The Squares of the City (1965) by John Brunner

TheSquaresoftheCity1To borrow Robert Silverberg’s erroneous phrasing about James Tiptree’s gender, there is something “ineluctably” American about British author John Brunner’s style (or variety of styles, rather). Last week, I said as much about Charles Stross’s format when compared to his British author peers, but with Brunner, this isn’t about American formula, it’s about feel—a consciously American feel— which heightens his work, impressing itself into the pages with brash entitlement, bold statements, and clean prose. This consistency in feel is all the more striking considering the range of styles his novels explore.

It’s all the more noticeable in The Squares of the City, his 1965 Hugo-nominated novel about an Australian traffic planner commissioned by the city of Vados, capital city of the fictional South American nation of Aguazul, to do the near-impossible: make the perfect city of Vados more perfect by solving its minor traffic problems. But controversy surrounds the project when the traffic troubles take on a human aspect, and what at first appears to be an innocuous Latin American city transformed by wealth, reveals a more sinister agenda of politics and game-playing.

Ignoring the fact that traffic analyzer Hakluyt is supposed to be Australian (the voice in my head insists he’s American), the bold, yet noncommittal protagonist is the embodiment of first-world, middle-class indifference with an exotic tourist visa, i.e. the ugly American. He’s judgmental, wary, naïve, and ignorant—aware of his limitations, yet not aware enough to manage his deepening involvement with the amoral Vados city officials. When it becomes apparent that “the traffic problem” is actually a culture clash between the wealthy Vados citizens and displaced country peasants, Hakluyt realizes he’s been brought in as a pawn, recruited to eradicate the peasant ghettos and spark a housing crisis that city officials hope will drive away the destitute while leaving them free of the blame.

TheSquaresoftheCity2A more accurate and nuanced depiction of Latin American culture than White SF typically offers, where even Vonnegut’s incisive humor fails to look under all of the rocks, Squares recognizes the roots of colonialism in modern Latin American society: class resentment, racism, disenfranchisement, and greed. Brunner assembles the most insidious aspects of these symptoms into a loose political thriller of amoral game-playing. In the real Latin America, few tourists recognize those dirty street beggars in the city centers of beach getaways as disenfranchised survivors of imperial-oppression-followed-by-corporate-welfare; fewer realize those beggars don’t even speak Spanish, much less identify with the ruling government. Brunner is aware of this and, while the size and scope of Brunner’s novel is too small to adequately capture the marginalized victims of Vados society, he at least subverts the stereotypes and expectations that first-world readers might have unknowingly internalized by portraying a heterogeneous society of conflicting interests. By not acknowledging mainstream expectations of a spicy Latin tale with seduction, betrayal, and drugs, Brunner paints a society of complex people, rather than a picaresque shoot ‘em up.

It has its limits, however. To be more nuanced would require a bigger book, an unwieldy story, and quite frankly, would demand more insight than the white, British Brunner can provide. Brunner knows his weaknesses, so his outsider, first-world protagonist is the ideal vehicle for an introductory display of the causes and consequences of Latin American inequality. Something deeper would have to come from an insider—characters who receive slightly more than superficial treatment from Brunner’s point-of-view. In addition to the limitations of scope and culture, Brunner employs an inflexible structure, modeled after a famous 19th century chess game (Steinitz v. Chigorin, 1892), to instigate moves and kill off characters. This structure confines the development of his tale to just one path, which isn’t particularly beholden to much empathic grandstanding or making room for the sympathetic and disadvantaged people in his tale.

This can all be forgiven within the context of that structure, however, because it all fits metaphorically: The angular plot movements, the engagement of upper echelons of society, even the blocky text– the chess metaphor is a prime form for communicating an outsider’s observations of a silenced, oppressed minority and a manipulative, inhumane upper class. This is Brunner’s conscientious approach to Latin American society. His agenda is clear and considerate, an interesting outcome considering the neglectful tone of the novel.

