“Red Team Blues” and the As-You-Know-Bob problem

by Henry Farrell on April 27, 2023

I’ve just finished reading Cory Doctorow’s great, fun novel, Red Team Blues, and I’ve been thinking about how well it exemplifies one of the strengths of good science fiction. Back when we ran our seminar on Francis Spufford’s novel, Red Plenty, there was a back-and-forth between Francis and Felix Gilman. As Francis described it post-hoc, he wanted to write the novel of the socialist calculation debate, in part because of the challenge:

I was positively attracted to the whole business of being the first person in thirteen years to consult Cambridge University Library’s volumes of The Current Digest of the Soviet Press; and in general to the challenge of taking on the most outrageously boring subject matter I could find, and wrestling it to the floor, and forcing it to disgorge its hidden jewel of interestingness

And it worked! Reader: you may, very reasonably, believe that you do not to want to read a novel about applications of linear programming theory in the Soviet Union. But actually, you very much do want to read it, even if you don’t yet know it. The liveliness of Francis’s prose (“forcing it to disgorge its hidden jewel”) gives at least some hint as to why.

But, as Felix suggested in passing, Red Plenty didn’t just succeed because of the prose style. It succeeded thanks to the techniques he used to solve the As-You-Know-Bob problem.

[Red Plenty] 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.

People who aren’t science fiction writers, and who don’t regularly hang around with them may not know what the As-You-Know-Bob problem is. But techniques to manage it are among the great gifts that good science fiction writers have provided to the world.

As the genre’s name suggests, it simultaneously (a) involves scientific speculation, and (b) is fiction. If you want to speculate about what the world is going to look like in an imagined future, you are probably going to have to invent a lot of detail, for the sake of verisimilitude, and some of that detail is going to shape the story you are telling. Since that detail is imaginary, you obviously can’t just assume that the reader knows how things work, in the ways that they understand the technologies they live with, such as elevators and smartphones.

Hence, the As-You-Know-Bob” problem of bad science fiction – indigestible lumps of technical explanation of detail in the guise of purported dialogue. “As you know, Bob, the neutron flux problem eases after we pass the hyperluminal barrier. That’s how we were able to escape the Wixilit fleet.” The problem is not only that this kind of stuff is painfully dull to read, but that it does not make narrative or logical sense. If both parties know how something works, why is one telling the other about it? Consider how it might seem in a different popular genre. “As you know, Bob, when you press the ‘5’ button, a bell dings, the elevator’s doors close, and it goes to the fifth floor. That’s how we were able to escape Mr. Wixilit’s goons.” It’s fun to imagine an “Exercises in Style” type story in which the tropes of terrible expository science fiction were applied to a crime novel, or similar. But it’s probably much more fun to imagine than to read.

The point is twofold. First, that science fiction can be understood, without too much conceptual violence, as a congeries of evolved narrative strategies to avoid, sublimate or escape the As-You-Know-Bob Problem. Second, that these strategies can be extremely useful outside science fiction.

And this explains some of the virtues of Red Team Blues. In a sense, it isn’t science fiction at all. There isn’t any technology that doesn’t more or less exist today. In a different sense, like Red Plenty, it is science fiction down to its bones. It takes on a topic that is very nearly as unpromising sounding as Soviet linear programming techniques: the technical workings of cryptocurrency. The book’s protagonist is an accountant in his mid-sixties. These are not promising sounding premises for a fun book that you might want to buy, and read. Again, you do want to read it, and I say this as someone who (a) has read more about accounting standards than he ever wanted to, and (b) has regularly had the ‘oh fuck, here we go’ feeling when someone mentions the word ‘blockchain’ at a conference. Red Team Blues shows you how to solve the Bob problem for a wildly unpromising topic. And it not simply entertains readers, but explains things to them that they absolutely ought to know about – the evil crap that the complexities of the modern financial system enable.

Sometimes, it weaves the technical questions into the plot. As Matthew Green says, the book introduces the notion of a “trusted execution environment” right at the beginning of the first chapter. But you care about figuring out how a trusted execution environment works, because it is crucially important to a heist, involving amateurs and various clashing mobs of gangsters, which all goes horribly wrong.

