Worlds of Yesterday

by Felix Gilman on June 4, 2012

More than two centuries ago, our Founders laid out a charter that assured the rule of law and the rights of man. Through times of tranquility and the throes of change, the Constitution has always guided our course toward fulfilling that most noble promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve the chance to pursue their full measure of happiness. America has carried on not only for the skill or vision of history’s celebrated figures, but also for the generations who have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebears and true to our founding documents. On Loyalty Day, we reflect on that proud heritage and press on in the long journey toward prosperity for all.
—Loyalty Day Presidential Proclamation, May 1 2012

Red Plenty is so unusual in its structure and concerns, and it does what it does so well, that after reading it one wonders if there’s a Red Plenty Method that could – should – be generalized to tackle other problems. Teams of graduate students could construct knock-off Red Plenties, not as good as the original but still pretty good and efficiently targeted to meet increasing requirements. First I want to see them tackle the above Loyalty Day Proclamation, almost before irritation, was to wonder how the Red Plenty Method would approach it.  The stories of a generation of US policy wonks – earnest, careerist, idealistic, and/or cynical – required to press on in the long journey toward Prosperity, first figuring what Prosperity means, while doing so in a way that is faithful to the ideals of our forebears and true to our founding documents, as interpreted by political actors in the most bloody-minded way possible, in the context of political institutions that reduce every idea to crudely weaponized slogans. Anyway I suppose this is as good a place as any to make a formal request for Red Plenty Extended Universe franchise fiction.

Here (NY) they seem to generally shelve the book under Russian History. It probably works well as history, though I really don’t know enough about Russian history to judge. It certainly has the feel of the best kind of history -  it captures what it (probably) felt like for the people under examination when the past was modern, and exciting, and uncertain and contingent, and all those other things that we have trouble imagining the past as.

I was primed by the coverage I’d seen to approach the book as science fiction. On a second read it felt like satire – part satire of the academic life, part black political comedy – The Tin Men with real peoples’ lives at stake – but on first read it was SF. Spufford’s introduction sets the reader up for a “fairytale,” a fairytale of a particularly science-fictional sort, with flying carpets that might be aeroplanes, the endless cornucopia of movie screens and television and supermarkets, etc. In the acknowledgments he namechecks Kim Stanley Robinson, and this, like Red Mars, is a book about science making a new world.

(In fact the title Red Plenty is evocative enough of “Red Planet” that at least two people I’ve recommended the book to later told me that they misheard me and went out and bought the Heinlein book of that name instead. It’s a great title but it turns out to have mixed effects on word of mouth. Is the title’s evocation of Mars deliberate? Mars, the object of a solid half-century of scientific utopian unlimited-frontier speculation, all of which slowly, tragically failed, and in hindsight looks ridiculous, in sort of the same way that 1960s hopes for Soviet prosperity now look  absurd, almost camp, so that it takes a huge effort of the imagination to remember that they weren’t, once upon a time..)

It has something of the structure of good old-fashioned Big-Idea science fiction. It has shifting points of view, characters briefly coming on stage as the Big Idea passes through their lives – for some of them the Big Idea is the central organizing principle in their lives, for some of them it briefly connects with them and jerks them about a bit – all these shifting POVs and vignettes building a world, tracing its rise and fall – classic SF stuff. It has several key scenes in which men and women in lab coats stand around having what are almost As-You-Know-Bob exchanges about Science. (They’re probably not actually in lab coats, but I often pictured lab coats, and a wall of gray old-timey computers behind them, like in the movies). These scenes should be required reading for anyone writing hard SF or big-idea-driven SF; Spufford does a fantastic job of keeping these sort of exchanges dramatic and moving and human, through careful attention to voice and character and the role that the ideas play in the speakers’ lives and careers and dreams; and through setting up interesting and unexpected oppositions among the speakers.

Like the best sort of SF worldbuilding, there’s always a sense that there’s more going on than we see in the foreground. I mean on one level of course there is, this is sort-of Russia, there were more than 58 people in it. This isn’t a made-up secondary world; then again it sort of is, and not just in the way that all fiction is; this is set in a sub-world of Russia, a shadow of Russia, made out of the fantasy and reality of Plenty. That sub-world feels populous. Part of the trick here is in the way Spufford selects his POV characters, with restraint and with just the right level of arbitrariness, suggesting all the millions of others we might be following, on each of whose carefully individuated lives the Big Idea will have slightly different effects. A judicious handful of digressions from the usual structure and theme also hint at the bigger world (e.g. Part VI Ch. 1, “The Unified System,”; by the way, this also stands alone as probably the most terrifying anti-smoking PSA I have ever seen, in case you or a loved one are trying to quit smoking).

