A Brief History of Negative Space


Chris Nakashima-Brown

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I. Two-man Solitaire

The campaign began on a cold Saturday morning in 1973 over grilled cheese sandwiches and dark coffee in the breakfast nook of a furnished apartment on Brattleboro Avenue, near the old university. As elusive phalanxes of snow battered the storm windows, a hundred phantom divisions waged weeks of low-tech nuclear combat across the tabletop plains of Bavaria and Czechoslovakia. From the kitchen window where they sat, the generals could see a small black dog staring at them knowingly from the alley.

Two hours and fifteen minutes into the game, upon the expiration of his seventh turn, Ted removed his glasses to wipe them slowly with the worn cotton of his flannel shirt. The world went out of focus, followed by Ted's mind. Passing over the northeastern reaches of the Alps while one of his light artillery battalions marched like a diesel-powered Hannibal through a pass between Salzburg and Berchtesgarden, Ted considered his insular apartment as an unlikely analog to the "Eagle's Nest" of A.H.

The apartment was a map room, a metaphoric repository, the attic outpost from which Ted charted the coastlines of his reality. It was the laboratory in which he executed the project whose manifesto he had abstracted over a year earlier:

To establish the tangibility of negative space through cartographic delineation of its contours. Negative space: the Gnostic vacuum left uncovered by the busy fossils of human expression. The infinite universe of thoughts not yet articulated, things not yet said. The space between musical notes, the void between cinematic frames.

Brought back by the insistent klang of the radiator and the murmured Wagnerian hum of his companion, Ted looked across the table. Phil was slowly twirling a pencil in his beard. Occasionally he would scrawl a calculation on the back of his notebook, postulating scenarios to reverse the precarious status of the 12th New Rhodesian heavy infantry entrenched west of Pilzen.

Rattled by Ted's abstracted glare, Phil shifted his regard to the medallion hanging from his opponent's neck, a cryptic mandala of ambiguous origins. Perhaps, Phil considered, this head shop artifact was the talisman that had enabled Ted's remarkable escape from the oppressive reality of the Department and its psychic environs.

As Phil scrutinized Ted's enigmatic demeanor, the Argentine marines penetrated the Occidental forces' southwestern emplacements around Ravensburg. The Canadian and Icelandic airborne divisions broke out across the Bavarian lowlands, swiftly taking Augsburg, Stuttgart, Karlsruhe, and Ulm. Reinforced by neutron megatanks, they punched on toward the regional capital. But Phil's ingenious counterpunch to the west out of Innsbruck/Landshut cut off Ted's offensive vanguard (in less than two weeks—six movement turns, one strategic turn, about half an hour real time). Their nuclear batteries exhausted, the armies reached a stalemate amid the irradiated lakes south of Munich.


Leaving the board for the first time in three and a half hours, Ted got up to prepare a fresh pot of coffee. Standing at the small gas oven, he wandered into a movie still taped to the refrigerator and listened to the silent roar of the starship as it hurtled past a black sun.

The campaigns Ted waged across the kitchen table on Saturdays, and across his frontal lobe as he walked down Cottage Grove to the lunch counter for his daily meal, were not governed by "strategy," but by pure abstraction—the elaborate interplay of invisible armies of conception. The zones of battle arrayed around the breakfast nook in eight large leafs were devoid of boundaries, regulated by constantly evolving rules, host to campaigns without end whose purpose was not tactical but existential victory: to decode the hieroglyphic universes buried in the furrowed brow of the general.

Thus, Ted concluded, all games are solitaire. The real challenge became to develop a system of solitaire wherein he could both create a new cosmos and then explore it with his fictive minions as if it were entirely novel and uncharted. He wrestled with the problem for some time, unable to bear the aggravations of other people's dungeons. He tried the solitaire kits prepared by various professional game designers, and fiddled with his own prefabricated systems in which different rolls of the polyhedric dice led to different permutations of the world.

In time, those methods merged. Ted was able to establish a methodology of wargaming wherein the world created itself as the character/army roamed it. When the elfin monk Imrael trekked the broad circumference of the planet Qul, infinite hexagons of alien geography generated themselves before him as he re-imagined the continent. Subterranean catacombs staffed with uninvented monsters and littered with the flotsam of a million fantasy novels drew themselves out on reams of graph paper, as Imrael projected a fantastic construction crew of the mind before him. The self-perpetuating cities of the western coast populated their streets with extensive neighborhoods of non-player characters; each defined his or her own characteristics. As he looked around the room, Ted watched the planets materialize along innumerable vanishing points.


While the percolator bubbled, Phil lit a cigarette and took mental notes on the tandem blunders that had brought him so close to tactical oblivion.

Over coffee and a cleared game board, he and Ted broke silence to discuss possible topographical variations that would heighten the game's interest. They agreed on the establishment of new protocols to alter the landscape according to battle damage. In the future, Ted's hovercraft would land on beaches of glass.


Twilight asserted itself in time. The generals packed their cardboard armies away in neat stacks secured by orthodontic rubber bands, found their parkas, and traversed the deserted campus to catch an installment of the ongoing science fiction film festival. A double feature: Message from Tomorrow (malaise-ridden radio operator Tommy Kirk discovers troubling transmissions on an illegal wavelength) and Plutopia (a withered Keir Dullea as the lone occupant of an automated outpost on the ninth planet, biding the interminable years unto death after the homeworld has been decimated).

As lonely spacecraft rocketed lethargically toward the farthest star, Ted fingered his mutton chops ponderously and marked out the routes in colored chalk against the inside of his forehead.


Later, Ted stood at the front window and watched Phil pull away in his grey Volkswagen. Midnight ice revealed hexes newly manifested over the cracked asphalt. The familiar mongrel trotted across them, briefly illuminated by the headlights.

Exhausted, Ted sat in the armchair and drew on an elaborate homemade bong. Moog notes wandered out of the hi-fi and skipped slowly over the carpet, drowning the electric hum of the battered black-and-white Philco across the room. The otherwise soundless television was tuned to an apocalyptic late movie on translator channel 47. Plaster-of-Paris skyscrapers crumbled under a tidal wave compelled by lost gravity.