Jacob Haller (jwgh) wrote,
Jacob Haller
jwgh

Instant Review: John Brunner's The Squares Of The City (1965)

Warning: CONTAINS SPOILERS

A problem I had in approaching this book was the large amount of incidental material that gave away major plot points. The back cover and inside front cover have little blurbs that give away some plot points (and completely distort or make up others, as was so common in these sorts of books), but this book goes to the extraordinary length of including an introduction whose sole purpose appears to be to telegraph several important twists in the plot:
The story told by John Brunner in The Squares of the City held me spellbound from beginning to end. It had a special attraction for me because all the people in the book are chess-mad, and chess is my favorite pastime. But even the reader who knows nothing about the game will be thoroughly fascinated by the story in which the two chief political antagonists in a South American country attempt to direct the actions of their followers by using the unconscious but powerful influence of "subliminal perception," a technique which may well threaten all our futures.

Under its baleful persuasion, members of the two hostile parties commit all sorts of crimes as they unknowingly carry out the actions suggested to them by a confidant of their leaders who is an expert in subliminal perception and who is the Director of the television network that controls The City. Only gradually does one realize that The City is a chessboard -- its chief inhabitants taking actions that are the counterparts of moves in a vicious game of chess being played out by their leaders.

The author has added an ingenious twist to his story which will be particularly intriguing to chess fans. The game in which his characters move as living pieces has not been artificially designed by him to suit the progress of his plot. It had actually been played, move for move, some seventy years ago in a match for the world championship between the title holder, the American master William Steinitz, and the Russian master Mikhail Ivanovich Tchigorin.

      -- Edward Lasker, M.E., E.E.
Yes, the reader gradually realizes this ... unless the reader is explicitly told what's going on before the book ever starts! Dammit. (My Google searches seem to indicate that Edward Lasker was in fact a chess expert who wrote some books on the subject.)

Having read that, I had difficulty getting too excited about reading the book itself, but it did draw me in. I wouldn't call it a science fiction book. It's set almost wholly in the fictional Ciudad de Vados, the capital city of a Latin American country whose leader has intended it to be a symbolic 'city of tomorrow'. The main character is a foreign traffic engineer named Hakluyt who's hired to come in and (he is initially told) do some minor tweaking to the design of the city. (The story is told from his perspective.)

It turns out that he's actually expected to take care of a problem which has been dividing the city: people have been moving to the city from the country, resulting in the creation of slums in the city and shanty towns nearby, neither of which is considered to be an appropriate feature of the City of Tomorrow. Hakluyt is supposed to change the city's traffic patterns so that these communities are no longer viable. There is a great deal of opposition to this plan, however, both within the city government and outside it. The rest of the novel portrays the city slowly collapsing into chaos as the two sides clash over this issue.

The two plot points that were revealed in the introduction aren't, in my estimation, all that important, although it still would have been nice to find out about them on my own. Hakluyt finds out about the subliminal advertising (which is used to influence public opinion and isn't really connected to Plot Point #2 despite what the introduction says) fairly early on. He is initially greatly offended by it, then is given an explanation by a member of the government that seems to make sense, and thereafter tries to keep an open mind about it, though as he learns more about what goes on in the city it becomes more difficult to do so. (But by that point there are bigger fish to fry anyway.)

The chess thing is more important (and isn't revealed until the last chapter, dammit). It's an attempt by the president and his most powerful rival to come to an agreement without causing a revolution -- they will play a game of chess, choose actual people to signify the pieces, and manipulate the people/pieces to act out the moves they picked. Whoever wins the game will get his way. But it doesn't work out that way, and the ultimate point is that people aren't chess pieces and trying to treat them as if they were only leads to disaster. (There's an afterward that matches up chess pieces with characters and gives a brief summary of the parallels between the game and what happens to the pieces/characters.) It's part of the overall theme of the book, which I might summarize as something like "the term 'enlightened dictatorship' is a contradiction in terms" but is by no means the only thing used to support that theme.

I was impressed that Brunner would even attempt to write a book whose main themes were city planning and chess, and I thought that the book was quite readable and interesting despite its odd choice of subject matter.

In another case of odd coincidence, on Saturday (when I had already started reading the book) I was at a Christmas party which was attended by a lot of city planners and I got to hear them talk about how intelligent city planning could make a big difference to communities, so that a simple thing like including sidewalks would have huge cascading effects that would make a huge difference in what a neighborhood was like. This appreciation for the power of city planning and extreme dislike for when this power is used carelessly or poorly is something that the main character also has and I think it's a good perspective to be exposed to.
Tags: brunner
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