I don’t know if this is this the normal reading experience, but I spent a lot of time wondering if the book was or wasn’t science fiction while I was reading it in part because I’d been led by my vague half-reading of the buzz about it to think that it really was actually science-fictional in a different way. I thought the idea was that it was a what-if kind of science fiction, in which central-planning prosperity really did take off the way they thought it might back in the ‘60s. I was expecting the book to be an attempt to depict what that utopia might have been like. I kept expecting a turn into fantasy – something maybe a little like the Neil Gaiman Miracleman utopia, almost. Or in another sense, a bit like those SF novels that ask what if they’d got a proper analytical engine to work in 1830? Or etc. I have a thing about the idea that the fad for steampunk in SF/F is in part the result of science fiction running up against the end of utopian frontiers and futures, turning instead to counterfactuals, not what might the world of tomorrow be like? but what if the world of yesterday had been magically somehow a bit less awful? I thought Red Plenty might have been in that vein. I read it with the same sort of slow cold realization that the characters have. Right up until the final section I thought, maybe, maybe. It doesn’t happen. The space for utopia shrinking, with mathematical inevitability, as the pages run out—and more of it is end notes than you expect, at the end – until it becomes clear that there simply isn’t room for it. And was this part of the choice to make “shadow prices” the central economic notion in the book – the shadow of what isn’t done hanging over what actually is, the one-more-thing that doesn’t happen, the cost of missed opportunities? (Or was it just a happy accident?)  In the end what you get instead is that heartbreaking final line – can it be otherwise? Can it be, can it be, can it ever be otherwise?

 The shadow changes shape as the story progresses. As it becomes less likely to be realized it gets bigger; realistic hopes are denied and fantastic yearnings take their place. From the carefully quantifiable 3%, “only a marginal gain, an abstemious eking out of a little bit more from the production process” of the first chapter; through “Midsummer Night, 1962,” where dreamers hold an idly fantastic debate on what human nature might be like under post-scarcity conditions; through to “The Pensioner, 1968,” where it turns out that what we’re talking about now is no longer just more and cheaper stuff but something positively eschatological, a change that would leave the world “[ ]redeemed . . . [ ]transfigured”.  The transfiguring potential of economic organization here goes beyond mere plenty, into purpose. Red Plenty is full of the blunders and irrationality and inefficiency of Soviet industry, the sheer pointlessness of so much of what people did all day. It’s also full of characters appalled at the pointless nature of so much of what people do in capitalist economies, driven by the arbitrary and meaningless demands of money – and while we do have a lot more plenty these days in capitalist economies (most of us, at least), the sensation of pointlessness persists (for many of us, much of the time, at least). If we were just a little bit cleverer, if we were just a little bit more rational, perhaps we might figure out a way of organizing the world of work so that everything we do would be worthwhile, nobody’s efforts or lives would be wasted, everyone would know that their efforts were significant, because it could be proven, mathematically. . . Well, maybe not. It’s a lot of weight to put on statistics. In fact it’s sort of impossible even to put into words, so you’re left with the wind asking, at the end, vaguely and plaintively, Can it be, can it be, can it ever be otherwise?

 

{ 17 comments }

1

Shelley 06.04.12 at 6:02 pm

“Realistic hopes are denied.”

Sounds like America for job-hunters, 2012.

2

J. Otto Pohl 06.04.12 at 6:12 pm

Shelly:

Depends on what jobs. But, for me the US ceased to be a possible place of employment no later than 2004 when I got my PhD from London. Maybe now I can experience some _Schadenfreude_ of left-wing academics sharing in my three year experience of unemployment from 2004-2007. A few of them may even have to emigrate to Asia or Africa as I did.

3

Shatterface 06.04.12 at 7:00 pm

As well as Red Mars the title evokes Alexander Bogdanov’s Red Star, the ‘First Bolshevik Utopia’. Bogdanov was one of Lenin’s inner circle (though they later fell out) and a pioneer of Systems Theory, which lay the ground for Cybernetics.

Kim Stanley Robinson named one of his first colonists after him.

4

Stephen 06.04.12 at 7:19 pm

“in a way that is faithful to the ideals of our forebears and true to our founding documents, as interpreted by political actors in the most bloody-minded way possible”

Felix: we may be divided by a common language. But from this side of the pond, “interpreted … in the most bloody-minded way possible” seems a woefully exaggerated view of what has actually happened in the US. If by “bloody-minded” you mean “intending bloodshed” then anything after the US Civil War – and I don’t think you are a neo-Confederate complaining about that – is utterly trivial compared to politics over the last few generations, except in Canada, NZ, Australia, Iceland, Sweden, Switzerland, Botswana, the UK outside NI … I’m sure I’ve forgotten a few, but …

5

Gareth Rees 06.04.12 at 7:36 pm

OED: “bloody-minded, adj. 2. Chiefly Brit. Perverse, contrary; cantankerous; stubbornly intransigent or obstructive.”

