From the category archives:

Red Plenty Seminar

On Narrating a System

by carl_caldwell on May 31, 2012

Francis Spufford’s sprawling mosaic of the Soviet Union in the 1960s at first reminds one of Vasily Grossman’s account of Stalinism and the Second World War in Life and Fate. Both use a variety of characters—workers and soldiers, technical elite and normal party cadre—to shift places and perspectives, in order to reveal the hopes, contradictions, and failures of the periods they describe. Both are eminently historical novels, based on extensive scholarly reading in Spufford’s case and vast journalistic experience in Grossman’s.

But there the similarity ends; each novel has a quite different point. Life and Fate is horribly tragic. The Red Army soldiers in Stalingrad are marked for death by the Germans and by “resolute” party cadre behind the lines at the same time. Juxtaposed to the horrific image of the woman hugging the child in the gas chamber is the postwar anti-Semitism that seeps through the pores of late Stalinism. Red Plenty, by contrast, despite the wretched fates of some of its characters, reads like a comedy, at times a dark one. The hopes of the mathematicians and cyberneticians prove mere wishful thinking within the real system of state socialism—the actual subject of the novel. In the first chapter, the prodigy Leonid Kantorovich thinks his deep thoughts on how to optimize the Soviet system—”All he would have to do was to persuade the appropriate authorities to listen”—while tuning out the reality of the bus. “He could tune up the whole Soviet orchestra, if they’d let him. His left foot dripped. He really must find a way to get new shoes.” Idea confronts reality; were this filmed, it could be slapstick.
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In Soviet Union, Optimization Problem Solves You

by Cosma Shalizi on May 30, 2012

Attention conservation notice: Over 7800 words about optimal planning for a socialist economy and its intersection with computational complexity theory. This is about as relevant to the world around us as debating whether a devotee of the Olympian gods should approve of transgenic organisms. (Or: centaurs, yes or no?) Contains mathematical symbols (uglified and rendered slightly inexact by HTML) but no actual math, and uses Red Plenty mostly as a launching point for a tangent.

There’s lots to say about Red Plenty as a work of literature; I won’t do so. It’s basically a work of speculative fiction, where one of the primary pleasures is having a strange world unfold in the reader’s mind. More than that, it’s a work of science fiction, where the strangeness of the world comes from its being reshaped by technology and scientific ideas — here, mathematical and economic ideas.

Red Plenty is also (what is a rather different thing) a work of scientist fiction, about the creative travails of scientists. The early chapter, where linear programming breaks in upon the Kantorovich character, is one of the most true-to-life depictions I’ve encountered of the experiences of mathematical inspiration and mathematical work. (Nothing I will ever do will be remotely as important or beautiful as what the real Kantorovich did, of course.) An essential part of that chapter, though, is the way the thoughts of the Kantorovich character split between his profound idea, his idealistic political musings, and his scheming about how to cadge some shoes, all blind to the incongruities and ironies.

It should be clear by this point that I loved Red Plenty as a book, but I am so much in its target demographic1 that it’s not even funny. My enthusing about it further would not therefore help others, so I will, to make better use of our limited time, talk instead about the central idea, the dream of the optimal planned economy.

That dream did not come true, but it never even came close to being implemented; strong forces blocked that, forces which Red Plenty describes vividly. But could it even have been tried? Should it have been?

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To market, to market … or not?

by george_scialabba on May 29, 2012

The tedious thing about being a book reviewer is your obligation to be fair, thorough, and concise. You’re supposed to keep in mind that, quite possibly, all your readers will ever know about the book you’re reviewing is what you say in the review, so the poor author, who may have spent years writing the book, is to that extent at your mercy. You’re supposed to give a reasonably complete idea what’s in the book, not just what you found interesting about it, since you don’t know that what interests you will interest others. You’re supposed to put the author’s case in the most persuasive and plausible form, since she won’t get to reply in more than a few, inevitably inadequate paragraphs. You can’t just blather on, mentioning all the (often irrelevant) things the book made you think about and, in particular, dropping the names of other (often remotely) related books, just to demonstrate your cosmopolitan interests and vast erudition.
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Despite being modestly defined as a Russian fairytale by its author, Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty combines, in an original way, Russian style fiction and social science. Its originality lies in making the history of an idea into fiction and doing it in such a way that the combination of documentary and fiction does not come across as false history or as historical literature, but as a complex, engaging, exciting epic illuminating questions of economics and politics that are normally too dry for art. By interweaving the stories of numerous characters with historical events and a grand narrative describing economic and social processes of several decades, Spufford fits into the best traditions of Russian fiction, but his focus on ideas rather than emotions makes his approach profoundly un-Russian. This is, to my mind, rather a plus than a weakness of the book, since the great Russian writers of the 19th and 20th century are unrivalled in portraying the great mysteries of the human soul in turbulent times. What they have not done, what hardly anyone has done, is to make a calm, objective, almost scientific investigation of the ideas and relationships that made the success of the Soviet regime possible in the 1950s and 1960s, at the genuine and idealistic belief of citizens and elites at the time that, as Spufford’s Kantorovich character reasons, ‘if he could solve the problems people brought to the institute, it made the world a fraction better’ (p. 11).
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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.”

Red Plenty Seminar

by Henry Farrell on May 29, 2012

As promised, the seminar on Francis Spufford’s wonderful novel of the socialist calculation debate, _Red Plenty_ (Powells, Barnes and Noble Amazon). Over the next few days, interspersed with regular blogging, we’ll be publishing posts by a variety of people responding to the novel. On Friday, we’ll publish the first installment of Francis’ response; the second and third installments will be appearing next week. CT regulars with posts are myself, Niamh, Maria, both Johns and dsquared. Guests are listed in alphabetical order below. After all the posts are published, I’ll put up a post with links to the individual contributions, as well as a nicely formatted PDF of the proceedings.

Carl Caldwell is the Samuel G. McCann Professor of History at Rice University. His book, _Dictatorship, State Planning, and Social Theory in the German Democratic Republic_ was published in 2003 by Cambridge University Press.

Antoaneta Dimitrova is associate professor of European Policy and public administration at Leiden University.

Felix Gilman is a lawyer and novelist. He has written _Thunderer_, _The Gears of the City_, _The Half-Made World_, and the forthcoming (and wonderful) _The Rise of Ransom City._

Kim Stanley Robinson has written many, many excellent books (CT readers who haven’t read _Icehenge_, the _Mars_ trilogy, and _The Years of Rice and Salt_ at a minimum, should feel _very_ guilty), including _2312_, which just came out this month.

George Scialabba is a writer and critic. We’ve run a seminar on his collection of essays, _What Are Intellectuals Good for?_

Cosma Shalizi is associate professor of statistics at Carnegie-Mellon University and a blogger.

Rich Yeselson is a public intellectual, former union organizer, and former guestblogger here at _Crooked Timber._