Francis Spufford’s earlier semi-autobiographical book on childhood and reading, The Child that Books Built, talks about fairytales. It tells us about Propp, Bettelheim and the others, relates fairy tales to Robert Holdstock’s Ryhope Wood (the ur source of all stories) and to his own childhood, and finishes by arguing that fairytales pose a challenge. They transport us to a dark wood; alien; removed from the comfortable assumptions of home and family and ask: now: what do you do? Red Plenty is explicitly written as a fairytale in which the hero is “the idea of red plenty as it came hopefully along the high road.” The high road dwindles into a path, then a track, and ends in a tangle of brambles and thorns. The idea not only does not know where to go; it does not know if there’s anywhere left that it could go, or even whether there was somewhere that it could have gone had it only taken the right road at the beginning. By entering the world, it’s become hopelessly ensnared in it.

This allows one to read Red Plenty not only as a science fiction novel, or exercise in steampunk, as Kim Stanley Robinson argues, but also as a fantasy combined with a metacommentary on fantasy, along the lines of the kinds of novels that M. John Harrison was writing in the late 1980s and early 1990s (e.g. The Course of the Heart, Climbers, Signs of Life, “A Young Man’s Journey to London,” “The Horse of Iron and How We May Come to Know It and Be Changed By It Forever”). The juxtaposition might seem unusual, but helps to elucidate a pattern, perhaps not of influence (I don’t know whether Spufford has read Harrison, although it’s quite likely that he has) , but of shared narrative arc. Of course, Harrison is often repurposing more traditional genre tropes than Spufford is, and is using a smaller, more personal canvas (his politics are emphatic, but oblique, and refracted almost entirely through the specific and individual). Harrison’s stories and novels, including the ‘realistic’ ones like Climbers) have a roughly shared definition of fantasy. A collision between the real world and an imagined one, which somehow seems better, denser, more ‘real’ than reality itself, but is in fact a reflection of it. A moment of choice, connected with that collision, in which everything seems, for a moment to be possible. The falling away of that moment, as reality reasserts itself, so that the moment of choice recedes forever into the past, but still haunts the world, present as a sense of possibility and of failure, each entwined so closely with the other that you cannot tell where the one ends and the other begins.

Consider several passages from Red Plenty in this light. First – the closing sentences of the opening chapter.

Seen from that future time, when every commodity the human mind could imagine would flow from the industrial horn of plenty in dizzy abundance, this would seem a scanty, shoddy, cramped moment indeed, choked with shadows, redeemed only by what it caused to be created. Seen from plenty, now would be hard to imagine. It would seem not quite real, an absurd time when, for no apparent reason, human beings went without things easily within the power of humanity to supply, and lives did not flower as it was obvious they could. Now would look like only a faint, dirty, unconvincing edition of the real world, which had not yet been born. And he could hasten the hour, he thought, intoxicated. He gazed up the tram, and saw everything and everybody in it touched by the transformation to come, rippling into new and more generous forms, the number 34 rattlebox to Krestovsky Island becoming a sleek silent ellipse filled with golden light, the women’s clothes all turning to quilted silk, the military uniforms melting into tailored grey and silver: and faces, faces the length of the car, relaxing, losing the worry lines and the hungry looks and all the assorted toothmarks of necessity. He could help to do that. He could help to make it happen, three extra percent at a time, though he already understood that it would take a huge quantity of work to compose the necessary dynamic models. It might be a lifetime’s work. But he could do it. 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.

There’s a lot of work being done here – the argument moves back and cross between at least three levels. The first is the grim material reality of Soviet life in the late 1930’s – the passengers’ faces indented by “the associated toothmarks of necessity” (a lovely phrase); the leaking shoe. The second is a dream, not just of simple material prosperity, but of, as Spufford describes it, a cornucopia, a plenty that is fundamentally transformative, building a future that is somehow more real than the world of ordinary privations that reflects it, as in a mirror, darkly. The third is the techniques of linear programming, which will shuttle back and forth between the two, weaving the latter more closely with the former, by 3 percentage points in each movement. Red Plenty here is much the same kind of artefact as Harrison’s Viriconium or Couer – a fantasy that promises somehow to redeem and transform a grubby, messy material existence, making it more itself, and hence better than itself

The second passage presents a different version of the myth.