Sometimes, it just introduces details that readers can look up if they want, but don’t have to. The protagonist lives in a converted tourbus which he calls the “Unsalted Hash.” At one point, he explains that it’s a “math thing,” to which one of the other characters responds that it “sounds like one of those fucking yuppie ice-cream flavors.” The reader can search to figure out what an unsalted hash is, if they want to. Or they can just let it roll past, as another part of the background detail of a complex seeming imaginary world (which is also, as it happens, our world, with some features exaggerated, and others pushed to the side).

And sometimes, it just gives you a sense of how different it is for the very rich – what wealth management involves and enables. I don’t know whether Cory has read e.g. Brooke Harrington’s book on the anthropology of wealth management, but the feeling of just being able to call, and have things magically arranged for you by people you don’t ever really need to know, the ways in which complicated accounting create a world where the sort-of-gray-hat forms of financial hacking blur into the actively evil black hat stuff – all that seems right. And making it so that all this information about complicated and boring seeming details doesn’t seem complicated or boring at all – that requires technical skill. You don’t notice this artistry as a reader, which is the point unless you’re watching closely to try to figure out how the magic trick works, so that you can one day perhaps replicate it yourself.

There are important lessons here for academics who want to push out their ideas to a popular audience. Most of us have the As You Know, Bob problem far worse than tyro science fiction writers. We unashamedly love our areas of expertise, and can’t quite grasp why everyone else doesn’t love them too, even when we are prepared to tell them what is so great at enormous length. This is why we often tend not to be very popular at parties.

We could learn from science fiction writers. The good ones have spent years getting better at performing a fabulously difficult task – getting people to pay real cash money for books and stories imparting knowledge about technical subjects that are often completely invented and have no practical application whatsoever. If you read science fiction and pay attention to what the author is doing, you will learn enormously. Read Red Team Blues and see how Cory provides just enough technical detail at any point for you to follow along, and how he unobtrusively uses the narrative both to convey the information and persuade you that it is important. Then try to steal his best tricks and use them for yourself. At the least, you’ll be more fun to talk to when you mount your hobbyhorse. And – who knows – perhaps you’ll find that you have a book of your own to write.

I say this from experience. I just finished reading Red Team Blues a couple of days ago, but a few months before that finished co-authoring a trade book with Abe Newman, Underground Empire: How America Weaponized the World Economy (Holt/Macmillan, Penguin; coming out in September; the promotion starts now, and will only get worse). It’s a book about the recent history of the world economy, and what happens next. Three science fiction or science fiction adjacent writers (Francis included) are thanked in my bit of the acknowledgments, in large part because of the tricks that we learned from them. It’s hard to get ordinary readers to care about e.g. the history of the dollar clearing system, financial messaging, co-peering arrangements for Internet service, and semiconductor supply chains. That’s not even to mention legal instruments for restricting technology exports like the Foreign Direct Product Rule which affected “trillions of dollars of transactions, trillions with a ‘T’”, but “was buried in 9 point font in a footnote at the bottom of a 320 page Entity List.”. These are our equivalents of Soviet linear programming applications, or the technical requirements of crypto and advanced financial engineering. If we succeed in keeping readers’ interest, it will be because we stole from the best. So buy Red Team Blues and enjoy it. But also learn from it. Science fiction is the trade secret of writing popular history.



steven t johnson 04.27.23 at 1:10 pm

One of the most notable features of science fiction writing is that there is relatively little of it being done any more. Indeed, the commercial category (essential to the critical analysis of reviewers) is SFF, science fiction and fantasy, as if they were the same thing. Verisimilitude is not a desideratum. A pretended mundaneness in the background, to provide the proper contrast to a technicolor fantasy for the vicarious hero. (By the way, the As-you-know-Bob is not even a problem in one of the living branches of SF, military SF, where the ritualistic recounting of weapon specs—all of them imaginary—is in itself thrilling.)

It seems to me SF is a window, it looks outward. If you’re ignorant, it’s all dark out there, and you can only see a dim reflection of yourself in the glass. Fantasy is simply the mirror. Whether the authors tell us the truth about what they see, outside the window or in the mirror, is for the reader to decide of course.

