Monday, November 3, 2008

The Squares of the City

Though designated science fiction because the author, John Brunner, typically wrote the stuff, this book is more like a thriller by Eric Ambler, where an innocent chap is drawn into a deadly world of foreign intrigue.

The protagonist, Boyd Hakluyt, is a traffic analyst hired to tackle some urban problems in Ciudad de Vados, capital of the fictional South American country of Aguazul. The city is only 10 years old, created as a modern showpiece by the country's benevolent dictator, President Vados. At its core are four gigantic plazas or squares -- hence the novel's title.

The city's image is marred by a couple of unsightly blots -- a noisy stinking market and a slum under a monorail station. The government, fearing an uprising, does not want to use direct methods to clean up these places. Instead it hopes that Boyd can solve the problem by redesigning traffic flows.

Boyd tries to remain neutral as the conflict escalates, but can't avoid being drawn in. On discovering that he's been manipulated he confronts President Vados, who tells him, "You are no mere pawn -- you are a knight."


This revelation is no surprise to the reader, for the secret has already been revealed in an introduction by Edward Lasker and a foreword by Brunner himself. The novel recreates an 1892 match between Steinitz and Tchigorin -- hence the true meaning of the book's title.

President Vados and the leader of the opposing forces, Esteban Diaz, Minister of the Interior, have agreed to a match using real people as players (though without their knowledge), thus avoiding an armed conflict that might destroy Vados's beloved city, and needlessly spill the blood of Diaz's people. The use of subliminal messages is one way of manipulating the players.

In a note at the end of the book, Brunner identifies the pieces represented by the characters. Even more impressively, he states that:

...the moves are all there, in their correct order and -- in so far as possible -- in precise correspondence with their effect on the original game. That is to say, support of one piece by another on its own side, threatening of one or more pieces by a piece on the other side, indirect threats and the actual taking of pieces, are all as closely represented as possible in the development of the action.

Note, however, that the city is not an exact analog of the chessboard. Brunner makes no attempt (as far as I could see) to divide Ciudad de Vados into 64 locations.

Steinitz vs Tchigorin

I found the book's conceit so engaging that I played through the actual game itself, and made a discovery. The causes of a couple deaths are hinted at in the book but not conclusively stated. In the game the truth is revealed.

I also found it interesting that Brunner avoids some obvious casting choices (the two queens are represented by men, and Bishop Cruz is a rook not a bishop), and that the novel ends without the conflict being concluded (though in the actual game Black resigns).

I wondered too about Brunner's choice of this particular game. Was there a sly subtext involved? Did it have something to do with the fact that Steinitz (born in Prague but living in the US) defeated Tchigorin (a Russian)? That is, that a peasant revolt against established authority was doomed to failure?

The game was played in Havana. You can replay it here. Choose no. 16.

Stranger Than Fiction

The Squares of the City was published in 1965. Thirty years later President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov of the Russian Republic of Kalmykia built a modern complex devoted to the game, situated outside the capital of Elista. He called it Chess City. Kalmykia is poor, but Ilyumzhinov, who is also president of FIDE, is obsessed with chess.

Where Chess is King and People are Pawns