But Marx had drawn a nightmare picture of what happened to human life under capitalism, when everything was produced only in order to be exchanged; when true qualities and uses dropped away, and the human power of making and doing itself became only an object to be traded. Then the makers and the things made turned alike into commodities, and the motion of society turned into a kind of zombie dance, a grim cavorting whirl in which objects and people blurred together till the objects were half alive and the people were half dead. Stock-market prices acted back upon the world as if they were independent powers, requiring factories to be opened or closed, real human beings to work or rest, hurry or dawdle; and they, having given the transfusion that made the stock prices come alive, felt their flesh go cold and impersonal on them, mere mechanisms for chunking out the man-hours. Living money and dying humans, metal as tender as skin and skin as hard as metal, taking hands, and dancing round, and round, and round, with no way ever of stopping; the quickened and the deadened, whirling on. That was Marx’s description, anyway. And what would be the alternative? The consciously arranged alternative? A dance of another nature, Emil presumed. A dance to the music of use, where every step fulfilled some real need, did some tangible good, and no matter how fast the dancers spun, they moved easily, because they moved to a human measure, intelligible to all, chosen by all.

The irony of this passage is more grim than the Chaplinesque comedy of the leaking shoe – the economist articulating these ideas is about to come up against the aftermath of the collectivization process. Yet Emil believes that economics can transform what had been brutish political relations – “primitive extraction … very nearly robbery,” by making the economy into the kind of narrative where everything somehow ties together.

he was having a new idea. He was thinking to himself that an economy told a kind of story, though not the sort you would find in a novel. In this story, many of the major characters would never even meet, yet they would act on each other’s lives just as surely as if they jostled for space inside a single house, through the long chains by which value moved about. Tiny decisions in one place could have cascading, giant effects elsewhere; conversely, what most absorbed the conscious attention of the characters – what broke their hearts, what they thought ordered or justified their lives – might have no effect whatsoever, dying away as if it had never happened at all. Yet impersonal forces could have drastically personal consequences, in this story, altering the whole basis on which people hoped and loved and worked. It would be a strange story to hear. At first it would seem to be a buzzing confusion, extending arbitrarily in directions that seemed to have nothing to do with each other. But little by little, if you were patient, its peculiar laws would become plain. In the end it would all make sense. Yes, thought Emil, it would all make sense in the the end.

Again, there is a fantasy being spun here – that human history can be not only be made legible, but can be redeemed. The Marx here is the Marx of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, the Marx who is primarily concerned with alienation and its human consequences. And again, both these passages work on multiple levels. The dance of another nature is juxtaposed with the aftermath of famine. The aspiration to a novel in which the causal logics are traced through economic relations that are sometimes nearly invisible to the characters entangled in them is, very obviously, a comment on the form of Red Plenty itself. It is a novel of just this kind (so too, the extraordinary sequence on lung cancer towards the end of the book serves both as a metaphor and as a reminder that the causes shaping human destinies do not always lie in intelligible human action). Yet the hope that it will all make sense in the end is mistaken. As the closing sentences of the book make clear, it doesn’t.

Three thousand kilometres east it is already night, but the same wind is blowing, stirring the dark branches of the pines around the upstairs window where Leonid Vitalevich is sitting by himself, optimising the manufacture of steel tubes. Five hundred producers. Sixty thousand consumers. Eight hundred thousand allocation orders to be issued per year. But it would all work out if he could persuade them to measure the output in the correct units. The hard light of creation burns within the fallible flesh; outshines it, outshines the disappointing world, the world of accident and tyranny and unreason; brighter and brighter, glaring stronger and stronger till the short man with square spectacles can no longer be seen, only the blue-white radiance that fills the room. And when the light fades the flesh is gone, the room is empty. Years pass. The Soviet Union falls. The dance of commodities resumes. And the wind in the trees of Akademgorodok says: can it be otherwise? Can it be, can it be, can it ever be otherwise?

Optimization was supposed not only to produce material abundance, but to decommodify the world. The golden transformative light of the idea’s beginning, which seemed capable of turning rags into finery, becomes the absent blue-white glare of the book’s last sentences, into which its imagined future forever falls away. The zombified pavane of the commodities resumes. Did it ever stop? Could linear programming – even if it had worked – have reversed the transformations that made human skin into metal, and metal into human skin, or was it just its own dehumanizing alchemy? Wasn’t the whole thing faintly ridiculous from the beginning? Leonid Vitalevich’s shoes let the rain in, and always were going to. The world is obdurate; the idea is too good for it. Which is, of course, another way of saying that the idea wasn’t ever as good as we thought it was going to be.

