Vintage Sci-Fi: “The Haunted Stars” by Edmond Hamilton

Vintage Sci-Fi Month is over (it’s in January), but that doesn’t mean it’s time to stop reading vintage sci-fi. After great response to my posts during January, I’ve decided to make it an ongoing feature to read and review individual vintage sci-fi books. 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 Haunted Stars by Edmond Hamilton

I have never read Edmond Hamilton before, but he was a well-known pulp author in his own time. He wrote for DC comics, started Captain Future, and scattered his pulpy sci-fi across fandom. He was also married to Leigh Brackett, whose work I have enjoyed (as you probably have, since she co-wrote the screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back). Anyway, I saw someone recommend The Haunted Stars during Vintage Sci-Fi Month, saying that fans of Star Trek would probably like it. I’m a fan of Star Trek, and the cover’s simplicity had a weird innate appeal to me, so I grabbed it.

The Haunted Stars initially seems somewhat like a red scare novel, but its main character, Robert Fairlie, is a linguist, which was not an established trope at this point. The United States has apparently discovered an ancient military base on the moon, and has called a team of scientists in to decode what they found there. One character pushes for an expedition after they figure out how to make an Ion drive and also discover that the people who made this base are, in fact, the ancestors of all of humanity. They go to Ryn, the planet of the Vanryn, those ancestors of humanity. When they arrive, they meet a cool reception from most because they announce they want to find additional weapons/technology. The Vanryn, apparently, live in millennia-old fear of the Llorn, who defeated the Vanryn and scourged them from the galaxy 30,000 years ago.

All of that plot occupies about 85% of the book, and at this point it is a pretty excellent sci-fi adventure novel with some hard sci-fi mixed in. Really, it has most of my favorite sci-fi features: ancient ruins found by humans, some linguistics mixed in, some real (pseudo-) science peppering the plot. It had its flaws at this point–like women being at best tertiary characters, but it stood up as a solid novel. But it didn’t feel like Star Trek in any way whatsoever, and I wondered why it was recommended to fans of that franchise. Then the ending happened.

That last 15% or so of the book is the real deal. The Llorn show up, which wasn’t a surprise given how heavily foreshadowed the idea was, but they have news. It turns out that the Llorn were not the aggressor in the war with the Vanryn, but rather they fought only to prevent the Vanryn from wiping out all life throughout the galaxy. The Vanryn were simply seeding all planets and taking them for themselves, wiping out indigenous populations or stages of life that had yet to evolve intelligence. The Llorn, by contrast, work to simply allow life to exist in its many-faceted wonder, hoping to improve the universe through the uplift of many different intelligent species bringing their own cultures and assumptions to the galactic table. The Llorn tell the humans they will not interfere again, should they (the humans who are Vanryn) decide to spread across the universe again, but they show them a premonition of the endless war and destruction that will follow that course of action. Fairlie and the other scientists are left to bring the message back to Earth, unsure of how humanity will take it.

I adored that ending. It reminded me quite a bit of a kind of inverse of The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu (one of my all-time favorite science fiction novels). Will humanity heed the warning? Will the Red Scare doom them all to bitterness and war? Will ambition, pride, and hate overcome a possibility to thrive throughout time? We don’t know! Hamilton doesn’t tell us. It’s a somewhat shocking offering in what seemed to be a simple pulp sci-fi classic that makes you as a reader think and reflect on what it means to be human. I love it so much.

The Haunted Staris well-worth your time as a lover of science fiction. It has some flaws, but overall it is excellent reading. It’s pulp sci-fi with much more thoughtfulness than one might expect, and an ending that is just spot-on. I recommend it especially if you also like those tropes I mentioned- space archaeology, linguistics, and hard sci-fi mixed in.

Links

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!

Vintage Sci-Fi– Click the link and scroll down to read more vintage sci-fi posts! I love hearing about your own responses and favorites!

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.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

My Read-Through of the Hugos: 1963

I’ve almost completed my read-through of the top science fiction books of all time and was casting about for something else to do. I decided that reading through the list of Hugo award winners and nominees wasn’t a bad way to spend my time. Here are the nominees and the winner of the 1963 Hugo Awards. I’ve marked the winner as well as my own choice for which novel would win, had I the choice among the nominees.