None of this is to argue that exposition isn’t a serious literary issue for SF, just that it isn’t for SFF. In principle of course, the only difference between SF and fantasy is that the fantastic element in SF is supposed to somehow be natural, while in fantasy it is supposed to be, well, magical, or perhaps reality shattering. Technically, this is purely a stylistic issue. It is truly remarkable how many reviewers have no interest whatsoever in mere style. (The fact I personally have none/negative style is irrelevant to the point.)

The natural origin of the fantastic in SF implies that, for a good style*, exposition needs to be plausible as natural dialogue; needs to be plausible as speculation; needs to justify a fantastic element that is relevant to plot, theme and the reader. There is in other words a certain style in SF writing. A generalized hostility to big words (usually dismissed as “technobabble”) isn’t it.

Fantasy exposition need only be colorful and intuitive. The more anchored, the less the fancy can fly. Comic book stories rely on the reader to ignore nonsense, which is one justification for the amalgamation SFF. (It seems to me comic book stories are essentially metaphors for how children can grow up to be anything, even though the recent ones largely dream of becoming a billionaire.) Comic book movies rely on FX looking “real.” Hollywood, which seems to know only the science of homeopathy, believes that such intuitively easy exposition suffices. In written work, the FX can’t bear the burden.

The issue for me, in deciding whether to hope Red Team Blues shows up at a public library or bear the agony of [shudders] buying is, is cryptocurrency truly relevant. I have my doubts.

Style: The arrangement of words, punctuation and sentences to communicate the author’s intent to the reader, inducing the proper emotion as the reader continues. There is no concrete separation of style and content, which are, though I dread to use the forbidden words, a dialectical unity of opposites.


Phil H 04.27.23 at 2:42 pm

Technique is definitely one of the important qualities that make large lumps of information digestible to the reader. The other two, I venture, are joy and payoff.
By joy I mean sheer pleasure in writing and sharing information. It tends to shine through even pedestrian prose, and can be very infectious. Lots of great pop science writers have this quality – I happen to be reading Ed Yong at the moment, and he’s got it in spades.
By payoff I mean that the information isn’t just an end in itself: it goes somewhere. Tolkien does lots of lumpen world building, but he puts it in the service of a an epic narrative with memorable characters, so we go with it. And 2001 is bookended by some really tedious monkey and mushroom passages, but offers quite chunky sci-fi philosophy, so I’m going to forgive it.
But yeah, decent technique will get you a long way!


Dave W. 04.27.23 at 7:16 pm

Editor Leah Schnelbach uses the first few pages of Ann Leckie’s award-winning Ancillary Justice as a case study in how to do worldbuilding while avoiding the infodump here.


Tim Worstall 04.27.23 at 7:36 pm

“We unashamedly love our areas of expertise, and can’t quite grasp why everyone else doesn’t love them too, even when we are prepared to tell them what is so great at enormous length. This is why we often tend not to be very popular at parties.”

Tsk, as the late, great, Levin, B. pointed out about the subject of – his example – Byzantine coinage. The secret is in the skill of the listener.

That’s been my excuse for decades now, not meeting enough good listeners.

“finished co-authoring a trade book”

Ah, I went looking for that in your links thinking, hmm, trade, could be fun. But you meant book format, not the subject – ah well.


JAFD 04.27.23 at 9:46 pm

Dumb Red Plenty question. Any ChemE’s there who can tell me how much of the description of the rayon manufacturing process is fact and how much is BS ?
In the 30’s and 40’s, my grandfather worked at the American Viscose plant (on the Delaware between Chester and Wilmington). Should have talked to him some more while he was around ….


Francis Spufford 04.28.23 at 12:31 pm

JAFD@5: You still need to get this checked out authoritatively by a real chemical engineer, and as far as I can remember, the chemistry of the viscose process is right in the book, and so is the place of its inputs and outputs in the Soviet production web, and the machine that gets broken has the name of a real machine. But I began to tap-dance when it came to what the machine looked like, and I borrowed the disastrous ruling that machinery should be valued by weight from elsewhere in the chemical industry. The notes on pp.393-400 of Red Plenty ought to detail exactly where the bullshit began.