And yet, the wind still whispers: can it be otherwise? Even as the moment of possibility disappears, it haunts the present with the suspicion that things could have been different, perhaps might be different in the future. Under this reading (which is, of course, only one of many possible readings), the final sentences do not claim that if things had worked out better at the beginning, if Kantorovich had been better able to persuade, bureaucrats better able to use shadow prices and so on, the whole damn thing could have worked. They instead suggest something much more equivocal – that the simple possibility that it could somehow be better, that the world could be moulded closer to the heart’s desire, will continue to haunt us. If the dream of Red Plenty was a fantasy, this reading suggests that it was a fantasy of just the sort that Harrison has laid out on the operating table and dissected, and that Red Plenty contains the fantasy and the dissection both.

This may help explain why the book is resonating so much better than I had dared to hope when I first read it, over a year ago, and planned out this event. I’d love to live in a world where genius (and Spufford’s book is at the least touched by genius and arguably entirely riddled through with it) invariably got its due, and where a deliberately uncategorizable book about the socialist calculation debate could get two glowing reviews in the New York Times as a matter of course. But we don’t live in that idyllic world, any more than we live in Khrushchev’s workers’ paradise. Instead, we live in a world with its own shattered illusions. As a different writer, John Summers, says in the most recent issue of The Baffler.

The fable that we are living through a time of head-snapping innovation in technology drives American thought these days – dystopian and utopian alike. But if you look past both the hysteria and the hype, and place the achievements of technology in historical perspective, then you may recall how business leaders promised not long ago to usher us into a glorious new time of abundance that stood beyond history. And then you may wonder if their control over technology hasn’t excelled mainly at producing dazzling new ways to package and distribute consumer products (like television) that have been kicking around history for quite some time. The salvos in this issue chronicle America’s trajectory from megamachines to minimachines, from prosthetic gods to prosthetic pals, and raise a corollary question from amid all these strangely unimaginative innovation: how much of our collective awe rests on low expectations?

Perhaps, the reason why Spufford’s book is receiving so much attention is because it can be made stand in as an elegy for capitalist plenty too. As Summers says, capitalism too had its animating fable, and thought to transform the world, so as to conduct us “into a glorious new time of abundance that stood beyond history.”. Its heroes were entrepreneurs – Schumpeterian visionaries who saw the possibilities of the future and seized them willy-nilly. The disciplines of Chicago orthodoxy and the Washington consensus, like Emil’s new economics, were supposed to free the world from the shackles of feudalism and backwardness. Yet the heroic age of capitalism is over. Free trade orthodoxy has devolved into squabbles about intellectual property, procurement and technical standards; the WTO is as inward-focused and as tedious as the Holy Roman Empire when it began its long course of decline. Neo-liberalism flared into the harsh actinic blaze of the 2008 crash, and now it too is sputtering and fading away in an empty room. The defenders of neo-liberal orthodoxy (now articulated in the West through the demand for ever more ‘austerity’) are mostly too embarrassed to claim that more liberalization and deregulation will spur further great transformations; the best they can do is blame the hippies, or look down at their shoes and mutter that well, you know, there really isn’t much of an alternative, or if there is, they can’t see it. The old system is still strong enough to strangle anything new that might threaten it. Yet it surely doesn’t look strong enough to renew itself.

Spufford’s analysis of the failed dreams of the Khrushchev era seems so compelling then because we (in the advanced, industrialized West) are living in our own version of Brezhnevism, a system that has depleted its organizing mythology, but that lacks the imagination to conceive of a new one. Like both Harrison and China Mieville (The City and the City), Spufford is taking the intellectual tools of fantasy-as-a-genre and applying them to the fantasies-that-structure-the-world-that-we-live-in. On the one hand, this is done obliquely to the extent that it is done intentionally at all – the relationship between the Soviet Union in the 1960s and the capitalist system today is not directly obvious. On the other, the dream of Red Plenty is a darkened mirror reflecting our current situation. The fairy tale is over. We find ourselves lost in the woods, with no obvious path home. Now cope.

[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

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Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.