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (Winner) Grade: B-
I still can’t figure out the ending, but it was an enjoyable book. Fascinating idea (Japan/Germany win WW2) that is frequently-explored in alternate history but done well here. Dick’s strength is in the way he conveys a mix of humor and horror. Most of the book feels a bit like a travelogue, though, and one that doesn’t seem nearly as foreboding or interesting as it ought to be given the compelling idea behind the plot. Dick’s obsession–like many other SFF authors of his time–with questions of sexuality and pushing whatever boundaries he thought he needed to push against isn’t overwhelming here, but it is definitely an underlying theme. Since reading the book, I’ve watched the first two seasons of the TV show, which is pretty fantastic and shows directions Dick could have gone to make the book even better. I liked the book, but wish it had been more.

The Sword of Aldones by Marion Zimmer Bradley- Grade: C
There’s way more going on here than I expected when I read that this was a sword-and-planet science fantasy work. It’s almost more of a family genre/mannerpunk book in some ways than it is a science fantasy book. Genre questions aside, Bradley offered a compelling enough world and characters, but throughout the whole book there was a lack of punch. I just kept losing interest. Maybe that was my expectations about what I was getting into, but it just felt kind of ho-hum to me. The edition I got had an introduction from 1977 from Lester del Rey (cofounder of the publishing house) that was particularly revealing when he noted that Bradley’s work kept getting categorized as juvenile fiction because of a lack of overt sex. I guess that shows what was going on in that time related to SFF and also, if true, helps explain why so many books in this earlier part of the Hugo awards seem utterly obsessed with (ironically) juvenile notions of sex and titillation.

A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke (My Winner)- Grade: A-
There’s something about a good sci-fi thriller mixed with hard sci-fi that I find totally irresistable. This is an earlier one of Clarke’s works, but of those I’ve read from him it is the one that seems the most human. He puts a group of people together in a skimmer on the moon (and yes, we know the moon isn’t covered with a sea of dust now, but it could be any fictional place), has disaster fall upon them, and we sit with them as search and rescue begins, seeing the action from several angles. There’s something alluring about this plot. It’s so basic, but so fascinating. It’s like the stories about getting stuck in an elevator and befriending everyone aboard–it just works, with this inherently relatable feel to it. I was absolutely absorbed by this book from the beginning to the end. The only fault is that it shows the casual sexism of the 1960s through and through, whether it’s women naturally being selected for cooking, or appealing to vanity for women to get them to do things. Nevertheless, this book is a gem, and exactly the kind of book that makes a quest like my Hugo Award reading worth doing. Clarke weaves hard sci-fi throughout as well, as he explains without too many details–never in a boring way–the science or fake science behind so many of the events. And unlike other authors of hard sci-fi who sometimes get to the point where it reads as a textbook, Clarke weaves the science into the narrative in ways that even the occasional info dump seems to make sense–it just becomes a ratcheting up of the tension. A fascinating, fantastic read. Also, that first edition cover is stunning in its simplicity.

Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper- Grade: B-
The titular creatures are cute, and Piper seems to have been one of the few authors to pioneer the “aliens might not be the worst” subgenre of first contact novels. The writing is a little uneven, and the characters don’t quite break out of their molds, but it is all done in a kind of vanilla fashion that doesn’t leave that much to complain about. It’s an enjoyable taste, but nothing life changing. What is clear though, is the tremendous impact this book has had on the first contact subgenre of science fiction, from the debates over sentience/sapience to the way characters make discoveries about the aliens. It’s an influential book, and a quick read.

Sylva by Jean Bruller- Grade: C
The plot is that a fox becomes a woman becomes a wife becomes a fox-human mom. It’s weird. There’s a literary quality to it that both makes it seem a bit more well-written than some early science fiction while also managing to avoid being pretentious. But really, this is a kind of strange tale. The ending is much more alarming than I expected, though not because its horror or anything of the sort. It was just a major surprise. I found it a decent book, but not one I’d return to. It is so obscure now, apparently, that searching “Sylva Bruller” on Amazon doesn’t actually bring anything up. I feel fortunate to have tracked a copy down through interlibrary loan.

Links

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- Read more posts in this series and follow me on the journey! Let me know your own thoughts on the books.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

Vintage Sci-Fi: “Shards of Honor” by Lois McMaster Bujold

Vintage Sci-Fi Month is over (it’s in January), but that doesn’t mean it’s time to stop reading vintage sci-fi. After great response to my posts during January, I’ve decided to make it an ongoing feature to read and review individual vintage sci-fi books. 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.

Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold

The Vorkosigan Saga is a series that had been on my radar for a while. A few years ago I found a nearby library that had the whole series and binged the heck out of the whole series front to back. I couldn’t stop. Now, I decided to embark on a re-read of the series, and my wife has joined me for her own first read-through of the series as well. It was a lot of fun to introduce her to the world Bujold created, as it is one I enjoy immensely. We’re going to read it in chronological order–something I normally don’t do, preferring publication order, but the first time I read through it was chronological and it made sense.

Shards of Honor is an unexpected book. If I told you that there was a military science fiction novel with some romance thrown into the mix, I doubt you’d come up with a book anywhere near the plot Bujold made. For one thing, the characters are old. No, not actually old, but it’s a far cry from series in which every main character is 18-20 years old and everyone is finding love in their late teens, early twenties. Here, our main characters are in their 30s, as I recall, which makes it feel a little more real in some of their actions, their status as commanders, and the way they fall in love. This could almost be classed as a romance novel, to an extent, though there is little explicit in the book. But romance is a driving force in the novel, and its refreshing to read a science fiction novel that does this and does it quite well.

Additionally, the way Cordelia and Aral discover more about the culture of the other is delightful. There are many scenes where as a reader you get to see how naturally the two characters intermesh. I recall one scene, and I’ll probably mangle it, but Cordelia is trying to describe Aral to her parents (I think?) and they’re like “He’s a murderer!” and she responds “No–I mean, he’s killed several people, but it made sense! Or something.” It’s humorous, yes, but it is also absolutely believable that people would respond to each other in that way.

The plot of Shards is absolutely character-driven, but you can already tell there are portents of a wider world and more possible conflicts happening. Bujold manages to intermesh subtlety of setting with a “Just the action, please” narrative style. Many people say the series just gets better after this book, but frankly Shards of Honor is one of the more unique science fiction novels out there in terms of narrative style and characterization. I’d recommend it very highly, and then to go read the rest of the series immediately.

Links

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!

Vintage Sci-Fi– Click the link and scroll down to read more vintage sci-fi posts! I love hearing about your own responses and favorites!

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.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

“The Mechanical” – Ian Tregillis’s Steampunk Epic

I first read The Mechanical after I saw it at a bookstore. The premise immediately struck me as something I’d be interested in, so I gave it a try. I was completely enamored at once with its compelling cast of characters and extremely high octane drama and intensity. I want to commend it to my readers here, so I’ve written up a short review. There will be some minor SPOILERS here so if you want to avoid that, just go read the book, it’s great.

The Mechanical

There are many things that make this book great. First, the setting. It’s set in the early 1900s in an alternative world in which the Dutch have mastered a kind of magical clockwork that allows them to animate robots to do their bidding. This has led to the Dutch dominating much of the world. Meanwhile, readers are also treated to following the attempts of New France to become a power again, using their chemical know-how to fight the mechanicals of the Dutch. Throughout all of this is woven a heaping helping of religious strife, with the Dutch Protestants and French Catholics being at odds against each other on almost every level.

Another aspect of the series is its fantastic characters. Ian Tregillis writes not just one, but three extremely compelling characters that were sympathetic almost from the start. On the flip side, it’s not always clear who is “good” or “bad” in many of the scenarios presented. Because much of the conflict is over both religious and economic war, it is difficult to find a right side, and that certainly reflects the real world. But tied into this is a third fantastic part of the series, which is the deep philosophical questions raised about free will and religion that come with it. Jax, a mechanical and one of the protagonists, is immediately sympathetic as one who seemingly has free will thwarted by clockwork. Meanwhile, other characters must deal with almost opposite effects. It is all fascinating.

Yet all of these wonderful details are tied into a plot with an absolutely roaring pace that never lets up. Whether it’s spy drama, nefarious evil, or warfare, there is an enormous amount of action in this book, and it never lets off the gas. It is a thrill ride that has much deeper elements than one might expect.

I have read the rest of the series, back when it first came out, and it is all very good. I will be re-reading it on audiobooks now as I continue. I recommend this series to you, dear readers. Check it out! Read The Mechanical now! And come back and discuss it with me!

Links

“The Guns Above” by Robyn Bennis- A Steampunk Delight– Like Steampunk? Be sure to also read Robyn Bennis’s fantastic “The Guns Above.”