The most noticeable blunder, however—aside from the lack of any speaking characters from the margins of Vados society— is the lack of U.S. meddling in Vados affairs. An oil-rich South American nation is not impossible to imagine. An oil-rich South American nation that thrives on its own profits while seeming entirely self-enterprising and insulated from international intrusions and U.S. passive-aggressions is more difficult to believe than space opera FTL or fantastic quests to throw away jewelry.

Of course, there is no chess piece called “CIA agent” or “exploratory profiteer”, so acknowledgement of foreign interests wouldn’t fit Brunner’s structure. It’s also possible that the hegemonic machinations of everybody’s favorite sugar-and-oil-playground bully wasn’t a well-known interpretation of events in the mid-60’s, when Red Fear clouded American understanding of US-Cuban relations, and years before the CIA-encouraged Chilean coup d’etat of 1973. Even today, little of mainstream English-speaking media covers Latin American news, despite it being a trove of natural resources lured by American interests daily. (When President Obama declared Venezuela a “national security threat” last spring, it barely made a ripple in the U.S. news cycle. Spanish-language news swarmed with it.) Still, Brunner should know better, and the lack of international presence in Squares undermines his focus on the inequalities inherent in Latin American culture by placing it in a vacuum, missing an ideal opportunity to reinforce his agenda of highlighting the consequences of colonial legacy by mirroring it with neocolonial, capitalist hegemony.

TheSquaresoftheCity3Social commentary aside, most readers take issue with Brunner’s strict adherence to the chess-like structure of his character game-playing. Because of this construction, to call it a political thriller is an overstatement—no character arc is sympathetic enough to foster suspense, the political machinations are overextended to fit the framework, and the “elimination” of characters is sudden and arbitrary. But that’s a surface complaint. Like a game between masters, the plot moves are cool and decisive, distant and devised. While Squares will engage intellectually, it won’t drive page-turning with a series of shocks. This isn’t such a bad thing. For readers suspicious of the manipulated suspense that comes with most political thrillers, Brunner’s aloof focus and bold strategy might be just right.

16 thoughts on “The Squares of the City (1965) by John Brunner

  1. antyphayes says:

    The absence of US meddling is pretty stunning considering Brunner’s apparent sensitivity to contemporary politics. Perhaps it just didn’t fit with his plan, which is surely a mistake on his part.
    Speaking as an Australian (Aussie hat on now). Despite many Australians believing the uniqueness of the Australian “character”, and admitting that like any relatively coherent national grouping Australians of course have their idiosyncrasies and hangups, the “ugly Australian” is sadly a common type (particularly if you have had the misfortune of encountering your fellow country peeps overseas). Indeed I would argue there is much in common between the US and Australia when it comes to “first-world, middle-class indifference with an exotic tourist visa”. Of course in the Australian’s case it is even more pathetic simply because it is derivative of this more recognisable type, ie. the yank!

    Liked by 2 people

    • antyphayes says:

      PS. Loved the review. It’s definitely time to dust of the copy I have been carrying around for 20+ years and finally read it!

      Liked by 1 person

      • fromcouchtomoon says:

        Thanks! It was a faster read than I expected. Nothing like Zanzibar, and probably nothing like Sheep, but if you have a political background like me, I think you’ll appreciate what he’s doing.

        And yeah, I think the chess structure made no room for commentary about foreign affairs. I found that disappointing, but I get it.

        Liked by 1 person

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I was wondering about your opinion of that characterization, and your mention of the “ugly Australian” brings to mind a few unflattering run-ins I’ve had with Aussies overseas. Then again, the “ugly Brit” tends to dominate a lot of my unflattering tourist memories, so it’s a wonder I still enjoy British comedy and SF novels after those repeated experiences. But then I think of trips on my hemisphere and, yep, Americans are the worst. ALL WHITE PEOPLE ARE UGLY TRAVELERS, I GUESS THAT’S THE LESSON HERE 😉

      Aside from that, I tend to do a good job of mentally adopting certain accents if the story wills it, but it takes more than just the narrative stating the nationality of a character. It has do with the cadence of the prose more than anything else. It’s impossible to read Neil Gaiman without a British accent. I read Adam Roberts and Charles Stross– two very different qualities of author–not that long ago and they both just naturally felt British to me. It bothered me switching to the audio for the Stross book because it was performed in an American accent. I could hardly listen to it. But with John Brunner, no matter how many times I remind myself he’s British, or his character is Australian, I kept defaulting to American in my head. It was the same with The Whole Man, and of course, he wrote Stand on Zanzibar with that in mind for his two main characters. I think Brunner just occupies that matter-of-fact mental state that translates to Asshole American so well, lol.

