The Squares of the City – John Brunner (1965)

“In 1892, Wilhelm Steinitz and Mikhail Chigorin squared off in the finals of the World Chess Championship in Havana, Cuba. One of the deciding matches so original in gamesmanship and rife with strategically interesting play, it has become one of the more well-known matches in history. (The game can be replayed virtually here and with analysis here.) Picking up on its nuances and seeing the potential, John Brunner decided to use the match to structure a novel. 1965’s The Squares of the City the result, it tells of a city experiencing a strong racial divide, with each character representing a piece in the game. The premise both strengthening and weakening the story, the book is nevertheless a unique read, but is perhaps most special for social conscience behind it all. The Squares of the City is set in the South American city of Vados, capital of the fictional Aguazul. Like Canberra and Brasilia, Vados is a planned city, and is the shining result of Aguazul’s rapid rise on the global economic scene thanks to the shrewd maneuvering of its eponymous president. But wealth and prosperity have not trickled down to the country’s native Indians—a people who move to the city in droves, seeking a better life and more opportunities than their deprived countryside existences allow. The city’s elite, many of which are nationals of foreign origin, desire ways to quell the eyesores of Indian habitation which result—the city center itself the biggest point of contention given the squalid market that has taken root there. The government of Aguazul marginally democratic, they seek a defendable means of clearing the lower class from its nest and hire Boyd Hakluyt, one of the world’s best traffic engineers, to design away their social ills. The board is thus set. … In the end, The Squares of the City is a solid novel that is strong stylistically and thematically, but bears some criticism for the effect its main plot device has on the integrity of the ethnic concerns under discussion. Looking strictly at story, it is an exciting political thriller in the vein of Graham Greene (stylistically, as well), with the denouement a strong statement regarding a person’s involvement in the affairs of society. Thematically, the issue of racism in an economically delimited environment is examined to proper, but not astounding effect. A problem arises when attempting to reconcile the two: the chess premise nicely highlights the theme of racism, but in turn acts in undermining fashion, the knowledge it’s all based on a game rendering the story somewhat hollow. Regardless, readers of Huxley, Orwell, Le Guin, Silverberg, or any of the other socially conscious writers of science fiction may want to have a read. …”
W – The Squares of the City
chessgames, YouTube: WCS-1892 / Wilhelm Steinitz – Mikhail Chigorin; Game #4

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