Faction or fiction

Posted by Paul Samael on Wednesday, April 17, 2013 Under: Book reviews

[NOTE:  Scroll down for review of Red Plenty by Francis Spufford]

While on holiday last week, I thought I would put the accuracy of my Goodreads recommendations to the test, so I chose some of the books they had suggested to me based on my own ratings of books I’d enjoyed (or not – but mostly the former).  So far, the recommendations have been somewhat wide of the mark.  Take “Ascent” by Jed Mercurio.  It’s about a Russian, Yefgenii Yeremin, who (after an appalling childhood in Stalingrad) manages to become a fighter ace during the Korean War.  He then falls out of favour with the powers-that-be, only to claw his way back up the ranks and into the Soviet space programme.

On the face it, this was a book I felt that I should have liked because, among other things, I’m interested in Russia’s Cold War rivalry with the West, the space flight element appealed to my inner sci-fi nerd and the story sounded like it might have interesting things to say about ambition, falling from grace and so on.  And to be fair, the book does provide some insights about some of these things.  For example, it provides a convincing depiction of how Soviet technology, pilots and engineers in the 1950s and early 1960s were often more than a match for their US counterparts.  How did they manage it?  And how come they couldn’t seem to keep it going into the 1970s and beyond?   There’s an interesting quote later on in the book which kind of sums it up, where the lead character comments that the US spent millions getting a pen to work in zero gravity, whereas the ever-pragmatic Soviets used pencils - and generally relied more heavily on talented individuals than clever technology (but ultimately, overcoming challenges like the zero gravity pen probably helped the US to pull ahead).  The writing is also convincing in that the level of technical detail is such that it creates a sense that you are reading “faction” rather than mere fiction.

But this is also where it all started to go wrong for me, because I became more and more curious about just how much of this book had some kind of basis in fact – especially as the first section makes something of a fetish of name-checking numerous US pilots who fought in the Korean War and went on to become astronauts (the implication being that some of these individuals were no match for some of the Soviet pilots, particularly our hero, Yefgenii).  I felt I was being actively encouraged to check out what was real and what was imagined.  So I consulted my learned friend Professor Google on the subject, who turned up some interesting material about Soviet fighter aces in the Korean War - but rather less about some of the incidents depicted later on in the book (particularly the final section about Soviet attempts to land on the moon).

I suppose that should’ve led me to be all the more impressed with the author’s skill at making it all sound real.  But it ended up irritating me because I felt the author was (in part) trying to make a historical point, effectively saying “hey, look how good at this stuff the Soviets were  - they were often better at it than the Americans.”  Yet frustratingly, he gives no indication at all of how far the book is based on actual events.  This might be fine where the events in question are generally well known – but the Soviet military aviation and space programmes were shrouded in secrecy, so I didn’t feel it was reasonable to assume much knowledge of either on the part of the reader.

I could’ve lived with that if the book had delivered in other areas e.g. by giving me an insight into what makes people like Yefgenii Yeremin tick.  But we don’t learn too much about that.  He doesn’t seem to feel much – and maybe that’s the point – but I didn’t feel that this insight benefitted greatly from being stretched out over a couple of hundred pages.  So overall, I felt that “Ascent” disappointed both as faction and as fiction.

In my view, a more intriguing book on the question of how, despite its initial promise, Soviet technology ultimately failed to deliver is “Red Plenty” by Francis Spufford (just to be clear, this is my recommendation, not a Goodreads one).  I suppose you could say that it has a similar approach in that it consists of a series of fictionalised accounts, looking at different aspects of the Soviet system.  The difference is that the author makes no bones of the fact that he originally set out to write a factual book (and has clearly done plenty of research).  However, he ended up deciding to transform his research into what are, effectively, a series of short stories giving us a glimpse into the daily lives of various individuals.  So although these are to some extent the product of the author's own imagination, you feel much more confident that there is a sound factual basis for much of it.  This is important, because in some areas, Soviet engineers and technicians were doing some quite remarkable things which might not feel plausible otherwise - but for reasons which “Red Plenty” explores much more thoroughly than “Ascent,” they often weren’t given the freedom to make the most of their work (so that by the 1970s, the Soviet Union was starting to lag well behind the West).  And although "Red Plenty" is arguably more faction than fiction, I felt that it also delivered as fiction - because you get a sense of how it felt to live in that society, at that time.

UPDATE July 2014:  for a book which adopts a similarly unconventional approach to history (but is in some respects the polar opposite of "Red Plenty", at least in its attitude to the fictionalisation of historical events), see my review of HHhH by Laurent Binet (also recommended - but also not a book that I found through Goodreads!).

Anyway, to return to where I started, I’m yet to be convinced by Goodreads’ recommendations system.  I’m not terribly surprised by that, because I think taste in books, music and so on is such a personal thing that it’s very hard for anyone (or any thing, in the case of the Goodreads data-crunching software) to second-guess.  Maybe it’s also because – as I suggested in my last post – Goodreads incentivises subjectivity, particularly in its ratings system, which may lead to more idiosyncracy than is helpful.  But maybe you just have to accept that it’s a bit like panning for gold - and if Goodreads can dredge up some genuine nuggets which you wouldn’t have found otherwise, that’s got to be a good thing.

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In : Book reviews 

Tags: ascent  goodreads  reviews  red plenty  "jed mercurio"  "francis spufford"  faction  fiction 
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About Me

Paul Samael Welcome to my blog, "Publishing Waste" which will either (a) chronicle my heroic efforts to self-publish my own fiction; or (b) demonstrate beyond a scintilla of doubt the utter futility of (a). And along the way, I will also be doing some reviews of other people's books and occasionally blogging about other stuff.
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