Nathaniel's Reviews > Red Mars

Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
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's review
Apr 17, 2011

did not like it
bookshelves: sci-fi, gave-up-on

As a matter of principle, I try not to review books that I don't finish. After nearly 300 pages of agony, however, I've decided to make an exception to that rule. I can't finish this book, but I can warn others not to read it. It's the least I can do.

In terms of plot and story, this book isn't *that* bad, and if that's all that was wrong with it I'd give it 2-3 stars. It's the type of sci-fi story that wins awards not because the story is any good, but because of how meticulously researched it is. If you want a several-hundred page treatise on colonizing Mars: this book is for you. I was impressed with the level of detail in everything from the description of the trip to Mars to the lengthy descriptions of Martian topology.

Then again, "length descriptions of Martian topology" might not sound like much fun to read. And--trust me--it's not. Interspersed among these long passages describing Martian geography, attempts to create a greenhouse effect, and so on there is a story. Kind of. It's really just a meandering series of first-person narratives that are more of a travelogue than a novel. For the most part there's really no clear objective at all--or, when there is, the characters pursue it in the most circuitous route possible so that you can get more good Martian landscape descriptions--but when the plot is front-and-center the book really tanks.

Kim Stanley Robinson is the most clueless person who has ever imposed the misfortune on others of writing about economics. I'm an econ graduate student, so this might bug me more than you. You might not mind watonly atrocious economic theorizing, in which case this will be a 2-3 star book. (You might even really want a giant technical manual describing the colonization of Mars, in which case this would be a 4-5 star book for you.) But if you care about economics at all, then this is a 1-star book only because GoodReads doesn't allow you to give negative stars.

I don't mind political sci-fi, whether I tend to agree with it (as in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress) or disagree with it (as in The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia). What I do mind it *stupid* political writing (sci-fi or not) that utterly fails to understand the rudiments of the issue at hand, presents its case with all the cheapest tricks in the book, and then basically fails to actually prop up anything resembling a coherent, workable thesis. And that, in a nutshell, describes what happens in this book. Robinson gets the most basic elements of economics laughably wrong (he has no concept of what money is for, as an example). When he wants to criticize a viewpoint he disagrees with, he just creates an obnoxious, stereotypical character to represent it. And his own idea of ecologically-based economics (which isn't remotely original) is actually *less* well articulated and defended than works less than 1/10th this length.

My copy of this book is dog-eared where I wanted to come back and catalog Robinson's low points. At first they enraged me, but after a couple of hundred pages there was nothing to do but laugh. Unfortunately, the amusing rantings aren't quite enough to give me motivation to finish this book. But they did provide me the motivation to warn everyone else: steer clear!
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
April 17, 2011 – Shelved
April 17, 2011 – Shelved as: sci-fi
February 17, 2016 – Shelved as: gave-up-on

Comments (showing 1-21 of 21) (21 new)

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Martin As someone who enjoyed reading this book and is trolling the reviews, trying to decide whether to commit to the next volume in the trilogy, I'm drawn to negative reviews like yours precisely because there are so many ways and reasons to like (or dislike) a book. I appreciate your review; it's clear that the big choke factor for you was the economics and, like you, whether I agree with an author's philosophy here or not, I see that economics is such an obviously critical piece of a "massive enterprise" story like this one that any verisimilitude in other areas can go straight out the window if it's handled poorly. Unlike you, while interested in the subject, I'm a hedgerow economist at best. Any chance you'd care to give further specific reference to things that KSR gets wrong in this book? That's a froward question, I know, and I don't intend it as a challenge to you. Rather, I'm interested to see if any of my impressions about where the book slid off the rails that *could* hold up my willing suspension of disbelief are these issues that sunk it for you.

At any rate, your review has gotten me thinking about a hypothesis (beyond prose craft and association of the speculative with escapism)) for why science fiction struggles so consistently with critical acceptance by serious critics. There are authors whose prose bona fides are acknowledged (Iain Banks comes to mind), and those whose speculative flights are recognized as legitimate grappling with serious issues and not just juvenile wishful thinking (I'd argue that KSR is one such).

sologdin i respectfully second Martin's request for citations to bad economics in the novel.

Nathaniel Martin & sologdin-

I wrote up a response to Martin's request sometime in late October or early November, and I have no idea why it didn't post.

