Thu
Aug 2 2012 1:00pm

The Glorious, Terrible, Strange USSR: Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty

A readthrough of Red Plenty by Francis SpuffordWhat a wonderful world we live in where a book like Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty can be published! It came out in the UK in 2010 and it has just been published in a new US edition.

It’s not SF. It’s not really fiction, though it’s not non-fiction either. It’s something strangely between the two, a fictionalised non-fiction book about the Soviet Dream. Reading it partakes of some of the pleasures of reading especially geeky SF, and some of the pleasure of reading solid well-written nonfiction on a fascinating subject. It’s about history, economics, how technology and ideology interact, and how theory and practice are different, with examples. What it’s most like is reading an extended version of one of Neal Stephenson’s more adorable infodumps, only with footnotes and a proper end. Or it’s as if a non-fiction writer got carried away when giving examples and started to make them into actual stories with characters. Indeed, that may be what happened and it’s very relevant to the book — the USSR were starting off with textbook examples that were going to rationally want x of this and y of that, except that they didn’t have those examples, they had people. And when Khrushchev said it, he really thought that they would bury us.

“But why are you interested in the economics of the USSR, Jo?” I hear you ask.

I’m not. Or rather, I am vaguely, because I’m vaguely interested in pretty much everything (except pirates and zombies) but the economics of the USSR might never have got to the top of the long list of pretty much everything if this hadn’t been written by Francis Spufford. Spufford is the author of the wonderful memoir The Child That Books Built and the even more wonderful The Backroom Boys (post). I liked The Backroom Boys so much that if he’d decided to write a book about the history of barbed wire next I’d have thought hmm, barbed wire, well, I guess that must be something really interesting then. Who knew? He has that addictive readability factor.

I find it seems more constructive to think of the book as non-fiction, because it’s a thesis that is being examined. That thesis is that a whole lot of people, some of them very intelligent, believed that they could make a command economy work. They were wrong. The book delved into why were they wrong, what went wrong, and the question of whether it could be otherwise. The book isn’t interested in the kind of things you usually get in history books, it’s much more focused on the geeky fields of technology and economics and and logistics. Spufford examines all this from several angles, from the thirties to 1968, and with characters, some of whom are historical people and some of whom aren’t.

You may be thinking that this is really odd. You’re right. It’s really odd. It’s not like anything else. It’s also amazing, because he makes it work. At first I thought I’d prefer a plain old non-fiction book about this stuff, and then I started to see what he was doing and really got into it. The characters, the points of view, really immerse you in the worldview of people who believe what they believe, as in fiction. And the thesis, the argument, is the thing that would be a story if the book were a novel. He’s using the techniques of fiction in the service of non fiction, and he makes it work.

This is from near the beginning:

If he could solve the problems people brought to the institute, it made the world a fraction better. The world was lifting itself up out of darkness and beginning to shine, and mathematics was how he could help. It was his contribution. It was what he could give, according to his abilities. He was lucky enough to live in the only country on the planet where human beings had seized the power to shape events according to reason, instead of letting things happen as they happened to happen, or letting the old forces of superstition and greed to push people around. Here, and nowhere else, reason was in charge.

You can’t do that kind of thing without a person to do it through, and Spufford keeps on doing it with different people, over time, so that we can see how it all works, or rather, ought to work in theory but doesn’t in practice.

My favourite part of the book was the bit about the viscose factory. (Viscose factories, huh? Who knew?) There are several chapters from different points of view all about the problems of the viscose factory, and what it amounts to is an examination and a critique of the idea of measuring the wrong things and valuing the wrong things. It would make a wonderful movie. It starts with a bureaucratic report about a machine destroyed in an unlikely accident, and a new machine being ordered. Then we move to these factory workers who carefully set everything up and destroyed the machine because they can’t possibly make their target unless they have a new machine, and this is the only way they can get one. Altering the target isn’t a possibility. Buying a new machine isn’t a possibility. This crazy scheme is the only thing. But then we see Chekuskin, the “fixer” who makes everything work by getting favours from everyone because everyone wants favours back. He’s trying to fix the problem that what they’ve been assigned is the same old machine that couldn’t meet the target in the first place. He meets a contact from the machine factory in a bar, he loosens him up with drinks and asks what the real problem is:

Although your clients want the upgrade, and believe me we would like to give them the upgrade because it is in fact easier to manufacture, we cannot give them the upgrade because there’s a little itty-bitty price difference between the upgrade and the original.

