3. Pretending to be Russian, pretending (not) to be a novelist
I’m delighted that that Antoaneta Dimitrova finds my portrait of late-Soviet mediocrity in the Party authentic. It seemed to me to be one of the most immediate anti-ideal forces in the Soviet environment, working briskly from the get-go against all beautiful dreams, that the perverse incentives of the place on the human level had made it inevitable, after the revolutionary generations were gone, that it would be staffed at the top by those who were best at getting along in a tyranny, rather than by those who were most devoted to the tyranny’s aims. Hence the rise under Stalin of Brezhnev’s generation of vydvizhentsy, ‘promotees’, scrambling to seize the chance for upward mobility represented by the purges, and then that generation’s reproduction of itself in the 1960s and 70s, once it was setting the incentives, from among the greediest, most amiably shameless, most opportunistic of the young.
This wasn’t the whole story, of course. One of the most fascinating features of the later Soviet decades is the way that apolitical opportunism never quite displaced idealism altogether from the hierarchy; couldn’t, in fact, because it depended for its legitimacy on some kind of lingering, ever-more-diluted reference to the system’s supposed intentions, leading to the situation in which, as Stephen Kotkin puts it, the Party in the 1980s was still ‘booby-trapped with idealism’. Nor were the successful mediocrities necessarily stupid. Low cunning was certainly part of the job description, and they must also have possessed a good sceptical feel – probably better than the various reformers had – for the present-tense possibilities of the system they milked. But it does mean that, when it came to assessing Brezhnev and Khrushchev and their cronies as philosopher kings, it seemed to me that you didn’t have to wait for the Hayekian or Popperian objections to the system’s knowledge problems to kick in. The theory of rule by steely, ‘conscious’ guardians of the public good arrived pre-vitiated, grotesquely self-cancelled, by having the actual representatives of the theory turn out to be beefy backslappers with the mental horizons of warthogs.
More than that, I’m delighted that she finds the book reasonably authentic in general, and not the kind of outsider’s fantasy that turns to ridiculous tinsel-dust and blows away at the mere touch of actual experience of life in the USSR or the satellites. I’ve been gradually letting out a held breath since the book came out, on this point; and it’s just come out in Russian without reviewers pointing and laughing, so maybe I’ve got away with the absurdity of taking on the subject-matter from where I am, with the equipment at my disposal. (It’s been a book which steeply compounds the standard author’s sensation that you’re trying to put one over on people, and will be found out at any moment.) As anyone who has ever encountered the pink Englishness of me in the flesh will testify—aha, title for a future memoir: Pink Englishness—I am not even slightly Russian. I don’t speak Russian or read Russian. I’ve visited the places I write about, but I haven’t ever lived in them. I don’t have close Russian friends. Nor do I have the alternative route in of intimacy with the science of the story. My only qualification is a kind of gift for pattern recognition, for seeing where, in the distributed mass of events and ideas and personalities, there is narrative sense to be made. Everything in the book had to be second-hand. Everything was obtained by reading, by staring as hard as I could through the narrow aperture available to me, and by using every last scrap of the pertinent experience I have had, to what has sometimes felt like a ridiculous degree. It wasn’t just that I contrived to use the whole buffalo. I didn’t even leave a smear of blood on the pavement where the buffalo had been. It was all turned into black pudding. There are things in Red Plenty that originate in remarks taxi-drivers made to me. Yes, I am the Thomas Friedman of Khrushchev’s USSR. So while it is, indeed, ‘evidence-based’, as Antoaneta kindly says, in the sense that the factual, the real, has been the fundamental stimulus to my imagination, the book’s relationship to fact is a little complex; and the first complication that needs to be admitted is that it is not evidence-based in the sense of being a considered, selective response to some large, patient massing of data. The book does not represent a selection of detail drawn from a deep knowledge of the Soviet Union. It contains substantially everything I found out, with the directions in which I went looking for data often being dictated by my sense, in advance, that there was a piece of the narrative that needed to be supported. As the great Serbian writer Danilo Kis said, when an interviewer praised the indetectability of the inventions in his Borgesian memorial to the Gulag, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich – ‘Really? They seemed very visible to me.‘ Red Plenty is like the Ob Sea that the Akademgorodok scientists swim in: convincing as a pocket ocean in terms of width, but only a few feet deep at any point. It contains just enough facts, at any point, to make it hold together.