Instead of just rewriting the original points, however, I spent hours looking through boxes of books (we've moved since I wrote that review) until I finally found my copy. Tonight I wrote down about 4 pages worth of notes from the pages I'd dog-eared, and I should have the review up for you in the next couple of days.

I can tell you, however, that it will focus on some pretty broad economic issues that KSR gets wrong. He doesn't understand how money works or why we use it, for example. He also doesn't grasp what a free market is or how vital role the price system plays in coordinating economic activity. He has no concept of what "capitalism" really means at all.

In short, it's nothing but warmed-over Marxism as far as the critique of capitalism goes, but add to that the sad hilarity of his "eco-economics" perpetuating the worst errors of his warped view of capitalism without offering any of the benefits.

KSR would have seriously benefited from:
1. taking an econ 101 course and
2. reading "Animal Farm".

I'll try to be less dismissive and more instructive with my follow up. :-)

Nathaniel Alright, folks, I went ahead and posted the follow-up review to my blog. It turned out pretty long (~3,700 words) and I had some images and stuff, so it made sense to put it there.

Check it out and leave me your thoughts, there or here:


message 5: by Outis (last edited Oct 10, 2015 11:04PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Outis Not finishing a book is fine but you ought to be more careful when trying to interpret it. You could have read a plot summary for instance.
I agree the passage you quoted in your blog essay is cringe-worthy but you are misinterpreting its role in the story. You said in your essay that in contrast to the Dispossessed "KSR's society succeeds". But in the book, it fails (much more clearly than UKL's actually).
What you interpret as some kind of author-endorsed blueprint for an utopian society that's going to be enforced by some kind of state is simply how a bunch of brilliant cranks are trying to run a subsidized and extremely remote research outpost. There's obviously no state or enforcement!
The reason there is no money on Mars at this stage of the story (or rather that it remains behind the scenes) is that Earth's most powerful states could not agree on an economic framework for the commercial exploitation of Mars and therefore perpetuated the legal fiction that its colonization was a purely scientific endeavour.
The rest of the book makes clear that was a fiction and the characters who thought they could keep running Mars like a scientific expedition or turn it into some sort of utopia failed spectacularly (if we're looking only at the first book anyway).

The book doesn't say one of its main characters fucked a 15 year old by the way. Instead, it mentions a rumor according to which he did. It's part of a series of unrelated rumors, some of which are obviously unfounded.
It looks like you were looking for reasons to hate the book.

Kyle After reading your blog post, I would like to second Outis' thoughts. And as someone with a math background, myself, I think it is an utterly unfair approach to expect an author to be a specialist. The "Econ 101" jibe is silly. KSR has a Ph.D. That doesn't make him knowledgeable about anything besides English, necessarily, but it's quite likely that he did indeed take an Econ 101 course at some point. Or at least talk to some grad students about it. What you are missing is that if you knew "how the sausage" is made in physics and biology, you would find almost every piece of fiction that says anything about those repulsive, as well. This comes with the territory of science fiction. Much of it is silly. That's part of the genre. I am curious to know how you feel about books by people like Heinlein that are utter nonsense scientifically, but tend to jive with a lot of people's preconceptions about what is "right."

Marx was wrong about a hell of a lot, but contrary to popular belief, not about everything. And whether or not he is right, a lot of people in the ivory tower still believe in him, which is really the only condition necessary to write a story where the characters believe in such "warmed-over" Marxism. Even more believable if those characters are not economists in the first place. I can tell you that the attitude most physical scientists have toward your "pseudo-science" as described by KSR is pretty dead-on, from the academics I have interacted with, whether I agree with them or not.

Not to mention that the consensus on some rather big topics in economics have been flipped and flopped a hell of a lot of times in this century alone, and that theories of economics are in no way comparable to theories in things like physics, as the methods are primarily stochastic rather than deterministic (I'm talking about macro level physics here, not the commonly misunderstood quantum variety).

Anyway my point is I think that a)the success of the book does not hinge on the economics described, b)even if it does, those economics are not as completely off-base as you describe; and c)even if they were, the characters themselves are not economists; and d)even if they were, I'm sure you could find one or two economists who could find a way to justify the rather vague statements in the book, just as you can find one or two climate scientists who don't think anthropogenic climate change is real: the bar for fiction is much lower than the bar for scientific consensus.

I'm no political science major (thank god), but I can tell you from my experience reading newspapers and books that "House of Cards" isn't realistic. It is making a point. KSR isn't realistic, he is making a point. Thinking that his points (which I would argue are primarily sociological rather than economic, if you get my meaning) aren't valid just because you are a grad student in econ and the details don't add up is like thinking that bumblebees can't fly because you have done some back of the envelope calculations without accounting for dynamic stall.

None of this is to say that the book is good or bad. I just think there is a bit of hubris in your justifications. Maybe, after all, this is a novel. I'm sure a biologist would tell you that believable human beings can not be made out of wood pulp and ink.

blakeR One thing that's important to remember about Economics is that it is inherently a political field. All the names you mention -- Friedman, Hayek, Smith, etc. -- have supporters and detractors on opposite sides of the political spectrum.

Classical Economics as it's taught in the majority of universities is arguably a tool used to support the neoliberal status quo, whereas (also arguably) recent politico-economic realities such as austerity programs in Europe severely call into question this traditional economic thought.

message 8: by Nathaniel (last edited Feb 17, 2016 07:49AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Nathaniel Outis, Kyle, and blakeR-

So here are a few things to keep in mind.

There is no universal standard of accuracy for fiction. The point of fiction is that it's not true, so that's just obvious. There is, however, the idea of an implicit contract between the author and the audience, in which the author telegraphs what aspects of the story are meant to be read as objectively true and which are not.

Red Mars is a fantastic example of this. Nobody can read Red Mars and not understand the importance of the actual Mars as it really exists in real life. The loving descriptions of real topology is a cornerstone of the book. If we found out that KSR made all that up, that none of it was based on reality, and that he had done no research, it would violate the implicit contract and would piss readers off. But that's not because every description of Mars has to be realistic. It's because all the painstaking prose to describe these formations and give their real-world locations and names, not to mention the oftentimes convoluted plot to get characters to those points to justify their descriptions, all of these telegraph to the reader the expectation that "I did my homework, and this is fairly accurate."

So it's not that I'm saying, "You have to get everything right in fiction." That would be silly. What I'm saying is that an author has an obligation to follow through on their implicit commitments. KSR has an obligation to get Martian topology right (at least within the constraints of the time period when he wrote the book) that he took upon himself.

I think we can agree on that.

My contention is that in addition to taking upon himself an obligation to get Mars right as a physical setting, he also took upon himself the obligation to get economics right because of how he wrote the story.

Star Trek is one of the single-dumbest approaches to sci-fi economics in existence, but I don't care because very few episodes had anything to do with economics. Similarly, the "science" of Star Trek is legendarily silly. Again: so what? That's not what the show was promising to the audience and we have no expectation that they get it right.

But in Red Mars, it is KSR himself (not just his characters) who makes objective statements about how economics works that are integral to the way the novel unfolds. Off the top of my head, the one I can recall is the statement that when the Mars colonists stopped using cash, the economy became more efficient. That's not an opinion you can attribute to a character, so stop trying to hide behind that. That's an objective statement of the narrator. And this isn't a first-person, unreliable narrator. It's not even a close third person narration. It's much closer to traditional omniscient narration. The reader is therefore supposed to take it as fact that if you get rid of cash you get a more efficient economy. Which is, in economic terms, equivalent to saying that if you take the oil out of your car the engine will run more efficiently.

blakeR says that economics is "inherently a political field," but that's basically nonsense. During the Cultural Revolution, physics was considered "inherently a political field" with Einstein's Theory of Relativity seen as a tool of bourgeois oppression. Just because there are political implications doesn't make something intrinsically political in the sense of being subjective rather than objective.

So here's my thesis in a nutshell:

1. No fiction author is under any universal obligation to get any particular field correct: not physics, not biology, not economics, not linguistics, not psychology, none of it.

2. A fiction author is under a special obligation to get anything right that they implicitly promise to the audience is going to be correct. This happens when the author incorporates objective statements of fact into the narrative (not just the character's opinions or beliefs) and makes those statements of fact of central important. KSR has to do a good job on Mars for that reason. And he has to do a god job on economics for the same reason. I'm not asking for perfection, but I am asking for good-faith effort.

