Red Plenty by Francis Spufford
Reviewed by Adam Roberts
16 August 2010
Heed me, tovarishchi! Francis Spufford's half-novel/half-history Red Plenty is by far the best popular account of the Soviet utopian experiment I have read—and I've read a few. It is neatly conceived and brilliantly realised, an enormously pleasurable and instructive book. The writing is spacious, accomplished, often beautiful; the characters expertly drawn and wholly believable and the formal mix of fact and fiction deftly handled. A prodigious quantity of research into the everyday life in the USSR, from the late 1930s to the late 1960s, is displayed here, most of it mercifully tucked away into endnotes and bibliography (they occupy pages 364-433).
The meat of the book is a series of linked but essentially separate chapters: snapshots of people, places, and time, concentrating on a mixture of real and fictional characters. The cumulative effect is little short of breathtaking. It has something of the flavour of Craig Raine's 1994 History: the Home Movie (I won't insult you by implying you don't know that marvellous book): which is to say, it lays down a line of powerful moments, vignettes, and jewel-bright images that, cumulatively, achieve far more imaginative vitality than simple consecutive narrative could. Indeed, given the vastness of the topic Spufford has set himself, the whole of the USSR, myriad main characters across four decades, Red Plenty is a masterclass in the expert control of a canvas and theme that, in a lesser writer, could very easily have sprawled out of control. It's an extraordinary achievement.
Enough generalised gush. Onward, comrades, to specifics: amongst the book's many vivid characters are: Leonid Vitalevich, a mathematical and economic theorist of brilliance; Nikita Khrushchev (first secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and Chairman of the Council of Ministers); Galina, a student and Komsomol member; Zoya Vaynshteyn, a biologist; Vasily Nemchinov, a reforming economist; Sergei Lebedev, the pioneering computer scientist; Sasha Galich, officially sanctioned writer; Maksim Maksimovich Mokhov, struggling to keep a Chemical and Rubber Goods factory running. They face the usual challenges and joys of human existence, complicated by the fact that they happen to be living through the century of the Soviet experiment. This puts constraints upon them, familiar to Western perspectives: the straitjacket of authoritarian and inflexible social milieu. But, although he in no way soft-pedals that aspect of life in the USSR, that's not really Spufford's focus. Most of his protagonists are actively engaged in trying to make the Soviet social experiment work better. That, in a nutshell, is the theme of the book: the earnest, heroic, and ultimately doomed attempt by many people to live up to the ideals of the Revolution, to take the Soviet Union out of its grim present of oppression, scarcity, and inefficiency into a golden future of utopian plenty—to a time when, in Marx's much-mocked but still rather splendid phrase, men and women can "hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind . . . "
Red Plenty is a balancing act, carefully undertaken and successfully accomplished. It would be obtuse, morally and politically, to portray the Soviet experiment as a starry eyed utopian dream that went mysteriously wrong, with some moderate and regrettable violence in its background. But it would be equally misrepresenting to portray the USSR as a monstrous, blood-soaked Empire of Evil. A great many Soviet citizens believed genuinely in the attempt to create Communism, and worked hard to try and make it happen. Historical hindsight doesn't give us the right to dismiss them all as fools, or knaves.
So why review this title in an SFF venue, like Strange Horizons? There are two reasons. One is that the novel is science fiction, although of an original and unusual sort. The other is that the novel organises itself via a nicely developed fantastical trope.
To take the first first. When people talk about "science fiction" the science they are thinking of (as it might be) physics, or chemistry, or perhaps biology. But that's a narrow way of taking things. The science in Red Plenty is economics, and reading the book will teach you a tremendous amount about the logic (and illogic) of running a planned economy on the Soviet scale. The speculative portion of the science here is the striking attempt by Vitalevich and Nemchinov to modify the catastrophically inflexible Soviet economic model with a mechanism—"shadow prices"—better able to match supply to demand without simply instituting Capitalist "free" markets. Perhaps it sounds dry, but I found it fascinating, and precisely as science-fictional as a proposed new spaceship drive or cloning technology. We know from the way history went that it's doomed, of course; but one of the strengths of the novel is to make the reader wonder could it have worked? Could the large-scale balance and designed social fairness of a planned economy have been made workable by shadow prices? The seemingly irresistible rise of China as an economic force, and the recent disaster of unfettered Goldspanian free markets, gives this question peculiar contemporary bite. Moreover, plenty of SF, especially right-wing SF of Randian or Heinleinian provenance, trades in crude inaccurate economic science in a way that, were the science in question physics, would bring readerly howls of derision down upon the authors' heads. Red Plenty is a useful corrective to that sort of thing.
