September 2022


Regular readers will recall that I have blogged about Stephen Broadberry, usually in the context of his critique of Daron Acemoglu & James Robinson’s “Why Nations Fail“. More recently I was alerted to a critique of Mark Koyama & Jared Rubin’s “How the World Became Rich” by Peer Vries (who I had never heard of before). I had some familiarity with Koyama prior to his book’s publication (I’d even blogged about him), but not Rubin. Within Vries’ review is this quote:

“To claim that one knows for example that GDP per capita in China in the year 980 was 840 1990 international dollars whereas in Japan in the year 1150 it was 572 such dollars, as Broadberry, Guan and Li do, is to practice science fiction.”

The footnote for that sentence reads

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In my last review of a scifi novel I mentioned that I should have read Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We” earlier, and now I finally have. I first heard of it from a foreword in Orwell’s “1984”, which was explicitly inspired by We. There’s a good reason I was assigned that & “Brave New World” in school rather than We, and it’s not just because those were originally written in English rather than Russian. In his attempt to make the novel feel not contemporary (even if the whole genre was about heightening recent tendencies in industrial society to an extreme), Zamyatin adopts the very alien voice of a true-believer in the dystopian futuristic One State keeping a diary intended for the “Integral” spaceship he’s building to spread the One State to foreign planets. The chapters (which always begin with keywords, except when their author fails to come up with any) are fortunately short (and the book as a whole was only about 200 pages), but their inaccessible nature makes it far from a page turner. Even as builder D-503 gets corrupted by the subversive woman I-330 (everyone has a name consisting of a letter followed by 3 digits), he doesn’t become a normal person more relatable to the reader. He just falls apart at the seams and his writing becomes more difficult to understand, with more paragraphs ending in ellipses than any book I can recall.

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