And how much ‘just enough’ is, was always a literary judgement. It was a world-building consideration, of a kind familiar to anyone writing SF or fantasy, and asking themselves what the minimum level of detail is that a reader can be fed to seed her or his imagination with a perception of solidity. The secret of even the thingiest SF, the most solid-walnut-to-the-knuckles fantasy, is that you don’t need much to summon worlds out of air, so long as the details are the right ones. But—and I’m wary here of rushing too fast into the question of what kind of fiction the book is, which flattering genre claim to succumb to—there was also always the pressure on fact-selection, on imaginative shaping, exerted by the need to arrange the world of the USSR for comprehension. Red Plenty isn’t just a book by an outsider. It’s primarily for outsiders too. (Even if Russia it seems to be being read partly as a guide to what’s generationally exotic. One of the reviews says, ‘It’s a great book to read to understand your parents.’)
Antoaneta picks out the dialogue between Chekuskin the fixer and Stepovoi the naive executive as an area of artificiality in the book. Yes, because I had source-problems there in trying to work out what a conversation between the licit and illicit worlds should sound like. Yes as well, though, because this was one of the scenes in which the advantages of having someone be naive enough to require explicit initiation into a process I needed the reader to understand outweighed the potential for doing something more psychologically particular and individual with the characters. This kept happening. The explanatory load on the book kept pushing it towards trying to clarify the whole social function of some category of event we were just seeing one of. Most novels, I felt as I was writing, were not so foreign to the modes of human interchange they portrayed that they had to explain the basic definitions of things as they went along. It was as if I had to dip my steel-nibbed pen into the inkwell and say, ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a fortune must be in want of a wife; a wife being the female partner in a pair-bonded relationship for life, sanctioned by religion and integrated into systems of inheritance, child-rearing and regulated sexuality; a fortune being a quantity of money at a high multiple of the society’s average income, usually but not invariably available as a liquid resource; money being…’
Here was a large reason for the first sentence of the book. When I wrote, ‘This is not a novel. It has too much to explain to be one of those’, I was partly teasing. And partly I was negotiating a particular difficulty that had arisen during the original publication, which made it important to assert that whatever it was, it wasn’t a failed novel. But I meant it, too. I was – am – genuinely uncertain over whether, as a piece of writing in which individual experience ceaselessly takes second place to idea, and some kind of documentary purchase on the world is being asserted, it should really qualify. Heaven knows, I’m glad to be contradicted by Kim Stanley Robinson, and if my having done my best to through-imagine it all as a kind of concrete (and viscose) poetry saves it in other people’s eyes from occupying the place I feared it had in the uncanny valley, zombyishly half-alive itself – I’m certainly not going to argue. Alright, it’s a novel. I would be proud to be carrying the suitcases of anyone on Rich Yeselson’s formidable list of predecessors, and likewise to carry on the noble, multigenerational struggle Felix Gilman indicates against too blatantly visible As-You-Know-Bob-hood. (Which goes back to Shakespeare, and all those prologues in which Count Robert tells the Duke of Boberino that my lord the king hath late return’d from Florence, where woo’d he ‘gainst all good advice the lady Eleanor. Exeunt both.) A friend of mine, on reading it in manuscript, said, ‘It’s like one enormous infodump, isn’t it? In a good way.’
But – historical novel, as Rich Yeselson and Carl Caldwell urge, or SF, where Gilman and Robinson are beckoning? I think the two genres are basically isomorphic, as Ken Macleod’s point about history being SF’s secret weapon suggests. They share the increase in the story’s explanatory load, and in the need to create familiarity from a standing start for the reader, and in the increased prominence of world-as-character. In terms of characteristic difficulties, they share the problem of how to make characters something other than just an expression of researched or invented perspectives. They both aim to transport. Where they differ is in whether they transport us to a combination of human possibilities which has already existed, or to one that only might exist, elsewhere or -when. Since the Soviet Union in 1960 existed all too solidly, it looks like an open and shut case for the historical. And yet…
And yet it was a haunted solidity I was after. Solidity with a spectre in it, a will-o-the-wisp which nevertheless had power to promise, torment, console, frighten, cost, cause. The misapprehension John Holbo read the book under – that it was an alt-hist spectacular, in which cybernetics would come to save planning at the last possible moment, and the sky would fill with happy citizens in autogiros – was an accidental artefact of Red Plenty’s marketing, and of the decision to lead the descriptions of it with what-iffery. But I’m not at all sorry it happened. It made him, in some respects, a kind of ideal reader for the book, able to take literally and therefore at full expectant force what has to be metaphorical, a ghost you can be confident of seeing through, if you read it in the usual way, in the firm persuasion that the Cold War is going to be won by Ronald Reagan. (Joke.) The glass bead game future in which Masters of the Plan delicately adjust shadow-priced destinies to their optimum on n-dimensional abaci of perspex is exactly in the spirit of the future that the now-dusty House of Scientists in Akademgorodok genuinely anticipated. By taking on the past’s expectation as a real possibility (within the world of the text) he accidentally transported himself to something approaching the subject-position, as I understand it, of actual mathematical-economical true believers looking forward from 1962. He put himself into a state of the world which, like all states of the world, is partially composed of what it is and partially of what might be. Counterfactuals aren’t just an implied presence in historical explanations – I was glad Neville Morley in the comments brought up David Lewis’ Possible Worlds, which I read a long time ago and have had seeping about my mind ever since – they’re surely also the form, or one of them, in which we put our sense at any particular moment that a potential is present for things to change. They are the floating home of ‘otherwise’.