      Liked by 2 people

      • antyphayes says:

        Maybe the lesson to take is that ugly behaviour knows no national boundaries. Nonetheless there are disproportionate numbers of Yanks, Brits and perhaps more strangely Aussies wandering the beaten paths so I suppose the odds are you’re going to meet the pricks too.
        I remember reading somewhere that Brunner’s “American sound” was a conscious one. I don’t often pay attention to the national quirks of authors unless it’s fairly obvious or central to the story. A good case for me is the Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic which purports to be told by a North American, and they do a pretty good job of it, but something is not quite right and it remains wonderfully Russian. Ok, so maybe i do pay attention. But I’ve never thought of Brunner as an American in terms of intended meaning or narrative voice or whatever. Perhaps its because I identify more obviously with his background?

        Liked by 1 person

  2. marzaat says:

    So, essentially, this a novel of urban planning? Certainly not what I expected form the references I’ve seen to it.


  3. Paul Connelly says:

    This is a very underrated book, probably because so little of it feels science fictional. Many of the characters are sympathetic, even when they are doing “game move” behaviors that might seem foolish or hotheaded. As you say, the only fantastic element to it is the absence of international bad actors (state and non-state) in the drama. Although Brunner’s sympathies are with the underclass, there’s no Chad Mulligan telling you what it’s all about. (No, Maria Posador is not Chad.)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The Raven says:

    I suspect this draws heavily from the history of the modernist city of Brasilia.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I bet you are right. He didn’t mention it in his intro, but he did say it would be an imaginary country located near Venezuela. The flavor felt Cubano to me, and I wondered if that’s because the chess game from which he drew the structure took place in Cuba.

      And now I’m realizing: planned city, planned plot, same limitations. How clever he is.


      • The Raven says:

        He was. Much more a philosophical formalist than his gritty surfaces admit.

        Also, the game is a stand-in for the manipulations that developed countries and their sycophantic local governments force on the people of poor countries.

        Brunner was a long-time socialist advocate of world peace. That period of his career was when he still hoped that planning might work; the vedi British idea that enlightened technocrats like Hakluyt might set the world right. By the time he had written his near-future tetra-ology of Stand, Sheep, Orbit, and Rider he had pretty well abandoned that Utopian belief; those books are messianic.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Hrrm. So you’re saying this Brunner chap is pretty good and worth reading, huh? Maybe I should read some of his books one of these days…

    And in response to your conversation with antyphayes about “ugly [nationality]” stereotypes, just be glad you don’t have to deal with “ugly Canadians.” They are just so damn polite and apologetic about everything. Then again, everything is pretty topsy-turvy around here, they enter the US by heading northwest and we enter Canada going southeast…

    Liked by 1 person

    • See, every once in a while, I have to go back and find out which comments my various devices failed to notify me about. Yes, read Brunner. There’s another 2016 goal for you, hahaha!

      That is weird about Michigan and Canada– I never thought about that before, and I even lived in Boston at one time! So, basically, the ground is up and and the sky is down where you’re from.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. unsubscriber says:

    Excellent review, time to pull this out for a revisit I think. Great covers too, my copy is the third one you included. All the best.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. […] The Squares of the City by John Brunner – A small, unnamed South American nation recruits an American city planner to help with their traffic problem who soon discovers that the city’s obsession with chess is more than just a game. I like Brunner’s work, I like his politics, and I like the interesting way he approaches culture and gender. A more straightforward novel than his more popular and incendiary Stand on Zanzibar, some readers might find it boring, but I found it thoroughly intriguing. […]


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