6

John Quiggin 06.04.12 at 7:45 pm

Wow! As with your own reading Red Plenty (and that of John H earlier), I thought you’d made up Loyalty Day as some sort of alt-universe thing. But it’s the real deal. According to Wikipedia, invented as a counter to the left’s celebration of May Day.

7

GiT 06.04.12 at 11:49 pm

Don’t forget that it’s a twofer – in addition to Loyalty Day, you get Law Day at no extra cost. It’s buy one get one free – what could be more patriotic?

“When President Dwight D. Eisenhower established Law Day in 1958, he proclaimed it “fitting that the people of this Nation should remember with pride and vigilantly guard the great heritage of liberty, justice, and equality under law which our forefathers bequeathed to us.” Today, we celebrate that enduring legacy and renew our commitment to a democracy sustained by the rule of law.”

—Law Day Presidential Proclamation, May 1 2012

8

PJW 06.05.12 at 12:30 am

The title. I’ve been reading it as a homophone as in Read Plenty. A bit of word play.

9

NomadUK 06.05.12 at 7:34 am

I thought you’d made up Loyalty Day as some sort of alt-universe thing

It always amuses me when otherwise intelligent people seem to stumble across the secret of just how insane the US really is.

10

Katherine 06.05.12 at 8:58 am

Bit like when I realised that school children in the US really do stand up and chant the Pledge of Alliegance every day. Even as I type that I’m thinking it can’t possibly be true.

11

mds 06.05.12 at 2:08 pm

It has several key scenes in which men and women in lab coats stand around having what are almost As-You-Know-Bob exchanges about Science.

I haven’t yet obtained a copy of Red Plenty, but this observation of Mr. Gilman’s reinforces my desire to read it, as I must see how Spufford manages to finesse As-You-Know-Bob.

I have a thing about the idea that the fad for steampunk in SF/F is in part the result of science fiction running up against the end of utopian frontiers and futures, turning instead to counterfactuals, not what might the world of tomorrow be like? but what if the world of yesterday had been magically somehow a bit less awful?

This strikes me as plausible at first glance, and offers a partial antidote to what I believe was Charlie Stross’ displeasure with the glorification of the Victorian Era in all its imperialism and other faults. The future is failing us, so let’s play make-believe in a past that never was.

Katherine @ 10:

Bit like when I realised that school children in the US really do stand up and chant the Pledge of Alliegance every day.

On some level, I’m somewhat entertained that American right-wingers are especially enthusiastic about forcing schoolchildren to recite the words of a nineteenth-century socialist. Or I was entertained, until I learned that May Day is Loyalty Day. Now I’m back to fitful sobbing.

12

rm 06.05.12 at 2:25 pm

I remember discussions of Communism in the eighties in which people pointed out that the atrocities of Soviet history were easy to attribute to the evil agency of government, but the biggest atrocities of poverty in the capitalist world were, sort of, privatized, not attributed to anyone’s deliberate agency but just a sad reality that was no one’s fault. Kind of how the discussion of health care works now: single-payer or socialized systems are blamed for all their glitches, but the failures of the American non-system are all off the books. I dunno if I have a point, maybe that inequality and scarcity are always there and always hurt someone, but capitalism is a way of writing off moral responsibility for it.

Off-topic (or is it?), I CAN HAZ SEKWEL TO HAFMAD WURLD PLZ??

13

rm 06.05.12 at 2:29 pm

sorry

saw it’s in the works

i will hide my face in shame now

14

J. Otto Pohl 06.06.12 at 8:30 am

12 rm

The complete lack of responsibility and perpetrators is how Stalinist atrocities are now discussed in Russia. There are victims, but no perpetrators. It is as if they were all victims of a natural disaster. Arseny Roginsky is especially good on this.

15

Peter Erwin 06.06.12 at 10:48 am

I thought you’d made up Loyalty Day as some sort of alt-universe thing. But it’s the real deal.

Of course, there’s an amazingly long list of officially proclaimed Days, Weeks, and Months of Somethingorother in the US. For example, June is Gay and Lesbian Pride Month, Caribbean-American Heritage Month, Great Outdoors Month, National Oceans Month, and Black Music Month. Designating such days, weeks, and months is one of the traditional things Congress does to demonstrate that it’s Doing Something.

16

purple 06.07.12 at 8:45 am

Pablum and garbage. God Bless America in prose.

17

ajay 06.07.12 at 9:15 am

For example, June is Gay and Lesbian Pride Month, Caribbean-American Heritage Month, Great Outdoors Month, National Oceans Month, and Black Music Month.

Celebrate them all at once by going windsurfing with a gay calypso singer.

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