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!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

 

 

Vintage Sci-Fi Month 2020- Review and Retrospective

January was #VintageSciFiMonth, a month in which readers are encouraged to read vintage science fiction. I took to it with gusto, clearing out a slate for reading a bunch of older science fiction works that I’ve been wanting to dive into for a while. I also followed the hashtag and account on Twitter and picked up some recommendations for others. What defines a novel as vintage sci-fi? The working rule is that it was written before you were born, but feel free to give that wiggle room if you want! I decided to write out the list of vintage sci-fi I read for January and give them some brief ratings and reviews. I’d love to know what you read/enjoyed, as well. I’m always looking for more reads!

I also wrote some longer reviews in January for some of the works, and you can read those by clicking here and scrolling through.

My list of Reads and brief ratings

Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold- I read this one with my wife this go-round, having convinced her to join in on the vintage sci-fi fun. I listened to it for this re-read, and I adored it even more than I did the first time. Bujold has an excellent writing style and characters that are very true to life. We both enjoyed it greatly. Grade: A

Tau Zero by Poul Anderson- Not the first time I’ve tried to read this one, I decided to tackle it at a slower pace and really pay attention to everything along the way this time. I enjoyed it even less than the first time I tried it. Anderson seems much more interested in telling us about the character’s sex lives than developing them as characters. The main plot didn’t draw me in at all, either. Grade: D+

The Squares of the City by John Brunner- I adored this book as a kid but definitely did not understand it. As an adult, I found it a fascinating, even subversive take on numerous modern (for its time) problems. Having it set around a real chess game somehow didn’t turn it all into a gimmick, either. It’s fantastic. Grade: A

The Skylark Series by E.E. “Doc” Smith– I enjoyed Smith’s Lensman series for what it was, but Skylark didn’t seem anywhere near as interesting. I forced myself through the series for completion’s sake, because that’s how I do things, but I did not enjoy it at almost any point. It’s dated, and it definitely shows… a lot. Grade: D

Cobra by Timothy Zahn- A surprising take on what seemed initially to be generic military sci-fi. Zahn deals with trauma, PTSD, what to do with soldiers when they come home, colonialism, and more all while moving the plot along at an absolutely breakneck speed. Grade: A-

Thorns by Robert Silverberg- I found this one to be enthralling and haunting by turns. It is the kind of book that sticks with you for weeks afterwards as you can’t stop thinking about it. Silverberg really started off his “serious” sci-fi with a bang in this one. It’s nearly flawless. Grade: A+

Courtship Rite by Donald Kingsbury- What if I told you there were a book about cannibals in the future worshiping an orbiting spaceship and somehow all their extremely weird acts and creepy, sometimes disgusting rituals actually make sense? It’s a weird, almost horrible book. But it made it all so sensible! Definitely recommended. Grade: A

A Choice of Gods by Clifford Simak- The central plot isn’t fantastic, but I loved Simak’s lengthy monologues and explorations of the human, alien, and robot psyches. Not his best work, but still top-notch overall. I was surprised by how not-terribly he dealt with questions about colonialism as well. Grade: A-

City of the Chasch by Jack Vance- It’s a pulpy sci-fi adventure that shares themes and ideas with the Barsoom series (John Carter). It’s just not as fun as the Barsoom series, and so it was difficult for me to get into it. Served with a heaping helping of outdated gender norms, as well. Grade: C-

Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny- A re-read for me. I’m still blown away by Zelazny’s stylistic prose here, which reads just like some translations of religious works I’ve read. It’s a fascinating sci-fi retelling of the rise of Buddhism from Hinduism and the colonization/import of Christianity as well. I loved it. Grade: A+

The Haunted Stars by Edmond Hamilton- A recommendation from another vintage sci-fi month reader, I grabbed it when they said fans of Star Trek would like it. I then spent about 85% of the book baffled by that comparison, but then I understood towards the end. It has all the trappings of some of my favorite sci-fi- ancient relics, linguistics, and adventure with huge themes. It’s serious and pulpy all at once and I loved it. Grade: A-

Foundation’s Edge by Isaac Asimov- Asimov thought of some fantastic concepts and characters, finally, but then spent the last 1/3 or so of the book dumping it all down the drain with somewhat ironic inverse deus ex machinas and his own apparent view of a utopic planet. I don’t know, it was weird and stupid by turns, but the core ideas were good enough to keep me going. Grade: B-

Past Master by R.A. Lafferty- I can’t really say enough about this one, which was my first Lafferty read ever. It’s deeply thoughtful, and the more you peel back its layers, the more you find. It has fascinating characters, and imports Thomas More (the guy who wrote Utopia) into the future in strangely believable and fantastic ways. I loved every second of this book, and every page had me thinking and delving more deeply into it. Grade: A+

Project Pope by Clifford Simak- Every aspect of Simak’s thought is present here, from robots that are re-skins of humans to deep religious questioning to fascinating pastoral scenes. It’s almost like comfort food, until Simak hits you upside the head with a big idea that challenges how you think about some aspect of reality and faith. I adored it. Grade: A

Links

SDG.

