Saturday 23 September 2023

Penguin Time/Psyched Out Sci-fi:
The Squares of the City
by John Brunner


Only marginally qualifying as science fiction, John Brunner’s 1965 novel is really more of a high concept socio-political thriller, taking place in Ciudad de Vados, the purpose-built capital city of the fictional South American nation of Aguazal.

Presumably modelled on President Juscelino Kubitschek’s construction of Brasilia in the early 1960s, the city is the crowning achievement of the charismatic President Vados, and we arrive in its environs in the company of one Boyd Hakluyt, an Australian expert in urban planning who has been engaged by the city’s municipal authorities in an initially rather vague consultancy role.

Upon arrival, Hakluyt soon discovers that  his expertise in the fields of traffic management, industrial rezoning on so on will primarily be put to use in solving the problem presented by the masses of impoverished, disenfranchised rural peasants who are now migrating to the new metropolis, settling in a series of sprawling shantytowns and slums beneath the gleaming overpasses, and rather undermining El Presidente’s vision of a shining beacon of civilised modernity in the process.

Less than enthralled by this task, and unnerved by the evidence of creeping authoritarianism and violent political disorder he sees broiling away beneath the city’s tranquil surface, Hakluyt becomes drawn into a complex web of subterfuge and treachery, crossing paths with bureaucrats and politicians, dissidents and revolutionaries, union leaders, industrialists, media personalities, generals, journalists, gangsters and so on, all engaged in an exhaustingly complicated wrangling for influence and power which seems to eerily mirror the Aguazalian nation’s all-consuming obsession with the game of chess.

And beyond that, I will keep quiet, as ‘The Squares of the City’ is a novel which is very easy to “spoil”. 

Suffice to say that, like much of Brunner’s work, it takes a bit of patience to get into - his prose initially seems quite dry, and his plotting needlessly convoluted - but it ultimately proves a very rewarding read. It is certainly a unique entry within its supposed genre, that’s for sure, and if the above synopsis has piqued your interest, I’d recommend giving it a go.

As to Franco Grignani’s cover illustration meanwhile - well, it’s not one of my favourite examples of his work for Penguin to be honest, but it certainly conveys the novel’s idea of an urban eco-system collapsing into entropic chaos fairly effectively.

Those little white dots on my scan of the cover, by the way, are not stars or any other part of the design - I’m afraid they’re just remnants of damp, of concrete dust, or something, which have become stuck to my copy of the book, suggesting it might have spent some time sitting atop a pile of paperbacks in an attic or similarly insalubrious environment.

As you may have gathered, these Grignani Penguins often ain’t cheap, and my insistence on picking them up for pennies does not lend itself to acquiring them in primo condition - but at least this one was readable.

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