Price difference. Chekuskin could not think of an occasion in thirty years where this had been an issue. He struggled to apply his mind through the analgesic fug.

“All right, the upgrade costs more. Where’s the problem? It’s not as if my guys are going to pay for it themselves. It all comes out of the sovnarkhoz capital account anyway.”

“Ah ah ah. But it doesn’t cost more. That’s the delightful essence of the problem, that’s what you’re not going to be able to solve. It costs less. It costs 112,000 rubles less. Every one that leaves the factory would rip a great fucking hole in the sales target.”

... “I still don’t get it,” said Chekuskin. “Why should the upgrade cost less?”

“We didn’t get it either,” said Ryszard. “We asked for clarification. We said ’Why is our lovely new machine worth less than our old one?’ And do you know what they said, the sovnarkhov? No? They pointed out that the new one weighs less.”

When it works at all, it works because people cheat the system.

Spufford writes beautiful sentences and memorable images that stay with you, and in this book he’s writing about an ideology that’s more alien than a lot of science fiction.

This is another one of those books, like Debt (post), that SF readers will enjoy for a lot of the same reasons we enjoy SF.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently the Nebula winning and Hugo nominated Among Others. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

21 comments
Kate Nepveu
1. katenepveu
ooooh, ooooh, and in looking this up I find that _Backroom Boys_ is now available as an ebook in the US. Yay! *grabs samples of both*
Henry Farrell
2. Henry Farrell
When I was reading _Among Others_, I thought a lot about _The Child That Books Built_ - they're two books that seem to me to talk to each other (or can be made to talk to each other without any very big fuss). We ran a seminar on _Red Plenty_ over at Crooked Timber - the discussion between Kim Stanley Robinson and Francis over whether _Red Plenty_ is indeed a novel may be of interest to you. Also, the essay by Cosma Shalizi on the mathematics of _Red Plenty_ which pulls off the difficult task of outgeeking Spufford with considerable aplomb. A PDF of the whole thing is available for download at http://crookedtimber.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/RedPlenty.pdf.
Theresa Wymer
3. Tekalynn
I want to read this. Thank you.

As I understand it, the history of barbed wire is quite fascinating.
Eli Bishop
4. EliBishop
The Crooked Timber discussion that Henry mentioned is really great, and it's worth mentioning that Spufford himself contributed some lengthy responses that are awfully entertaining. If you'd rather read it as individual blog posts instead of a big PDF, go here: http://crookedtimber.org/category/red-plenty-seminar/
Jo Walton
5. bluejo
Henry: Lots of people said that to me after I'd written AO, which is why I read The Child That Books Built. Thery're certainly both in the same kind of space.
Patrick Nielsen Hayden
6. pnh
"The Crooked Timber discussion that Henry mentioned is really great, and it's worth mentioning that Spufford himself contributed some lengthy responses that are awfully entertaining."

Let me amplify on that. The Crooked Timber discussion is fascinating. Henry Farrell is right that Cosma Shalizi's contribution ("In Soviet Union, Optimization Problem Solves You") is an impressive and exhilarating piece of work. Lots of other Crooked Timberites, and guests, have worthwhile things to say as well.

But Spufford's own summing-up response--in three parts--is one of the most pyrotechnic, awesome, sincere, fall-on-the-floor-funny pieces of writing I ever ever seen on a blog. You think it's going to be too self-referential, or too much of a good thing, but every goddamn bit of it is great. It reads aloud well, too.

Seriously. Crooked Timber seminar on Red Plenty. (Warning: that link shows the posts in backwards order.) Good in ways that are hard to describe. Much like Red Plenty itself.
Henry Farrell
7. NullNix
I was completely unsurprised to find that Spufford was inspired by Kim Stanley Robinson, because reading this feels like reading the Mars books. In part this is down to the structure (he has the same wonderfully distant narrative voice in the intro to each part), but in part it is simply down to the writing style, I think, except that Spufford is rather more experimental than KSR.

