The opening chapter of the novel RED PLENTY is all about mathematical abstraction

RED PLENTY by Francis Spufford was so good. A great deal of the novel is about the frustrated attempt by Soviet economists and mathematicians to reform the Russian economy.

The book opens on Leonid Vitalevich, about to discover linear programming:

Today he had a request from the Plywood Trust of Leningrad. “Would the comrade professor, etc. etc. grateful for any insight, etc. etc., assurance of cordial greetings, etc. etc.’ It was a work-assignment problem. The Plywood Trust produced umpteen different types of plywood using umpteen different machines, and they wanted to know how to direct their limited stock of raw materials to the different machines so as to get the best use out of it. Leonid Vitalevich had never been to the plywood factory, but he could picture it. It would be like all the other enterprises which had sprung up around the city over the last few years, multiplying like mushrooms after rain, putting chimnies at the end of streets, filing the air with smuts and the river with eddies of chemical dye…

To be honest, he couldn’t quite see what the machines were doing. He had only a vague idea of how plywood was actually manufactured. It somehow involved glue and sawdust, that was all he knew. It didn’t matter: for his purposes , he only needed to think of the machines as abstract propositions, each one effectively an equation in solid form, and immediately he read the letter he understood that the Plywood Trust, in its mathematical innocence, had sent him a classic example of a system of equations that was impossible to solve. There was a reason why factories around the world, capitalist or socialist, didn’t have a handy formula for these situations. It wasn’t just an oversight, something people hadn’t got around to yet. The quick way to deal with the Plywood Trust’s enquiry would have been to write a polite note explaining that the management had just requested the mathematical equivalent of a flying carpet or a genie in a bottle.

But he hadn’t written that note. Instead, casually at first, and then with sudden excitement, with the certainly that the hard light of genesis was shining in his head, brief, inexplicable, not to be resisted or questioned while it lasted, he had started to think. He had thought about ways to distinguish between better answers and worse answers to questions which had no right answer. He had seen a method which could do what the detective work of conventional algebra could not, in situations like the one the Plywood Trust described, and would trick impossibility into disclosing useful knowledge. The method depending on measuring each machine’s output of one plywood in terms of all the other plywoods it could have made. But again, he had no sense of plywood as a scractchy concrete stuff. That had faded into nothing, leaving only the pure pattern of the situation, of all situations in which you had to choose one action over another action. Time passed. The genesis light blinked off. It seemed to be night outside his office window. The grey blur of the winter daylight had vanished. The family would be worrying about him, starting to wonder if he had vanished too. He should go home. But he groped for his pen and began to write, fixing in extended, patient form – as patient as he could manage – what’d come to him first unseparated into stages, still fused into one intricate understanding, as if all its necessary component pieces were faces and angles of one complex polyhedron he’d been permitted to gaze at, while the light lasted; the amazing, ungentle light. He got down the basics, surprised to find as he drove the blue ink onward how rough and incomplete they seemed to be, spelt out, and what a lot of work remained.

It’s the optimism generated by ideas like these that are the true subject of the book, which is the story of the rise and fall of this optimism. The book points out that in a society governed by engineers it was mathematicians and abstract theoreticians that were the main sources of cultural idealism. (In contrast to a place like the US, he says, where lawyers rule the land and writers and artists are the main source of social idealism.)

If you know what happened to the Soviet economy you know the end of this story. The entire book presents itself as a kind of mathematical tragedy, the destruction of the idea of utopian abundance in a planned economy.