the Count's Heath Robinson-ish stuff is a masquerade, but he is still thinks there must be a human presence at work in the "horrible machine". Incidentally and of course: in the case of the real Turk of von Kempelen, all the mechanical gubbins on display was a bluff, and that included the charade of winding it up before the Turk would play. 

As for its chess: Langelaan has Lewis explain that von K's Turk always took white, whereas the Count’s machine accepts either colour (another mark of progress says the Count). However Langelaan/Lewis has it wrong here. According to Gerald M. Levitt’s excellent history of the Turk there are many recorded games where it played Black - for example when Jacques-François Mouret (a grandnephew of Philidor) was manipulating the pieces from within, often at pawn and move. The veracity of the stories of how Napoleon pulled rank and took White against Von K's wishes - for example here – and then adopted various ruses to confound the working of the automaton, is, says Levitt, debatable. Boney, says one version of the story, threw a lady's shawl over the Turk’s head to stop it "seeing" the board - which was just a waste of a decent fashion accessory as the "Director" was of course in the cabinet underneath. Here is a game supposedly played by Allgaier, in the guise of the Turk, against Bonaparte - it doesn't take long. 

Thus Langelaan's story has a nice interplay between the Count’s creation and the "real" Turk, and there is also a knowing reference, voiced in the plot by Lewis, to Edgar Allen Poe’s essay of 1836 (here, but it's hard going). Poe correctly surmised that there was human agency in the Turk (as later owned and run by Maelzel), but otherwise had many of the details completely wrong. So, in Langelaan's story there are correlations between the Turk and the automaton, and von Kempelen and the devilishly aspirational Count. You could say the same, at one remove, about Poe, a master of the short horror story, and Langelaan himself, would-be master of the genre and the deus ex machina of the plot.

Langelaan shows off his credentials as a sometime chess expert by endowing the Count’s robot with a proper opening repertoire: the Giuoco Piano, 2. e5 against the Alekhine, and the King’s Gambit - all of which get named by Lewis when the robot is observed at play. Thus the plot poses the following teaser: what is the source of the robot's sophisticated chess know-how, bearing in mind that these were, we are told, Robert's preferred openings?   

Lewis pays a visit to the Count’s chateau to do a recce. 
André Reybaz as the Count - a very model gentleman.
(Von Kempelen was described as a "modest and quiet man" by Walker, in 1839 here 
There is a fearsome dog guarding the gates, menacing intruders, but it is made of papier-mâché and is but a paper tiger, its bark worse than its bite. The Count graciously consents to give Lewis a guided tour; demonstration of a nearly completed robot-pianist inclus. The host helpfully explains that it is awaiting final adjustments (a spare part maybe?) so that it may improvise like a real concert pianist. But as far as a peek at the chess-playing automaton is concerned, it is off-limits: accès interdit.

Lewis schemes a return visit to find out what the Count is hiding, and a few days later enlists the aid of Bertie, an English chum, for a midnight foray to the castle while the Count is away on undisclosed, but undoubtedly nefarious, business. Bertie disapproves, as a gentleman would, of Lewis wearing casual, even if practical, shoes with a dinner suit; but they pass muster, and the buddies dine at the Casino and take a turn at the tables before their nocturnal adventure. Somehow, in decent society in 1960s Paris, Bertie, the Englishman abroad, has access to a gun. Notwithstanding his earlier attention to sartorial detail, he is now oblivious to the stylistic consequences of packing a revolver. Meanwhile Penny goes missing – as Lewis learns from an anguished call from her parents.

They penetrate the castle having neutralised robo-dog. In the depths they find the chess-robot in standby mode, and hit the 'on' switch. For some reason not explained it comes into Lewis's head to scribble for the automaton's consideration a Turing-style message: CAN YOU READ? Robo-chesser takes the pen (so that’s a YES, then) and scratches enough to direct them to the cellar where they find Penny lashed to a bed, semi-drugged, ditto déshabilée, minded by a demented robo-nurse on wheels. Nom d'un chien! (Gorblimey!) Penny is being prepared for some ghastly surgical procedure to activate the Count’s piece de resistance, his robo-pianist.

Robo-riot! Alarmed at the uninvited intrusion, a ghoulish mob of mannequins goes beserk. The Count re-appears as if from nowhere. Bertie floors him. They escape with Penny wrapped for decency in a blanket. The castle and its denizens, in whatever degree human, go up in flames (shades of the demise of von K's Turk in 1854). 

In a final sequence plucky Penny recovers (the Doctor prescribing, à la façon français, nothing more than beaucoup de café noir très fort), and Lewis returns to the smoking ruins in the interests of scientific enquiry. He retrieves the bit which made the mannequin-dog bark in the night-time. A surgeon friend does the forensics. It is some real mutt's brain. Robert reports that it had been wired up to a similar kit of paraphernalia, tubes of green liquid and all, just as he saw in the robo-chesser.

So, robo-mystery solved and all's well that ends well. There is even a suggestion that Lewis and Penny will now get it together, which is perhaps what the doomed Robert, selfless indeed, might have wished. But what did become of Robert? And it is with this thought that Langelaan's plot leaves some unanswered, and unsettling, questions - and a slow after-burn to the story. If the Robert-robot was sentient enough to read and write, and was sufficiently aware still to have feelings for his sometime fiancée, what must have been going through his/its brain as he/it was engulfed by the flames?

This post may now be getting a bit too philosophical. The mind-body problem is perhaps a step too far for a chess blog - except that these issues have arisen before, when we reviewed Philosophy Looks At Chess. So, would a human brain re-assigned to an artificial life-support system, and directing its prosthetic appendage to play the King's Gambit, have qualified as some kind of first generation cyborg - as mooted in Hartmann's and Selinger's essays? And in 1962 was Langelaan ahead of the game?    

There is a clue in his dedication of his chiller "A la memoire d'Alexis Carrel, bien sur". Unfortunately, this adds only another layer of enigma. Wikipedia reports Alexis Carrel, (who died in France in 1944) working on the transplantation of organs and heads, for which he received the Nobel Prize in 1912. In this respect he was a valid inspiration for Langellan. But whatever Carrel's pioneering medical work, he was accused of adhering to a French proto-fascist group in the 1930s, then with Petain's collaborationist government during the Second World War - and assisting with their eugenics policy. Given Langelaan's role in the War, fighting against exactly this sort of thing, this dedication to Carrel is perplexing.

And so this post and, for now, this series ends - on a quizzical note. Who knows - like George Langelaan - what the future holds.

Gerald M. Levitt (2000) The Turk, Chess Automaton. McFarland, North Carolina. He credits the illustrations to the Library Company of Philadelphia.
Benjamin Hale (ed) (2008) Philosophy Looks at Chess. Open Court. Illinois.
Extracts from Le Collectionneur de Cerveaux may be found here and here.

[And thanks to ejh for the fly-tip.]


No comments: