Thursday, June 7, 2012

"Red Plenty": A Book Report

Red Plenty by Francis Spufford. Abridged essay: Read this book.

It is easy for an artist - whether working in markings, or sounds, or words - to provoke an emotion. Harder still to evoke a mood. Hardest of all to conjure up a world, and then entice people to enter it. To do so causes me no small amount of envy. Mr. Spufford provokes me to envy.

Triton, courtesy of NASA and Voyager 2
Although Soviet Russia of the late 1950s to early 1960s is a real place, it is, to many of us, an alien place, as real and as alien and as known as the the moon Triton orbiting Neptune, which is to say, we know it existed, we know it is not here, and that is all we know. Unless you manage to send a robot probe towards it for close inspection, like Voyager 2. Spufford provides a similar service.

I don't have many regrets, but I do regret not keeping up on my Russian. One of the degree requirements for mathematics was taking a foreign language, either French, German, or Russian. I was told that, as the lion's share of theoretical research in mathematics and mathematical physics was done in the Soviet Union (seeing as, they didn't have computers to brute force everything, they were forced to use chalkboards... and brains), and that I would be required to translate at least one paper from a foreign journal into English, that Russian would be preferred. And, so I took Russian at Indiana University, which, it turns out, was a first rate institution for learning that language. In the summer of 1979, I took an immersive class in Russian. That was undoubtedly the most oppressive summer I ever had. I honestly don't know if I was infested with the melancholy of the Russian soul, the chosen reading material and selected videos and movies, or perhaps the company (a lot of ex-pats, and, no doubt, some KGB kids). In any case, I came out with a (still, I'm told) impressive diction, with absolutely no American accent, and a Harvard dictionary of Russian slang. (And if vulgarity were ever condensed and distilled to its pure essences, it would be a discourse in Russian). But sadly, not keeping up on it, I've the vocabulary and grammar of a nursery school child - if that.

So, it was interesting, in the process of reading the book, that I should experience a small and mild panic attack version of that summer. It shouldn't be surprising, considering the set and setting of the narrative, one of the greatest gangster empires of all time. And yet, like a Greek tragedy, despite the knowledge that those running things are just the most awful, horrible people, ranging the gamut from psychopaths to incompetents, I couldn't help but root for them a little bit. Because once you get to the blithering idiot known as Brezhnev, the Party had given up on the more brutal techniques, and were genuinely trying to blunder their way towards some kind of prosperity for the people.

Pity there were so many dishonest assholes in the way, but that applies to every nation state, no? I mean, America has it's own basement filled with blood, and bits of bone, and matted human hair clogging the drains - just not in the same abundance. (Although, being a white guy, it's easy to forget about things like chattel slavery and debt peonage, and broken treaties, and bigotry, and the theft of other people's lands and livelihood).

But the other portion of the oppression I felt can be directly linked to our own unease here in the West regarding the disappointing failure to achieve the utopian capitalist vision. Marx figured eventually capitalism would create the horn of plenty, but also misery, in which case the workers
"would be able to pick up the whole completed apparatus of capitalism - all its beautiful machinery - and carry it forward into the new society, still humming, still prodigally producing, only doing so now for the benefit of everybody, not just a tiny class of owners."    
Similarly, for someone of my generation, born during the Baby Boom, told of how the far off year 2000 AD would be filled with flying cars, and moonbases, and talking computers, force fields, and tricorders, the cure for the common cold, immortality drugs, and videophones (which at least we got that), in other words, the Western version of the Marxist Utopia, summed up in its ultimate form of the Singularity, has to wonder how the future went so very, very wrong. How did the growth, which was supposed to be exponential from here on up to infinity, suddenly peter out?

Oh, the future of the science fiction novels is here, alright, but its' the wrong future, the dystopian one, without, of course, the toxic wasteland (yet), but with all the other elements in place, robot drones preying upon us, universal surveillance, the coming scarcity of resources, time, talents, and tricks.

In short, and ironically, the Western world seems to have been betrayed by the future, all those lofty promises broken, and instead, like a game of chutes and ladders, we find ourselves almost back at the beginning of the 20th century - with the same problems, concerns, and difficulties that we thought we had overcome. This is the source of my discomfort when reading Spufford's fairy tale.

Forget all the details of cybernetic management techniques, of nonlinear social physics modeled and understood, harnessed, and bridled and ready to ride, it turns out that, a universal constant applies to all societies, regardless of their structure.

We are not nearly as fucking smart as we think we are.

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