The picture of the future world is also, almost always, a picture of an alternative present: a state of things in terms of which, from the standpoint of which, it is possible to critique daily reality, or to find it more bearable, or to justify it. Which are three very different psychological uses for the counterfactual, rolled together and made available together, even when, as in the Soviet case, the future in question is a compulsory one, an organising destination which everyone is supposed to apply to make narrative sense of present events. The Soviet Union in the 50s-60s seems to me to have been a society haunted by its hopes in a peculiarly powerful, equivocal way. It was a place that in its very recent past had granted a hopeful goal an unlimited precedence over actual human lives, and then stepped back from mass murder without ever fully acknowledging what had happened, leaving hope tethered in private experience to a layer of sorrow and suffering; and it was a place that ceaselessly mobilised hope as self-deception, ‘psychoprophylaxis’, compulsory pretending, applied to push you into ignoring all the defects of reality; and yet it was also a place that admitted louder and louder, the harder it lent on hope as anaesthetic, the need for the present to be redeemed or transcended. Hope revealed and concealed the nature of the times. The USSR was haunted by horror and utopia at the same time. I wanted, by picking the most sympathetically geeky and cybernetic version of hope, to make us feel the force of the haunting. (Us now; us outside the experience chronologically, or geographically, or politically.)
Henry seems to me to be describing just the same phenomenon, only in different terms, when he give his aetiology of the infection of the real by the fantastic. This is dead-on, by the way, in its description of the perceptual sequence I wanted to draw the reader into :
‘A collision between the real world and an imagined one, which somehow seems better, denser, more ‘real’ than reality itself, but is in fact a reflection of it. A moment of choice, connected with that collision, in which everything seems, for a moment to be possible. The falling away of that moment, as reality reasserts itself, so that the moment of choice recedes forever into the past, but still haunts the world, present as a sense of possibility and of failure, each entwined so closely with the other that one cannot tell where the one ends and the other begins.’
The fairy-tale frame brings the magical interpretation of the counterfactual to the surface. Or rather, the book’s insistence that the dream of planned plenty is twentieth-century magic, a cultural script or spell (grammar, grimoire) with connections stretching back to the hunger-dreams of the ancestors, has the effect, I hope, of suggesting that enchantment of this kind is normal, universal. That the entwined sense of possibility/failure is threaded through times of change or choice in all sorts of societies at all sorts of times. Its presence is not to be taken as confirmation of the absurdity of any particular hope it gets attached to. History is made with refractory, recursively-patterned material, always.
I wasn’t thinking of M John Harrison, though, who I haven’t read enough of, and clearly should read more of. My model for the intrusion or infection of the fantastic was much more John Crowley, whose Aegypt novels are all about the passage through, and then fading aftermath of, moments when the world seems bursting with the possibility of being otherwise; and whose Great Work of Time contains a marooned time-traveller who experiences the actual course of the 20th century as the nightmarish crumbling, year by year, of the safer timeline he came from. Again the idea that the imaginary is realler than the real, and is the standard by which the real is judged, and found wanting.
And surely this is right, as well as dangerous. Surely we have to grant imagination the power to keep interrogating what happens to exist, and to keep asking if it couldn’t be better. The ‘otherwise’ at the end of the book is supposed to be open enough to gather into it, as in Felix Gilman’s essay, our general suspicion that some kind of less wasteful and destructive composition of the human pattern is possible, as well the specific longing of the socialist tradition for some kinder measure to dance to than the zombie-hop of the commodities. It isn’t in there just as an all-purpose rhetorical dreamcatcher, or as an exercise in the novelist’s impersonal sympathy. That’s my yearning you hear in the Akademgorodok wind, too. But it seems to me that to keep faith with the power of the imaginary requires you also to keep the most honest tally you can of its costs. Which is notoriously hard to do, of course, without reliable prices.