Thursday, October 10, 2013

Review of The Squares of the City by John Brunner

In 1892, Wilhelm Steinitz and Mikhail Chigorin squared off in the finals of the World Chess Championship in Havana, Cuba.  One of the deciding matches so original in gamesmanship and rife with strategically interesting play, it has become one of the more well-known matches in history.  (The game can be replayed virtually here and with analysis here.)  Picking up on its nuances and seeing the potential, John Brunner decided to use the match to structure a novel.  1965’s The Squares of the City the result, it tells of a city experiencing a strong racial divide, with each character representing a piece in the game.  The premise both strengthening and weakening the story, the book is nevertheless a unique read, but is perhaps most special for social conscience behind it all.

The Squares of the City is set in the South American city of Vados, capital of the fictional Aguazul.  Like Canberra and Brasilia, Vados is a planned city, and is the shining result of Aguazul’s rapid rise on the global economic scene thanks to the shrewd maneuvering of its eponymous president.  But wealth and prosperity have not trickled down to the country’s native Indians—a people who move to the city in droves, seeking a better life and more opportunities than their deprived countryside existences allow.  The city’s elite, many of which are nationals of foreign origin, desire ways to quell the eyesores of Indian habitation which result—the city center itself the biggest point of contention given the squalid market that has taken root there.  The government of Aguazul marginally democratic, they seek a defendable means of clearing the lower class from its nest and hire Boyd Hakluyt, one of the world’s best traffic engineers, to design away their social ills.  The board is thus set.

Hakluyt (white knight king-side) arrives in Vados knowing little of the cultural tension threatening to split the small country in two.  Reading the city’s two opposed newspapers, encountering political demonstrations, hearing of questionable disappearances, and meeting for himself some of the members of government—shady and otherwise, he is quickly brought up to speed as to the designs Vados and his supporters have for his skills.  Gaining empathy for the natives while out in public collecting traffic data, Hakluyt dislikes the middle-man position he finds himself in and attempts to evade the pressure coming from all sides.  Getting only further involved as a result, Hakluyt inevitably becomes part of Vados’ fate.  What this fate is, however, cannot be foreseen even with forehand knowledge of Steinitz and Chigorin’s end game.

Story plotting holding much in common with chess, the gamut of “moves” which Halkyut makes and is witness to readily parallel the game.  The feinting, the baiting, the posturing, the unretaliated move, the untaken move, the sacrifice, the exchange of pieces, controlling the center—all these standard “tropes” of the game are in Brunner’s plot, making the story an exciting thriller.  That being said, knowing that the characters’ actions are just mirroring a game diminishes the overall dramatic effect.  The deaths lack poignancy, and in turn foreshorten Brunner’s intentions.

But nobody can say the thematic goals themselves are weak.  The black vs. white of the chess game overtly symbolizing much of the social and cultural tension still plaguing colonial and post-colonial countries, The Squares of the City addresses both sides of the racism issue to solid, if not occasionally over-dramatic effect.  Angiers, Hakluyt’s elitist supervisor, Maria, his police chief O’Rourke, even Vados himself are all presented in realistic enough terms so as to embody much of the ideology and problems resulting from the interaction of color and culture.  The fact uncertainty and turmoil continue to exist in several South American countries is a testament to Brunner’s goals and the novel’s continued relevancy. 
A note needs to be made regarding the book’s conclusion.  At the plot level it seems a disappointingly empty device, but from a meta-textual perspective one sees the analogy Brunner was aiming at to the real world.  How involved are leaders in the government of state?  Are individual concerns of more importance, or is the seriousness of the responsibility fully borne out?  And perhaps most importantly, are we all pawns to the system, or does personal choice still play a role?  While some may feel the ending misanthropic, the final page of the novel would seem to say otherwise.

In the end, The Squares of the City is a solid novel that is strong stylistically and thematically, but bears some criticism for the effect its main plot device has on the integrity of the ethnic concerns under discussion.  Looking strictly at story, it is an exciting political thriller in the vein of Graham Greene (stylistically, as well), with the denouement a strong statement regarding a person’s involvement in the affairs of society.  Thematically, the issue of racism in an economically delimited environment is examined to proper, but not astounding effect.  A problem arises when attempting to reconcile the two: the chess premise nicely highlights the theme of racism, but in turn acts in undermining fashion, the knowledge it’s all based on a game rendering the story somewhat hollow. Regardless, readers of Huxley, Orwell, Le Guin, Silverberg, or any of the other socially conscious writers of science fiction may want to have a read.  But for fans of Brunner, particularly The Jagged Orbit which The Squares of the City may be a preliminary sketch for, the book is a must read.

As a last note, while reading readers may go to the end of The Squares of the City to see a list of characters and the chess pieces in Steinitz and Chigorin’s game they represent, though it’s not recommended due to full-on spoilerage.  Brunner does a good job of introducing the characters in relevant scenes throughout the narrative, but the list can still be helpful sorting through the names and trying to understand their position in the overall plot the closer one gets to the end.

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