Friday, December 7, 2018

Review of Red Plenty by Francis Spufford (2007, Faber and Faber)

After Stalin dies Nikita Khrushchev comes to power. He makes a rash challenge that by 1980 the Soviet Union will have overtaken the United States as the world’s economic power house: a socialist, planned economy he predicts will grow faster and lift all boats, unlike the vagaries and divisions of capitalism. What would make this happen was a shunning of profit as the organising logic and an embracing of cybernetics. For a brief time it appeared as if the Soviets could catch up to the US with year-after-year exceptional growth and scientific and technological breakthroughs with respect to space and the military. But then the wheels started to come off and growth slowed.

Francis Spufford tells this story through a blend of history and fiction. It’s an interesting approach that works remarkably well. It’s aided by some superb prose and inventive, captivating storytelling. Moreover, Spufford does an excellent job of explaining complex science and economics through a fiction narrative (there’s definitely a lot that non-fiction writers could learn from this). The tale is told through a series of short stories, each focusing on a particular situation and character – a scientist/economist, a politician, a party-affiliated worker, a fixer, etc. – and their role in society and economy. The stories are spread over a decade from the late 1950s to late 1960s and they illustrate why the Soviet planned economy and the cybernetic approach failed to deliver on its promise (basically people and politics corrupt any system, and close modelling and planning of literally millions of moving components and variables is analytically impossible). The first two thirds is exceptionally good. The latter third the tale runs out of steam a little and the wrap-up is a little thin, meaning the tale as a whole kind of peters out. Nonetheless, Red Plenty is a fascinating read told through some scintillating storytelling.

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