Book Review: John Brunner’s The Squares of the City (1965)

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4/5 (Good)

Nominated for the 1966 Hugo Award for Best Novel

John Brunner’s The Squares of the City (1965) transposes the moves of a 1892 chess game between Wilhelm Steinitz (1836-1900) and Mikhail Chigorin (1850-1905) onto a near future landscape of political intrigue. Inspired by Brazil’s planned capital Brasília (founded in 1960), the action takes place in Ciudad de Vados, the capital city of the imaginary Latin American nation of Aguazul.1 Conjured out of a “barren, rocky stretch of land,” Ciudad de Vados contains all the homogenized trappings of an ultra-modern metropolis (170). It’s sterile. Planned. Mechanized. Quickly the monumental urban regularity fades into the background and the intricate game across its squares takes over.

Note: I struggled for more than a month to gather my thoughts sufficiently to write a review. I apologize if its a bit insubstantial in its analysis. I need to move on to other projects!

Opening Moves

The Englishman Boyd Daniel Hakluyt arrives Ciudad de Vados under the impression that his skills as a traffic analyst will quickly solve a routine design flaw in the brand new metropolis.2 His employer? The mayor and namesake of the city, Juan Sebastian Vados, who also serves as Aguazul’s President (or rather, seemingly benevolent dictator). His task? “Remodel” the “black spots” of Vados, i.e. shantytowns that cluster around a newly constructed monorail nexus and infringe upon the polished sheen of the new city, in order to compel their residents to move elsewhere (32). According to Angers, an English-born citizen of the city, these slums contain the “illiterate” who congregate in a “positive cesspool of disease, contributing nothing to life of Vados and expecting everything in return” (31). Hakluyt soon realizes far more is at stake. His every move is watched.

And there are games within games. Hakluyt encounters a mysterious woman named Señora Posador, a wealthy political enemy of President Vados, who introduces him to chess. “Perhaps our national game” she muses, trying to get him to play (22). Tables in restaurants contain inlaid chessboards. The reaction to the death of a local chess champion rivals the impact of a political crisis (111). Servants serve as chess pieces reenacting the games of the national champion, “or anyone who wins a championship abroad,” before a “distinguished audience” (122).

Hakluyt’s impression that Aguazul, “for a Latin American Country,” was “comparatively free from internal strike” dissipates quickly as he finds himself a tool in a larger internal conflict between the local political parties of the city (25). The native born residents appear at odds with Aguazul’s elite and their foreign allies granted citizenship by the President for their service in building the metropolis. Party views appear to be guided by the shadowy forces behind popular media: radio, television, newspapers. In a political cartoon, Hakluyt himself appears as an “angel with a flaming sword, scowling down on a ragged peasants” (163). Urban conflict looms.

El hombre de la ciudad de hoy

The novel’s most overt science fictional moments concern the city’s television channel, an organ of political propaganda, with its use of sophisticated forms of subliminal manipulation.3 Brunner draws on ideas popularized by Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders (1957), which argued that “politicians, corporate executives, and big business” were using “large-scale efforts” to “channel our unthinking habits, our purchasing decisions, and our though processes” via “insights gleaned from psychiatry and the social sciences.”4 Ciudad de Vados’ media mogul, Dr. Alejandro Major, sees media as a binding agent necessary to maintain a state’s stability. Brunner, in a far more restrained manner than the metatextual exuberance of Stand on Zanzibar (1968), conveys the state’s ideology via references to Major’s book El hombre de la ciudad de hoy. Major argues that “the free democratic state was far too unstable to endure and therefore guaranteed its citizens misery and destruction” (83). Thus, subliminal messaging opens up desirable paths of action without the population seeing the scaffolding of the state (84).

In one of the novel’s best moments, Hakluyt finds himself falling victim to the subliminally emphasized official narrative: “This magnificent city really was, I thought, one of the greatest achievements of the twentieth century” (80). He’s drawn in by horrifying images of “diseased children sharing huts with pigs and burros, of overgrowing and overbreeding” in the city’s “black spots” he’s been tasked with clearing around the city (80). Only Señora Posador’s stern warnings not to watch television detach him from the artificial reality. She demonstrates what he really saw flickering across the screen: “the central character was a colored man stripped from the waist down. With him were a group of children, all aged about twelve. I won’t take the space to describe what they were doing” (91). As Hakluyt starts to piece together the strange events he has witnessed–“chess champions for public heroes; public opinion molded by subliminal perception, without any great effort made to conceal the fact; primitive squalor next door to buildings as modern as tomorrow” (125)–his own path becomes shockingly clear.

Final Thoughts

A fascinating political thriller told with real zest, The Squares of the City (1965) spares time for more than a few inquisitive ruminations on the possibilities of near future media and interracial tensions. While some of the moves and characters will be lost in the novel’s most labyrinthine moments, fans of John Brunner’s more thoughtful works should track down a copy. It’s firmly a second-tier Brunner work–gesturing towards but not achieving the heights of Stand on Zanzibar (1968), The Sheep Look Up (1972), and The Shockwave Rider (1975).5 However, I found it an engaging, and structurally audacious, early experiment containing many of Brunner’s favorite themes.

Recommended.


Notes


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