Alan Peakall 04.28.23 at 5:51 pm

Regarding science fiction exposition, I recall a critical commentary on the final two stories of Asimov’s original Foundation Series in which Joseph Patrouch sharply contrasted their respective initial information dumps roughly thus: The Mule’s lecture [in Search by the Mule] is something we endure for the sake of the story, but Arkady Darrel’s dictation of her essay [in Search by the Foundation] is a delight in that it deftly combines exposition with characterization of the teenage heroine.


Theophylact 04.28.23 at 6:00 pm

The technology of 19th Century seamanship was as complex and alien as that of science fiction, and Patrick O’Brian was the absolute master of avoiding the “As-you-know-Bob” problem. He never, or hardly ever, explained a technical term; the continually bemused Stephen Maturin served as a proxy for the reader.

Perhaps this technique deserves wider use in science fiction. It’s more generally applicable than Heinlein’s “the door dilated” approach, though its demands on the reader are pretty severe.


steven t johnson 04.28.23 at 7:32 pm

Alan Peakall@7 Did Patrouch really forget the Mule’s Clown persona? The Mule’s lecture was also characterization, deftly combining the exposure of the character’s competence, incisiveness, decisiveness and intelligence. Of course, part of the delight of Arkady Darrell’s is not the words, it is picturing the ingenue, who is much sexier.

Another deft combination of characterization and information was from the Matrix Reloaded, namely, the dialogue of the Architect. Given that the real action (as opposed to simple violence) in The Matrix was actually the conflict between the Oracle and the Architect. The unnatural dialogue showed us something the Oracle merely says, the Architect didn’t understand people because “he” definitely wasn’t one. Of course people hated the dialogue, despite it being so clumsy, precisely because villains are supposed to spout neat one liners and catchphrases. (And because big words are offensive?)

And a reversal on the theme? In the novel Dracula, Jonathan Harker is clearly a lower-class climber. Putting on a posh(er) accent is an inextricable part of the character, even if it is left to the reader to understand this. In the oddly name Coppola’s Stoker’s Dracula, sure enough the Harker character doesn’t have a convincing middle/upper class accent. Reviewers have even declared Keanu Reeves single-handedly ruined the movie! (The best part of the movie I think was the opening Oldman/Reeves two-hander, while Hopkins’ syphilis speech I think has a better claim to wrecking the movie.) The moral is that exposition even if it has to be as-you-know-Bob Harker’s faking it badly sort is better than none.

And another example of how lack of exposition can ruin something for you, consider Dune, both novels and movies. Once it occurred to me to wonder where the free oxygen in the atmosphere came from, then Dune in all its versions were hopelessly weakened for me.


Seekonk 04.28.23 at 7:55 pm

Speaking of Red Plenty, I gather that the expansion of number-crunching computing power has removed one of the problems with “socialist calculation” raised in the debate of Mises, et al., a century ago.

Elena Veduta, daughter of economic-cyberneticist Nikolai Veduta (1913-98), suggests that the present-day challenge to cybernetic planning is developing the algorithms for coordinating input-output calculations. https://monthlyreview.org/2022/10/01/some-lessons-on-planning-for-the-twenty-first-century-from-the-worlds-first-socialist-economy/ (13 pages)

I would greatly appreciate if Mr. Spufford would give his current take on the feasibility of socialist calculation.


Tim Worstall 04.29.23 at 1:43 pm


bekabot 04.29.23 at 3:01 pm

“Once it occurred to me to wonder where the free oxygen in the atmosphere came from, then Dune in all its versions were hopelessly weakened for me.”

Sandworm exhalation. Apparently sandworms produce oxygen, like trees.


Peter Erwin 04.29.23 at 3:07 pm

@Seekonk, I would suggest reading Cosma Shalizi’s contribution (“In Soviet Union, Optimization Problem Solves You”) to the Red Plenty seminar on why “the expansion of number-crunching computing power” really isn’t going to help you.


LFC 04.29.23 at 3:27 pm

The OP seems to make a basic mistake, although that mistake doesn’t affect the main message about how academic writers may be able to learn some tricks from good SF ones.