3. A lot of economic theory is speculative. This is true of physics as well. At the frontiers, we have to guess. Is the many-worlds theory correct? Who knows? Do minimum wages lead to higher unemployment? Still up for debate! But the definition of money is not speculative, nor is the function of markets within society.

So: KSR didn't have to make the book about economics, but he chose to. That means he has an obligation to get it right, at least on the basics. But he flagrantly violated the basics.

And that's a problem.

message 9: by Outis (last edited Feb 17, 2016 09:35AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Outis I don't disagree that KSR got the economics of his story wrong but you evidently have misunderstood the book and you're complaining about things which aren't in the book instead for looking at the actual issues with the book's plot.
There is no omniscient narration about economics. The characters are mostly clueless so it doesn't matter if they're reliable narrators: the reader must infer the facts anyway. The economically implausible stuff isn't spelled out but underlies the decisions that people make in KSR's setting.
I looked for something like "the statement that when the Mars colonists stopped using cash, the economy became more efficient" and I didn't find it. That's hardly a surprise because the evolution of the setting goes the other way. And the "economy" doesn't even need to be efficient: for their purpose (as opposed to the needs of Earth), they happen to have virtually limitless resources and robot workers. Early on, colonists struggle a bit gettings things going but later on, when she manages production with better tech, Nadia even compares herself to a god.

By the way, this has nothing to do with the book because it simply has nothing to say about this stuff but... your opinions about economics aren't shared by everyone. I'm not sure what you call "speculative" but economists disagree with each other (even when you think they don't) and there are no objective tests that could potentially settle the disagreement (as in physics).
People in larger organizations (such as SMBs) than what's on Mars early in the book often do not use cash or markets internally because that's more efficient. Regular employees basically do what they're told without billing everything they do or bidding on any market. If it was more efficient to outsource everything, nobody would have staff on salary.

Nathaniel Outis-

So we're down to basically two issues at the moment. The first: does economics have anything to say that is objectively true or am I just conflating my "opinions" on issues where "there are no objective tests..."

Short of a long digression into scientific epistemology with Hume, Popper, and Kuhn the most I can say is just this: having studied economics in grad school, yes, there really are some basic premises that are universally accepted and make up the core of the discipline. You can disagree with that and say "not all economists agree" and that's fine, but you're in the same category as folks who cite some random wack-job physicists who claims to have invented a perpetual motion machine.

Which brings me to the second point, does KSR run afoul of any of these basic, fundamental elements of economics? Why yes, he does. I don't have time to reread the whole book but--since you're willing to take the characters as reliable--I'll have to rely on the first I found when flipped open my copy to find one. (There are lots and lots, so it didn't take long.)

"And no one is wasting time buying or selling, because there is no market." - Arkady

This contradicts elementary economic principles of what markets actually do for society, which is basically to overcome a coordination problem. If you have any interest in this at all, the definitive paper (which is easy to understand even for non-economists) is F. A. Hayek's "The Use of Knowledge in Society." You should be able to find the full-text online with no problem, but just in case you can also read the Wikipedia entry. In particular, here's what is relevant to this quote from KSR:

"the essay's central argument that market price fluctuations promote efficient distribution of resources is embraced by most modern economists"

So, far from "waste" (ala KSR), the actual function of markets--via the price mechanism--is efficiency. This realization was the most important breakthrough in understanding markets since Adam Smith discovered how markets allowed societies to yoke self-interest in the interest of social benefit.

Furthermore, Hayek's understanding of markets is the central reason why every planned economy in history has failed. Talk about empirical validation!

I will not try to tell you that Hayek's argument about markets is on the level of Newtonian physics or special or general relativity. It is not, and it cannot be. But it not a matter of mere "opinion," either.

But large swathes of what happens in KSR's Red Mars are written in total, utter cluelessness that these principles even exist. It would be one thing for KSR to write an informed (albeit iconoclastic) dissent from Hayekian views of markets. It's another for him to blithely blather on about how efficient everything got without markets without even recognizing that--from a physics standpoint--he might as well be merrily chatting on about how all objects tend to slow down over time on their own. (E.g. embracing Aristotelian vs. Newtonian physics without even realizing what he's talking about.)

