Vintage Sci-Fi Month: “The Squares of the City” by John Brunner

January is Vintage Sci-Fi Month and I’m hoping to feature a number of looks at vintage sci-fi I’m reading for the month to spur some discussion and hear your thoughts! Follow Vintage Sci-Fi Month on Twitter and get in on the fun, too! As I recall, the rule for calling something “Vintage” is that it was written before you were born, but feel free to adjust that as you like.

The Squares of the City by John Brunner

Forgive me a bit of indulgence here on my story with this novel. My interactions with John Brunner’s The Squares of the City began when I was a younger teenager. On vacation to visit my grandma, we went to the same used book store we’d always visit while we were there. It was a huge bookstore, built into a building that was clearly not intended for such a use. It was almost like a courthouse, with a large inner room and several small rooms with vaulted ceilings, unusual columns, and more oddities scattered throughout. I only ever went in as a child–it’s unfortunately long gone now–so that may have colored my experience, but I always marveled at the shelves and the selection. In a far-off corner of the store, I spotted the cover featured as the image here on the shelf. A guy holding a chessboard had a lot of appeal to me as a kid who was involved in chess online and with friends. I grabbed it, paid the pittance for the book, and dived in. I loved it. I was blown away by the intricacies of the plotting and thought the idea of someone whose job it was to plan how traffic should flow was so cool. But I barely remembered it as an adult. Nevertheless, I dutifully boxed it up and brought it along with every move, whether college or apartment or beyond. The cover spoke to me. The knowledge that I had loved it so much as a teen meant I couldn’t quite bear to part with it, even as I boxed up and sold off hundreds of other books. It had a nostalgia connected both to the shuttered store, my grandparents, and the experience of reading it that I could never shake. It’s yellowing pages were a testament to the longevity of its staying power in my life. Yet I never re-read it. Until now.

The book should be a gimmick. Brunner’s concept, apparently, was to take a famous chess match and turn it into the plot of a near future sci-fi novel involving much political intrigue and little future tech. It should not work, but it does. Boyd Hakluyt is a traffic planner hired to make sense of the urban sprawl of Ciudad de Vados, a major new city in an invented South American nation. But there’s more to the city than Hakluyt planned on as he finds himself thrust into a power struggle between National and Citizen factions with competing interests that ultimately lead to a number of deaths, controversies, and disgraces.

Brunner weaves through the tale a remarkable amount of humanity, as concern for the plight of the poor clashes with interests of city development. The status of native peoples drives further conflict as those pushing for modernization attempt to drive out tradition. Racial tensions clash and Hakluyt, a white man, finds himself out of place time and again as his sympathies lie with people that those who are trying to control him did not expect. The novel stirs the pot and it does so deeply, asking questions about inequalities and race that receive only answers that are not black and white like the squares of the chessboard, but rather shades of gray that force readers to think for themselves. (Sorry, I needed at least one major chess reference here.)

Going along with all of this, there is a huge cast of characters, each of which is developed far better than one might expect for such a big cast. The reasoning behind the big cast is probably in part for Brunner to fill out his chessboard, but also makes sense in context of a complex city with major political strife happening throughout. The big reveal towards the end–when Hakluyt himself discovers the fact that the major players of the city’s strife have themselves been manipulating people into a real chess match to figure out who will “win” control of the city–is perhaps too literal, but it still managed to work for me. The ending is a bit short and far more ambivalent than I would have liked, but it serves its purpose well enough.

The Squares of the City is a remarkably deep novel, particularly when one considers it may easily have devolved into a series of gimmicks. Brunner took an idea and ran with it to a huge extent, but somehow he made it all work, and work really well. I recommend it highly.


J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

My Read-Through of the Hugos– Check out all my posts on reading through the Hugo Award winners and nominees. Tons of sci-fi fantasy discussion throughout.

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6 thoughts on “Vintage Sci-Fi Month: “The Squares of the City” by John Brunner

  1. socrates17 says:

    I bought and read this in 1965 when it was a Ballantine 1st edition. It was a mass market paperback. The only Brunner I’d read previously, was the rather pulpish & faintly Lovecraftian The Atlantic Abomination (half of an Ace Double) in 1960. So, this was my first “serious” Brunner. I loved it. That year I also started college, and I talked many of my classmates into reading it. As far as I remember, most of them also loved it. I remember one classmate raving about it. Maybe it isn’t as prescient and important as Stand on Zanzibar or The Sheep Look Up, but it’s still a terrific novel.

  2. Joachim Boaz says:

    I haven’t read this particular one — to the best of my knowledge (I was obsessed with his fiction early in my SF reading career). I’ve found him quite progressive. For example, I read his generation ship novella “Lungfish” (1957) ( review on my site), and the captain and half the staff are women… for a 1950s story! (and it passes the bechdel test).

    I have a penchant for chess themed fiction. Nabokov’s Despair comes to mind. I’ll need to score my shelves and see if I have a copy of this one.

  3. […] discovered many years ago, and it stands up to a re-read in sometimes surprising ways. I even wrote more extensively on it. Heinlein is hugely hit or miss for me, and The Moon… is more of a hit, but even there […]

  4. […] The Squares of the City by John Brunner- A novel I adored but probably didn’t understand as a child has even more meaning when reading it as an adult. And what could have been a gimmick is actually a fun way to organize a book.  […]

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