Red Plenty is a Novel

by Kim Stanley Robinson on May 29, 2012

“I loved Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty, which is a very beautiful novel.

There seems to be some unnecessary confusion as to its form or genre. You can see that in the front matter of the American edition, in which it is described as “like no other history book,” “a collection of stories,” “‘faction’,” “part detective story,” “a set of artfully interwoven genres,” “the least promising fictional material of all time,” “reverse magical realism,” and “half novel/half history”. Of course it does not help that the first words of the novel are “This is not a novel. There is too much to explain…”

All wrong. There is always too much to explain, and yet novels are still novels. They have an immense capacity to include and shape all aspects of the real. Red Plenty is not even a particularly unusual novel, in terms of length, complexity, self-awareness, historical inclusions, bricolage technique, or any other matters of style or content. Shall we say Moby Dick is not a novel, or War and Peace? No we shall not. Red Plenty is a novel like they are, and should be discussed as one.

All right. Getting past the first sentence: what I particularly liked in Red Plenty is the way it humanizes a mysterious and convulsive mass of recent history. It’s a tremendous demonstration of what a great diagnostic power the novel can wield in the hands of a strong novelist. You could call it an outstanding example of socialist realism, in that its critique of the Soviet experiment also contains a deep sympathy for the experiment’s goals, and for the many people who continued to struggle for those goals to the end, despite the worsening circumstances. It should be read together with F.V. Gladkov’s Cement to make that point clear. It should also be read in the context of science fiction, historical fiction, alternative history, Soviet modernisms, and steampunk. This would be to put it in the context of other similar works, where it will always shine and illuminate.

And it is so full of characters I cared about, described in a precise emotional language. A moment came for me, in the chapter called “Midsummer Night, 1962,” when the book took flight and soared into that space where we live other lives and hear other people’s thoughts, and feel their feelings. Now I too have been there! This is what novels do, and I insist Red Plenty is a novel because it strengthens our sense of the form to have this book included in it.”



NPTO 05.29.12 at 6:38 pm

I agree. Still, it is remarkable how Spufford managed to mix the theoretical explanations with the narrative. Not easy to do. Having said that, maybe his task was made easier by the nature of the scientific theories he was discussing. Universal planning schemes are always close to utopian thinking, and fiction. By which I do not mean “fiction” as falsehood, but rather as something that is made, not found. There is a kind of “play within the play” aspect to the reformers’ ideas in the novel.


Colin Danby 05.29.12 at 7:13 pm

Yes, it’s not unusual for novels to pretend not to be novels, though this one seems to do a little more bet-hedging at the beginning than it needs to.

My favorite bit was the fixer, Chekusin, both because of his own history, the way his work opened up a second hidden circuitry for the whole system, and the layers of irony added to the viscose machine saga.


Stephen Frug 05.30.12 at 3:02 am

Since our Noble Guest Poster is too humble to mention it, his own Red Mars seems to have been an influence on Red Plenty. From Spufford’s web site:
I learned a lot from non-Soviet SF about how to represent the pleated and knotted fabric of a society alien to the reader – and one book in particular, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars trilogy, directly influenced the shape of Red Plenty with its switching points of view and its italicised inter-chapters.


Alex 05.30.12 at 5:08 am

Thanks for taking aim at that stupid intro. Even the novel of ideological currents isn’t unprecedented. I would cite a novel that I have a lot of investment in, Aesthetics of Resistance, by Peter Weiss, but also his model for that novel, Dante Allighieri.


John Quiggin 05.30.12 at 5:21 am

Just to say I appreciated this review – I read the book largely as non-fiction, but it is a great novel.


Neville Morley 05.30.12 at 12:57 pm

I am not so convinced that the confusion over genre is ‘unnecessary’; it is at any rate understandable. Since at least the nineteenth century (arguably, since Thucydides made his great claim that his work was not written for the pleasure of an immediate audience but was to be useful for all time), historians have generally taken great pains to distinguish their writings from anything fictional, for fear that they’ll lose credibility in comparison with properly ‘scientific’ accounts of the world. Hence the obsession with ideas of objectivity (trying to exclude any possibility of the subjective understanding of the historian distorting The Truth), and hence, as Hayden White has long argued, the tendency for historians to stick with the most old-fashioned realist literary or anti-literary style they can muster, aiming to be as boring as possible to avoid any accusation of undue rhetoric or imagination.

Plenty of mainstream historians would entirely agree that a book involving fictional characters and dialogue, playing fast and loose with historical information for the sake of producing a good story (all of the times that Spufford takes genuine events out of their original context for the sake of making a more dramatic point) is not history but is a novel – but for them, that carries the implication that therefore it’s not going to tell you anything true or important. Hence, I suspect, that defensive opening. I am struck rather by the number of people who seem to be willing to concede that Spufford’s book offers a serious historical account despite its literary techniques – there may be hope for the genre yet.


Neville Morley 05.30.12 at 1:02 pm

The style of the italicised sections – presented as the really historical bits in between the fictional scenes – actually struck me as more contrived, mainly because they reminded me of the account of another alien society in Georges Perec’s W ou le souvenir d’enfance, at any rate in the English translation. Which, given the nature of the society Perec is evoking, is rather a disturbing analogy.


Agog 06.01.12 at 7:45 am

I began the book with some qualms about the ‘introductions’ standing apart as they do from the fiction. The doubt is that they are bolted on to explain things that ought to have been made clear enough within the stories themselves. But it’s hard to imagine enjoying ‘Psychoprophylaxis’ in quite the same way without the little bit of sociology that preceded it.

Agree about ‘Midsummer night’ completely!


bianca steele 06.02.12 at 1:56 am

I liked the division between the italicized and narrative sections. It reminded me of how in A Place of Greater Safety the historical background, with all the stage-setting, is described in the present tense, and the narrative in the usual past tense.

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