The mistake is the implicit assumption that all readers will like science fiction if it’s skilfully written and skilfully “delivered.” But some readers, such as myself, are simply not that interested in SF as a genre (although I have read a small amount of SF) no matter how skilfully it’s written. In other words, some people don’t really like fictional explorations of imaginary future worlds that much, no matter how deep, how insightful, how skillful the author. If readers aren’t interested in the bedrock subject matter, almost no degree of skill on the author’s part will change that.

Similarly, not everyone is going to be interested in Farrell and Newman on the world economy, no matter how much they have learned about writing from good SF writers. I happen to be interested in intl political economy, so I might read the book. But readers who aren’t interested in the subject are unlikely to read it, irrespective of the authors’ expository skills. This is not something that an author who has poured his time, energy, thought into writing a book likes to hear, because every author naturally thinks that a book that they have slaved away on, that makes important points, that is engagingly written, and that their agent has succeeded in placing with a respected trade publisher should be read by everyone. Maybe it should be, but it won’t be. That’s life.


JimV 04.29.23 at 4:37 pm

“Science fiction and fantasy” is an honest accounting. Force-fields are fantasy. Telepathy is fantasy. Hyperdrives (FTL) are fantasy, therefore galactic empires are fantasy. Not as steeped in fantasy as magic realms where arrows rise but then curve and fall back to the ground, and wheat grows from seeds, and water flows from high to low ground, and over thousands of years, no one figures out the principles involved, but still fantasy. (I like some of the purer fantasies, but that part always bugs me.) It comes down to the writing, mostly about the characters, for me, not so much the amount of fantasy involved. 99% of the fiction in libraries is not worthwhile for me to read, 1% is great. The problem is my 1% set is disjoint from most other peoples’.

I vaguely remember being disappointed by some Cory Doctorow book and not reading any more of them, but I will try “Red Team Blues” due to the review here.


Peter Erwin 04.29.23 at 6:23 pm

There’s a truly terrible dystopian SF movie from 2006 called Ultraviolet which actually opens with an underling explaining the recent historical background to the evil ruler, starting with “As you know, Vice-Cardinal, …”. I couldn’t decide if this was some hamfisted attempt to lampshade the blatant “as-you-know-Bob” nature of the exposition, or if it was just ignorantly incompetent writing (I lean toward the latter).


Peter Erwin 04.29.23 at 6:30 pm

And another example of how lack of exposition can ruin something for you, consider Dune, both novels and movies.

There’s plenty of exposition in the novel — e.g., Paul and the Reverend Mother going over the history of the Butlerian Jihad and the origins of the Bene Gesserit, the Baron Harkonnen discussing his plans with Piter de Vries for the benefit of Feyd-Rautha — even if you ignore the excerpts from various fictional books by Princess Irulan that start off each chapter, or the running internal commentaries by most of the characters. The David Lynch film version even had Paul watch brief educational videos for our benefit.


steven t johnson 04.30.23 at 4:43 pm

bekabot@12 Thank you for the information. I don’t know how I missed this. I wish I could say it made willing suspension of disbelief for Dune, novels and movies, easier. But the discovery that sand worms are giant fire hazards that can be burnt in their spice sands doesn’t do the trick. (No, giant sandworms really are giant but they nothing compared to the biomass of plants, see various pyramids in introductions to ecology, which means they have to emit intensely locally concentrated amounts of oxygen by comparison to plants. Plants do a good enough job burning as it is.) A good style in exposition demands they seem superficially plausible.

Peter Erwin@17 Good exposition resolves plausibility problems. The exposition about why there are no computers is irrelevant because there were no computers in feudal times and Dune is medieval princes. Well, with Mongol hordes (Sardaukar.) Formally this is supposed to explain why Paul’s mentat training matters, but since that doesn’t actually matter—it’s all blood lines (aka racism, when you get down to it unfortunately) and psychedelics—it counts as bad exposition, pointless and thematically confusing and blurring the character of Paul, who it supposedly affected but didn’t.

Exposition from villains to each other about their plots plus even their victims is exposition found in too many thrillers to count, by the way, showing that SF is not alone in having exposition issues. But then, thematically SF and mysteries are very closely related. (Not thrillers.)