The second "fantastika" aspect is there in the novel's opening paragraph:
This is not a novel. It has too much to explain to be one of those. But it is not a history either, for it does its explaining in the form of a story; only the story is the story of an idea, first of all, and only afterwards, glimpsed through the chinks of the idea's fate, the story of the people involved. The idea is the hero. It is the idea that sets forth, into a world of hazards and illusions, monsters and transformations, helped by some of those it meets along the way and hindered by others. Best call this a fairytale, then—though it really happened, or something like it. And not just any fairytale, but specifically a Russian fairytale, to go alongside the stories of Baba Yaga and the Glass Mountain. (p. 3)
Spufford inflects his historical research via these sorts of Russian "skaza," and above all, typical skaza "dreams of abundance," stories where everyone was going to climb the cabbage stalk, scramble through the hole in the sky and arrive in the land where millstones turned all by themselves. "Whenever they gave a turn, a cake and a slice of bread with butter and sour cream appeared, and on top of them, a pot of gruel." In other words, Red Plenty is a brilliant intervention into utopian discourses, of an applied rather than theoretical kind. It inhabits the mode of genuine belief that "because the whole system of production and distribution in the USSR was owned by the state, because all Russia was (in Lenin's words) "one office, one factory" it could be directed, as capitalism could not, to the fastest, most lavish fulfilment of human needs. Therefore it would easily outproduce the wasteful chaos of the marketplace. Planning would be the USSR's own self-turning millstone, its own self-victualling tablecloth" (p. 5).
"Central economic planning as a route to Plenty" is a major strand in utopian thinking, and not just in the Marxist tradition: Bellamy's Looking Backward (to name only one massively influential American utopian novel) dreamt that particular dream, as did much of Wells. It's a beguiling notion. If you want to know why it didn't work in reality, read Red Plenty. Spufford shows how profound and fatal were the flaws in central planning of the economy, whilst also playing the spectral alt-historical game of rescuing the idea from its own seemingly inevitable titanic-and-iceberg collision with economic brass tacks.
It is this, above all, makes the book such a significant intervention into the utopian mode. The biggest recent theoretical development in that discourse is probably Fredric Jameson's Archaeologies of the Future (2005), with its exhilaratingly gnarled dialectical argument that, actually, it is only by imagining dystopia can we truly think utopia. Red Plenty makes a fascinating counter-case. Not that Spufford shirks the dystopia (his account of the 1962 Novocherkassk massacre, for instance, is visceral stuff); but the strength of his novel is its imaginative entry into a mindset that took utopia seriously, as a straightforward and achievable goal. The characters in this novel strive to give the people of the USSR material plenty, not in a naive sense that plenty is a universal panacea, but in the knowledge, alien to much of the oversupplied west, that plenty is a necessary precondition for the full range of human experience. Spufford's characters debate this over and again.
'Look, I'm not saying your plenty is impossible,' jabbed the man on the floor. ' . . . What I'm saying is that plenty is an inherently vulgar idea. It is, in itself, a stupid response to human needs. "Oh look, there's someone unhappy. Let's overwhelm him!" Real human needs are always specific. No one ever feels a generic hunger or a generic loneliness, no one ever requires a generic solution to those things. Your plenty's like a bucket of plaster of paris you want to pour over people's heads. It a way of not paying human attention to them.'
'Bullshit, Mo,' said the man the chair. 'Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit. Plenty is the condition that will let us distinguish, for the first time, between avoidable and unavoidable suffering. We solve the avoidable stuff—which seems pretty bloody generic to me, given that a bowl of soup cures everybody's hunger and a painkiller cures everybody's headache—and then we know that what's left is real tragedy, boo-hoo, write a play about it.' (pp. 174-5)
Like so much SF, Red Plenty is about the valences of future possibility. Galich, in 1961, is commissioned to write a utopian account of "life in 1980." Khrushchev, forcibly retired, and thinking back to the horrors of WW2 and afterwards, finds his only consolation in the future, the thought that it will all be proved a worthwhile sacrifice. "The future had been his private solution as well as a public promise," Spufford notes, adding—in words that every reader or writer of future-set SF ought to take on board—"working for the future made the past tolerable, and therefore the present" (p. 356).
It looks paradoxical, perhaps; to write a book about this will-to-futurity as a historical novel. But history is where this story is; and Spufford goes out of his way to ground pretty much every sentence in historical actuality.
Which, in turn, leads me to my one reviewerly complaint. I have my doubts about the endnotes. These meticulously distinguish the fact from the fiction ("the speech I have given Vitalevich here is a patchwork of elements, heavily edited and simplified, from his real speeches to the conference on mathematics and economics really held by the Russian Academy of Sciences in April 1960"; "though this confrontation is a device to dramatise the ideological conflict over Kantorovich's "heresy," the conference really was marked by sharp antagonism between him and Boyarskii, who had published a very hostile review of his Best Use of Economic Resources in the journal Planovoe Khozyaistvo"); but in doing so they risk undermining the imaginative license upon which fiction vitally depends. The fact of these notes will, I suppose, head-off those pedants who, labouring under their afflictions of tonal deafness and soul blindness, can only judge a book by the facticity of its facts—those who might, for instance, object that Spufford has a character reading the Strugatsky's Roadside Picnic in 1970 (Red Plenty appends a footnote marking the two-year "compression of chronology" involved). But no serious writer can write for such an audience, any more than Shakespeare worried about including chiming clocks in Julius Caesar. Despite all the labour Spufford has undertaken, this book stands or falls on its imaginative recreation of a whole cultural milieu. And as far as that goes, Red Plenty succeeds marvellously. I exhort you, comrades!—to read this book.