It's a wonderful book. It's the only book I've ever bought on the strength of a book review in the Economist, and one of only half a dozen borderline-SF books that I've managed to convince anyone in my family to read.
Henry Farrell
8. NullNix
As an aside, what I found most amazing about this book is that he wrote it entirely from English secondary sources, yet I have recommended it to Russians who were young adults during the period it covers -- partly out of a sense of mischievousness, I will admit -- and they didn't think it was too inaccurate. That alone requires some sort of superpowers.
Alan Brown
9. AlanBrown
This sounds fascinating. Marx was among the most brilliant of the worldly philosophers of the mid-19th Century, far ahead of his peers in seeing how economic systems worked. At the same time, amongst the truths he saw, he also had some of the most absolutely cockeyed ideas about how political systems worked. And his political views colored all of his theories in ways that made the whole thing absolutely unworkable. Yet it all sounded plausible enough that it caught the imagination of millions all around the world. I have read quite a bit about the world of the Soviet Union, and it is truly like an alien world to those of us who grew up in the West.
And this book sounds like an interesting approach to getting into the heads of the folks that lived there. I'm going to have to check it out. Thanks for the recommendation.
Kristen Templet
10. SF_Fangirl
I am amused to note that my library has this indexed as non-fiction. I am of course searching because Jo does make this sound like a fascinating book. It's going on my very long "to read" list.
Henry Farrell
11. S.M. Stirling
I took a look at the CT posts on "Red Plenty". Apparently there are still people who think it's possible to prevent regulatory capture indefinitely. That's rather sad.
Henry Farrell
12. Henry Farrell
If that's the impression you came away with, I can't imagine that you read the seminar at all carefully. While I understand the libertarian temptation to clutch the nostrums of public choice economics 101 to one's nose like some camphor-drenched handkerchief, to protect against the possibly contagious waft of Leftist Ideas, I suspect that it doesn't help one understand the world particularly. This is indeed a sad state of affairs.
Henry Farrell
13. Stephen Stillme Frug
I'd like to third (or whatever) the recommendation for the Crooked Timber seminar. It's the reason I read the book, and (thus) one of the reasons that all the many people I've pushed this book on this summer will read it (if and when they do).

While I agree with Ms. Walton's overall assessment, I'd like to disagree about two particulars.

First, I think the book is quite clearly fiction, with no ifs or ands or buts. KSR makes the case on Crooked Timber; I go into it at some length in this blog post, to which I'll just link. Frankly I don't think there would be much dispute on this point save that the scenario that Ms. Walton describes -- "it’s as if a non-fiction writer got carried away when giving examples and started to make them into actual stories with characters" -- is basically what happened, so that Spufford, thinking of himself as a non-fiction writer, sold it as this incredibly boundary-crossing phenomenon, and his publisher did likewise. But all of the aspects of the book that lead people to call Red Plenty non-fiction are well precidented in earlier (undisputed) novels. It's just a historical novel that sticks close to the facts, and gives extensive footnotes (as others have).

My second disagreement is about the claim that "The book isn’t interested in the kind of things you usually get in history books, it’s much more focused on the geeky fields of technology and economics and and logistics." This is only true if you don't read that history subfield, which is (like many) a lively one. This feels like a claim made based on central-to-the-field stereotypes that are simply out of date. It's sort of like picking up The Man in the High Castle and saying that it isn't interested in the kind of things you usually get in SF novels, it's not set in space or in the future but in alternate histories. -- Maybe not quite that bad, but along those same lines.

But overall, I agree with Ms. Walton, particularly the part about "I liked The Backroom Boys so much that if he’d decided to write a book about the history of barbed wire next I’d have thought hmm, barbed wire, well, I guess that must be something really interesting then," except I had this experience with Red Plenty first. Whenever I push the book on people I always stress that if they think they're not interested in the topic, well, I didn't think I was either. In fact, based on a comment in his Crooked Timber response, it seems like Spufford chose it partly as a challenge -- what was the dullest subject he could pick and make interesting? And boy did he succeed.