Princess Irulan doesn’t actually matter in the novel, it’s much too enamored of the exotic Chani to see her. That’s why her commentaries, which are her characterization, are highly questionable. Irulan as a character has no relevant personality. She doesn’t even need any dialogue and keeping her silent in the movie would probably be a really effective way of showing how the marriage is purely political. The emperor himself is a rather small part, whose key dialogue is basically, to the baron “Kill the duke” to the Sardaukar, “Kill them all,” and finally, “I surrender.”

JimV@15 defends the indifference of stylistic considerations and upholds the importance of commercial marketing strategies. As LFC@14 may be adverting to, some people resent fantastic, impossible things in their reading. That’s why many don’t like reading fiction at all. And that’s why many basically treat romances, historical fiction, boy’s adventure stories, most mystery novels and all sorts of things that offend, not just the bastard SFF. Formally, every story set in the near future is every bit as impossible. There’s a curious disconnect or maybe it’s a doubleness to this standard or criterion, where some kinds of fantastic are charming but others somehow provoke rejection.

Until closed time-like curves are definitively ruled out (which the last I looked they haven’t been,) faster than light travel is in principle possible. It is a grotesque implausibility from an engineering standpoint. But that’s why simply avoiding exposition of FTL weakens SF writing. It burdens the willing suspension of disbelief instead of even trying to help the reader. The notion that an uncritical rejection of everything that inspires gut disbelief as mere fantasy (unlike closed time-like curves) is good criticisms doesn’t even sound right when said aloud.

Clarke’s Third Law (which is the same as the MCU’s “magic is just alien science we haven’t discovered yet”) cannot possibly justify SFF as somehow all one thing. Real science and technology are cumulative. They don’t provide final or ultimate truth (if there are such things,) and in that sense are provisional. But I very much dislike the entailed notion that “provisional” implies just anything might come up, or come back. It should I think be “corrigible,” because only certain kinds of evidence and only certain kinds of arguments can be admitted as grounds for changing the theoretical propositions and principles. As it happens, those philosophical speculations dubbed materialism anticipated those notions of evidence and justification. All of this is antithetical to magic. No belief system that can’t say, there is no magic, is genuinely acceptable in my best judgment.

So, that leaves the purely stylistic issues. In SF, the fantsstic is somehow supposed to be natural. In fantasy, it’s supposed to be, well, magic, supernatural, an escape from reality that delights in thumbing its nose, so to speak, at the prison guards. (Who they are outside their imagination I’m not altogether sure.) That’s why so much of fantasy delights in openly using old superstitions. That’s why fantasy that does that is perfectly acceptable. But that’s why SF that simply copies old notions of plausibility like space wars or whatever is skipping the burden of exposition. That’s bad style. Yes, the science is fiction, but again, some are written with a good style and others are not. SFF as a critical category can’t even see the difference because it is indifferent to style.

The digression by Seekonk@10, Tim Worstall@11 and Peter Erwin@13 on planning with modern technology invokes Cosma Shalizi. As I recall, ultimately the “objections” by Shalizi reduced to the notion that planning violated consumer sovereignty because, you know, government. The principle is, the only way to know what consumers want is by their purchases. The consequence that they can only do this freely is there’s private property in the means of production, with a free market for labor and capital as well as consumer goods, is of course a standard right notion. It’s not carefully spelled out in Shalizi, but I think that’s why somebody or other gave Shalizi an internet prize for that essay.

As to the reality? The program and principles people like Shalizi stood for have been upheld in all the countries that restored capitalism. I say that every one of those countries have been worsened by the triumph of those principle. They got what they wanted. (I once reminded an F. Foundling of this.) So far as I can see, Shalizi stands condemned by the verdict of history.


Evan 05.01.23 at 4:05 pm

Sorry but I never liked Doctorow. Couldn’t get past the pandering. Whole books that read like the kind of Reddit posts that show up on Circlebroke. Constant abuse of the “but I’m doing it an IRONIC and SELF-AWARE way!” dodge.

Doctorow to me is a figure of a very particular time, by which I mean the era where Facebook and similar low-effort social sharing sites dominated the world, and many of the people involved thought this was an early transition to a newer and higher form of culture (!) rather than a bubble industry maturing into an unsustainable value-extraction machine that everyone would rapidly come to hate.

