Monday, March 4, 2013

John Brunner's THE SQUARES OF THE CITY #OneBookAtATime

The Sheep Look Up utterly devastated me when I read it for the first (and definitely not the last) time earlier this year, and I realized that John Brunner was a guy whose books I would definitely need to track down one by one until I had read them all.

Then my pal Paul Weimer and  a relatively new Twitter friend, Fred Kiesche, applauding my resolution, told me that if The Sheep Look Up was "death by pollution", The Squares of the City was "death by chess". As in the structure is modeled after a World Championship game in 1982 between Wilhelm Steinitz and Mikhail Chigorin. I thus knew that this one would have to be my next Brunner, because if there is one thing I love, utterly hopelessly*, it's chess. And people who are obsessed with chess.

And I also like a good jaw about urban planning and cities. So, um, as they say nowadays, hell yes.

The city in question here, Vados, is a relatively newly founded capital city in a ficticious South American Republic, Aguazul, to which our hero, the delightfully named Boyd Hakluyt,** has been summoned to help improve its traffic flows. Vados might be the most modern and well-planned city in the world, but the problem of moving people and goods around is never really solved, is it?

But of course, it's not really a traffic problem our hero has been brought in to solve. See, the circumstances behind the founding, just 20 years ago, of the city of Vados, are troublesome. Aguazul's president, Vados (yes), did not trust his people and their meager resources to create the perfect city he dreamed of, so he threw it open to the global elite as what amounted to an investment opportunity with big returns -- the biggest return being a place to live with a guaranteed high standard of living, elegance, order, and freedom from riff-raff. Yeah, he sort of built Galt's Gulch.

But wait! In order to assure the city had adequate water, most of the nation's water supply was diverted. Water that peasants and villagers and small farmers depended on. Water that said peasants etc. wound up having to follow to Vados, even though Vados had no place for the likes of them, resulting in unsightly slums and shanty towns and the general presence of riff-raff in this perfect city. Oh noes!

So what Hakluyt is really there to do is come up with a "traffic improvement plan" that requires the city to eliminate said slums and shanty towns, thus forcing the riff-raff back "onto to the land" where they belong. Any plan he might come up with that does not require this will be rejected; he is there to provide an excuse and act as a scapegoat.

It takes him a while to discover this, of course. And once he does...

Here is the source of the novel's real interest and tension (the chess plot is really just window dressing, though it's kind of fun to track plot developments -- deaths, arrests, kidnappings -- and see how they map onto the moves of the famous 1892 game): Hakluyt spends a lot of this novel trying to rationalize his presence in Vados, to justify to himself and a few key others his dogged determination to do some appoximation, at least, of what he's being paid for. Among those key others is one Maria Posador, leader of a small faction of native-born privilege who have taken up the cause of the slum-dwellers. If there is an opposite term for "femme fatale" that term would apply to Maria, who is constantly trying to get our hero to do the right thing and tell his employers to pound sand.

Lots of others would like him to do so as well, and many of them are less subtle than Maria, which means there are some decent action scenes, conspiracy elements, even a bit of a mystery plot woven in with this meditation on haves and have nots and what the former might be seen to owe to the latter. Which is to say that once again, Brunner showed a great deal of prescience -- but this time his work has not achieved anything like the status of self-denying prophecy that The Sheep Look Up has.

And of course it's a bit of a dig at the history of the New World in general, isn't it?

Well worth a read.

*As in I adore the game and never miss a chance to play but pretty much suck at it to a hilarious degree.

**I suspect his name is a nod to Richard Hakluyt, an Elizabethan era writer who promoted the settlement of North America in his work.

1 comment:

  1. One of my favorites, yeah. I'm glad Fred and I convinced you to try it and you liked it.


Sorry about the CAPTCHA, guys, but without it I was getting 4-5 comment spams an hour.