SF
Henry Farrell
14. OtterB
This sounds really interesting. I see my library has it (cataloged in nonfiction) and I'll look for it next time I'm in.

Should I read the book first and the Crooked Timber discussion after, or does it matter?
Henry Farrell
15. Henry Farrell
Book first, definitely. You could, if you wanted, occasionally dip into the seminar while reading the book. But lots of the fun of the seminar (in particular Francis Spufford's reply, which is every bit as wonderful as Patrick says it is) is enhanced if you have already read the actual text.
Henry Farrell
16. S.M. Stirling
12. Henry Farrell:

I read it quite carefully, and some (not all) of the participants did think that if only you got the right set of credentialed experts and/or insititutions, it would indeed indefinitely prevent regulatory capture.

This is like remarriage; the triumph of hope over experience. Or the classic definition of insanity -- doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
Henry Farrell
17. Dave Harmon
It does sound interesting -- even from what I've picked up here and there, there's obviously something deeply weird about the history of the USSR.

Incidentally, there is at least one book on the history of barbed wire (The Devil's Rope, by Alan Krell), but I haven't read it, only shelved it (I work in a bookstore).
Henry Farrell
18. S.M. Stirling
RED PLENTY is excellent, if you can take a lot of economics with lightly fictionalized case studies -- not a problem for me, although I wouldn't make a steady diet of it.

It gets across, at a very non-abstract level, why the Soviet system not only did not work well, but why this was non-contingent. Given the lingering wish-to-believe still present, this is a valuable function. I also laughed aloud several times reading it, but then I have an odd sense of humor.

RED PLENTY shows how smart, dedicated, hard-working people couldn't make it work because the problems were systemic and structural, not the result of bad personnel selection or a few wrong decisions. It wasn't a problem which could be cured by "I believe, Tinkerbell" methods. The slide into corruption is also well illustrated.

In fact, terror aside corruption was the only thing that let it function at all, by working around its systemic blockages. 'twas a feature, not a bug.

If you've read extensively in the literature of the 1890-1920 period, one thing you'll find a lot of is Progressive (in the original sense, Teddy Roosevelt sense of the term) confidence that 'rational planning' is the answer to the 'wasteful, chaotic' features of the economic system. Objective, highly-trained guys in lab coats or equivalents are the answer!

This is something that Teddy R. and H.G. Wells and Jack London all shared, along with many another; you can see the consensus future gleaming behind their rhetoric, all columns and domes and super-trains and airships, Fordism and Taylorist management and the cult of the efficiency expert so forth. It's shared all across the political spectrum; hence the way Fabian socialists in Britain got on so well with "constructive imperialists" like Milner.

(The non-Marxist versions usually come with a heavy element of eugenics at that time, also a feature of the 'advanced' thought of the period and a product of similar hubris. Wells was big on giant lethal chambers where inferior stock would be painlessly eliminated -- needless to say, that line of thought did not end well.)

This all gradually came a cropper.

One major reason was precisely the USSR's attempt to carry the idea into practice. The National Socialists also drew on the same lines of thought, with a somewhat different mix of memes, and Benny the Moose making the trains run on time.

Other, milder attempts also served as useful and horrible examples -- all those Brutalist skyscrapers which became instant vertical slums, the Bahaus-Modernist vision of tower-blocks separated by multilevel expressways and parks, and the Britsh "New Towns" like Milton Keynes (aka Crapsack City), or the Groundnut Scheme.

Still, as the poet put it in "The Gods of the Copybook Headings", the fool's bandaged finger goes wobbling back to the fire.
Henry Farrell
19. Henry Farrell
S.M. Stirling - Who, among the actual invited participants said this, or anything like it?
Henry Farrell
20. Rivka
Okay, this was enough to get me to buy it. Now I'm mesmerized. What a fascinating book! I am having to restrain myself from putting half a dozen books listed in the endnotes in my Amazon cart.
Henry Farrell
22. J. Hames
I enjoyed this book immensley as well. You can read my views of the book here on my blog: http://jhame085.wordpress.com/2013/08/23/red-plenty-by-francis-spufford/

I also must ask your opinion on the story that takes place an the "American Exhibit" in Moscow.

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