Read this book!

The best book I have read (so far) this year is, without doubt, “Red Plenty”. Better even than the Booker winning “Wolf Hall” (which is not to say that Wolf Hall is anything other than good) or its sequel “Bring Up the Bodies”.

Cover of "Backroom Boys: The Secret Retur...
Cover via Amazon

Red Plenty tells the story of the scientists and engineers who struggled to make the Soviet Union work and deliver on its promises of human happiness after the bitter, bloody years of Stalinism. It’s not a novel with a happy ending, though it is one that rises above the simpler tropes of anti-communism, but never without explaining how Stalinism created a brutalised, gangsterised state.

But this blog is not about that novel – even if I think you should all read it – but about another of the author, Francis Spufford‘s, books – “Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin”.

This work is not a novel, but a series of extended pieces of reportage on the (sort-of) fall and (sort-of) rise of British engineering over the forty years prior to its publication in 2003. The story is told through the vehicles of the British rocket programme, Concorde, the computer game Elite, the rise and rise of Vodafone, the Human Genome Project and the failure of the Beagle 2 Mars lander.

It’s an intensely political book – though the politics are hard to pin down: though its plain Spufford is no big fan of the privatisation of science, he’s also an admirer, it seems, of those who pull themselves up by their engineering bootstraps.

And it’s a book about business, but not a business book. For a start there is none of the usual masters-of-the-universe garbage, even when describing those businesses, such as Vodafone, which have made their investors billions. Instead the focus is almost always on the science: how to burn hydrogen peroxide, how much stress testing a Concorde airframe requires, how to write 6502 assembler, how to map a radio signal, how to sequence DNA and how to land your package on Mars.

If any of these things remotely interest you then you should get out and buy a copy. It is, of course, slightly out of date in one or two places. Or rather, it’s now a bit dated. But not in a way that seriously detracts from the pleasure of reading it.

As you might expect, the piece that fascinated me most was the description of the birth of Elite. Here Spufford captures the spirit of age – when it was really possible to write a piece of software in your bedroom that would make you a millionaire (or close to one anyway). I cannot claim to have been as good a coder as David Braben and Ian Bell who created Elite, but I dare say I and a few thousand others were not far off it, at least for a time.

Like them I knew I was writing things nobody else had done before – my proudest creations were a football game and a version of Conway’s “Game of Life” – both written in raw Z80 machine code (I had no assembler so wrote down the assembly mnemonics and then converted that into base 10 for POKE-ing into the computer) and designed to fit into 1K of space. But I guess I got interested in other things – politics probably – and so gave up.

The first two pieces (on rocketry and Concorde) were originally published as self-contained piece of journalism and shows signs of having been retro-fitted to the book, or at least to its subtitle, but that’s not a serious critcism.