Vintage Sci-Fi Month: “Cobra” by Timothy Zahn

The cover is delightfully pulpy but also -very- misleading.

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.

Cobra by Timothy Zahn 

I ended up buying the omnibus edition of the Cobra Trilogy at Manticon 2015, where I met Zahn, David Weber (my favorite author), Eric Flint, and others. I got it signed while I was there, and for about 5 years it has languished on my TBR pile. But, having had the rare experience of exhausting my library pile before my weekly trip, I delved into some books I owned for once! With it being Vintage sci-fi month, I figured I’d check out Cobra, published in 1986.

Honestly, the premise didn’t really strike me as anything terribly exciting. A super soldier fights against enemies–it’s a standard trope of science fiction that’s made many an appearance. Of course, I’m a pretty big fan of military sci-fi, so I tend to gravitate this trope and others like it. But when I actually began reading the book, it became quickly apparent that the premise isn’t really what the book is about at all.

Jonny Moreau is a likable enough main character to whom we are introduced as he struggles with the question of whether to enlist or not. He quickly does, and suddenly finds himself slated to become a Cobra, a new kind of super soldier with heightened abilities to go along with a nanocomputer to help analyze and react to threats and a body built to suit it. Jonny expects to be deployed as a kind of undercover insurgent in advance of invading enemies, and we as readers go along assuming that’s what the book will then end up being about. But, again, it’s not. Just as Jonny is about to get involved in some serious war, witnessing glimpses here and there, we jump ahead years and instead see Jonny trying to cope with his memories back home. He tries to strike it back up with his girlfriend, he tries to find jobs, but he is ostracized as a freak due to his, well, freakish abilities having been a Cobra. He can’t blend in anywhere.

But it turns out the human government has a plan! They’ve made a deal with their alien enemies to colonize on the other side of their space, going through a narrow corridor the Trofts grudgingly open in order to get there. And who do they decide would be the perfect colonists? None other than the already super-adapted Cobra soldiers! Off they go! Thought you were reading a military sci-fi novel? Now you’re reading one about colonization. But there are more surprises in store because some Cobra units go rogue and try to set up their own government, then the Troft close off the corridor, and the crap hits the fan. Suddenly the Cobra have their own civilization that is set apart from the human Dominion of Man, and that’s pretty much where we end after a whirlwind of events set over more than a decade.

Honestly, this book is maybe 20% about being a super soldier and 40% about dealing with the stress and life that comes with being such a soldier with another 40% about the colonization of a new planet/government intrigue. PTSD (implied), trying to cope with the horrors of war that has home, questions of political loyalties: these are just a few of the heady topics Zahn brings up in Cobra. He does so in typical Zahn fashion, though, moving along with the action such that some of the most emotionally impactful moments go by very quickly. That’s probably the biggest weakness in Cobra: so much happens and it moves so quickly that readers aren’t able to fully appreciate or grasp the horror of Jonny’s life at points.

But it is there. All the pieces are in place. As a reader, you can see the horror, feel the awfulness of some of the situations, and sympathize with Jonny as it happens. Zahn does not quite pull the trigger on making the book entirely a commentary on the horrors of war, but it’s all there. It just gets a bit glorified towards the end with the colonization happening, but even there it is all imperfect, a little weird, and ambiguous. Zahn’s strength is in making compelling characters, and that certainly comes through in this book, but his unwillingness to fully embrace what seems like a core part of the book–the questions facing a super soldier with nothing to do–undermines the power of the book somewhat.

Having read Cobra, I’m left feeling a bit confused, to be honest. Looking back on it, I’d say it is an engaging read. It does not quite live up to the potential of some of the ideals Zahn hints at throughout, but it keeps the pages turning even as your brain is working to catch up with the themes and action. I enjoyed Cobra quite a bit and will definitely be reading the rest of the trilogy. I’d recommend it to readers who are looking to go off the beaten path in their military sci-fi reading.

Links

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.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

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.

Links

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.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.