It’s great if he’s made the transition to less ephemeral and cringey writing, but that’s not what I’m hearing here.


Francis Spufford 05.02.23 at 1:27 pm

stj @ 18: If interested, I think it would be worth your while re-reading the Shalizi essay, because that’s not what it says at all. It’s an attempt, by a brilliant mind, to sort out the informational requirements in contemporary terms (contemporary for ten years ago) of implementing economic planning on Kantorovich’s model. Not a libertarian talking point in sight. Whether he’s right in his pessimism, I don’t have the maths or the computer science to say. It can’t help that late capitalism naturally doesn’t much incentivise research into planning problems. I could wish there was an annual Olympiad for planning algorithms, with a cash prize and perhaps (on the model of the old-style James Tiptree Award) an edible chocolate bust of LVK.


steven t johnson 05.02.23 at 2:45 pm

Francis Spufford@19 says I read the essay wrong, or perhaps remembered it wrong. The people who awarded Shalizi a prize for definitively refuting planning got it all wrong too? Most of all the historical record of restorationist states/societies has a decisive power that won’t be refuted by quotations.

But…As I recall, Shalizi’s final conclusion deliberately goes beyond the computing issues to conclude the real problem is planning is “planners’ preferences.” And the implication is, the problem with those preference is that they are not consumer preferences. So no, I do think Shalizi was committed to libertarian premises, which again, is why his essay was so popular. (The bulk of it on computing has escaped my memory completely, but I don’t think that part mattered then either.)

Further, the ability of planning to satisfy other preferences, such as those of unpropertied people, wasn’t compared to capitalism as a whole, presuming in classic libertarian fashion that the rich metropoles of the capitalist world are capitalist and the others merely defects. Indeed, the problem even of “planners’ preferences” is not even compared to the same problem in capitalist, er, free market economies, where they also take the issue of military spending, to name just one. Libertarians of course ignore those issues, like Shalizi, in capitalist economy, save when pretending to be anti-imperialist. (Admittedly anti-imperialism, like free sale of recreational drugs, is only a pretense of some libertarians, not all.)


LFC 05.02.23 at 6:40 pm

stj @18 writes:

As LFC@14 may be adverting to, some people resent fantastic, impossible things in their reading. That’s why many don’t like reading fiction at all.

I didn’t use the verb “to resent.”

There may be an interesting issue lurking here about continuities and discontinuities between SF (or SFF) and other kinds of fiction. Anyway, the degree of the “fantastic” and “impossible” varies quite a bit from one sort of novel to another. A lot of fiction doesn’t have these elements. If one takes, for instance, some classic 19th-century novels, there’s nothing “fantastic” or “impossible,” as I recall, in Middlemarch or Felix Holt or (though my memory of it is hazy) David Copperfield or Nicholas Nickleby or The Mayor of Casterbridge or (with a similar caveat for hazy memory) Crime and Punishment or Germinal. (Supplement list as you please.)

Moving to the 20th century, there’s nothing “fantastic” or “impossible” in, for instance, Naipaul’s Guerrillas or Golding’s Rites of Passage or Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter or Murdoch’s The Book and the Brotherhood or (except perhaps v. incidentally) McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Hemingway and Fitzgerald don’t do “fantastic” and “impossible,” neither does James Jones. If one turns to novels that pushed certain boundaries for their time, there’s nothing fantastic or impossible, as far as I’m aware, in, say, D.H. Lawrence or in Vidal’s The City and the Pillar. The list could be extended, obvs.


steven t johnson 05.04.23 at 1:31 pm

Oh, missed this.

Fiction makes up people. The characters are literally fantasies of the writers. The gut resentment of fantastic stuff can and does extend to all fiction. I don’t share this resentment but that is indeed one reason why some people don’t read fiction. And the truly skeptical are not convinced of the truth of even alleged non-fiction.

It wasn’t so long ago I read Felix Holt by the way. The way the heroine falls in love with the titular hero is apt to strike many people as pretty fantastic. When I was talking about the SFF nonsense I was meaning physically fantastic. The OP meant to limit itself to fantastic dialogue in SF but fantastic dialogue is a commonplace in all forms of literature.

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