A disappointing and tepid book. There are two basic elements to this book. One is a sort of slice-of-life story telling in 1950's - 1970's Russia, especially amongst the scientists, engineers, and managers. It's natural to compare this to The Gulag Archipelago or The Cancer Ward, since these books have the same time period, location, type of characters, and general structure of storytelling. And when you compare them, Red Plenty comes up very lacking. It is the difference between The Wire (Gulag Archipelago) and an NBC cop show (Red Plenty). The characters in Red Plenty simply never felt right; they never matched up to my conception of how these characters should act or think. They lack the hardness and reality and details that you find in something like Gulag Archipelago, or in Isaac Babel, or even in novels like The Master and Margarita or Road Side Picnic. As Mao put it, Spufford has grown up eating only honey, and it makes his novel seem very false in its basic characterization and story telling (not that there is anything wrong with honey; I love honey! But at the same time I wouldn't try to write these characters.) Reading through the footnotes, Spufford is familiar with most of the Russian novels I listed above, so I guess he just has a lot of misplaced confidence? In fairness, there are some isolated parts at the middle and end of the book where the writing finally starts to come together, but by that time my patience for the book was *really* wearing thin. Page 300 is not the time to try and get the reader interested.
The second element to the book is the potential use of computers and algorithms in order to centrally plan and regulate the entire Soviet economy. This is ok? There are a couple of dozen good pages about this, but in terms of ideas it is not anything you would not pick up from a 4 year CS degree and either reading the back cover of the book or just having read some articles on all the different ways that metrics can pervert decision making.