This is a novel of an economic concept, The Central Plan, set in the Soviet Union of the 50's and 60s. But it is a novel that uses semi-fictional characters to tell some real economic history. It is amusing and very readable, but it also comes with 50 page of explanatory notes and references, and with multi-page chapter introductions gently explaining Soviet dreams, hopes and economics.
It does an excellent job of explaining one of the central tragedies of the USSR, showing how an idealistic economic dream for making the world a better place foundered so dramatically. It seemed so obvious at the time: a planned economy, optimally coordinating all resources and production would clearly be so much more efficient than the chaos of capitalism. It would build a better, rosier world for everyone. Except...
Spufford uses fluid fictional scenes to gently tease out the hopes and contradictions of the period. We see the initial genuine utopian fervor that centralized planning is the Right Answer; then the defensive cunning of plant managers in manipulating the system; the hopeful attempts at mathematical optimizations; the desire to have some kind of pricing mechanism to drive rational decision making; the fear of the authorities of the social unrest caused by price swings; the slow drift from Khrushchev's brash wild optimism and even wilder plans, to the slow acceptance of defeat and stagnation under Brezhnev.
Spufford writes well and is often very amusing as he explores the foibles and hypocrisies of Soviet life. Yes, the central thread is all about economics, but fear not, it is cleverly told, with short vivid episodes exploring Soviet life as well as gently exposing the dreams and tragedies as idealized economics encounters the real world. For example, a wonderful triplet of short scenes exhibits the sly maneuvers of one factory's management to meet their assigned production goals. This starts with the slow revelation that they have sabotaged one of their own giant machines so that they will be allowed to upgrade it, and ends with their woeful discovery that they must replace it "as is" because the new upgraded machine would be cheaper. Cheaper? Yes, we learn how that can be a fatal barrier in a planned economy.
Overall this is a very enjoyable work, both as a novel, and as an insightful exploration of a failed utopian vision.