This is all really simple, though, and so I'll break it down to the essence:

KSR wrote a book where economic theory plays a dominant role, but not a single thing he wrote shows any awareness of economic theory at all.

If you are as ignorant as KSR is about economic theory: this won't bother you. If KSR had said Mars was the fifth planet from the sun, had a thick atmosphere, and was larger than Earth with a heavier gravitational pull, none of that would have bothered readers who didn't have a clue about Mars, either. But it would have pissed off readers who knew better because--since KSR makes such a big deal about describing Mars realistically--the flagrant violations of fact would have been annoying. It's the same for economics. If you don't know anything about them: great. Enjoy your book. But if you do know anything about economics, it's very difficult to enjoy someone who decides to put them front and center and then make an absolute hash of them.

Nathaniel If you think I'm making a big deal out of one quote, keep in mind it's just the first one. KSR's ignorance of money and markets--and their feature role in his story--come up again and again. Here are a few more, which I won't comment on, but which will show I'm not just nitpicking a one-liner:

"...that's a large part of what economics is--people arbitrarily, or as a matter of taste, assigning numerical values to non-numerical things. And then pretending that they haven't just made the numbers up, which they have. Economics is like astrology in that sense, except that economics serves to justify the current power structure, and so it has a lot of fervent believers among the powerful." - Vlad (page 297)

"So far we have not been living in a money economy, that's the way scientific stations are. It's like winning a prize taht frees you from the economic wheel." - Arkady (page 341)

And so he argued against revolution, nationalism, religion, economics--against every mode of Terran thought that he could think of...."We should be inventing a new program... We need a new Martian way, a new Martian philosophy, economics, religion!" - John (page 348-349)

"The old parasitic greed of the kinds and their henchmen, this system we call the transnational world order is just feudalism all over again." - John (page 380)

These quotes show two things (1) economics is central to the story, and (2) KSR doesn't actually know anything about them. Maybe the best example of this is the "eco-economics", though. Because that is legitimately interesting, but KSR doesn't actually have a single idea to add to the concept. He mentions cool buzzwords ("carrying capacity, coexistence, counteradaptation, legitimacy mechanisms, and ecologic efficiency" (page 297) but never actually explains how any of it works.

So he wrote a book (largely) about economics, shoots off his mouth about economics (without any demonstration that he knows what he's talking about), and then invents a replacement that he doesn't actually explain, define, or show in any detail. Worst of all, "eco-economics" has been done in much greater detail elsewhere (I wish I could remember the great short story I read about it 20 years ago), so it's not like it's not a promising topic. It is! KSR just doesn't know anything about that, either. (Or at least, didn't say anything about it in Red Mars. Maybe he's done research since then. I've been meaning to go back and read one of his more recent books to find out, but I don't have high hopes. Someone this certain about so many things where he has no knowledge at all doesn't strike me as someone with the curiosity to do a lot of later-in-life learning.)

Outis For some reason, you're failing to understand not only the book (you didn't finish it so that's not surprising) but also what I wrote. There's only so many ways I can say that I agree that the book is economically implausible and that I agree that's a problem!
One last time, about the book:
a) the first expedition to Mars is a smallish scientific expedition that's by law not supposed to do anything commercial internally or externally, not a "society" or an normal economy
b) the characters you quoted are mostly losers who failed to understand the situation. Like many of people in their line of work in the real world, they are ignorant of and biased against economics. Arkady for instance is a wingnut who lied in order to be accepted in the Mars program and who gets a lot of people killed, including himself (apologies for the spoilers).

Nathaniel Outis-

Like many of people in their line of work in the real world, they are ignorant of and biased against economics.

Is this made clear in the book? Is there any point where KSR effectively says, "Surprise! My characters were all stupid! Here's how things really work!"

Because the thing is: I cited most of the major characters in the book. The only people who disagreed with the critique of economic theory were right-wing, corrupt, religious zealots (who are also even more stupid than anyone else), so I'm really, really surprised by what you're telling me.

If I go back and reread to the end, is the economic content of the book going to get any less ignorant?

Outis Nathaniel wrote: "Is this made clear in the book? Is there any point where KSR effectively says, "Surprise! My characters were all stupid! Here's how things really work!""
As I said above, the reader is left guessing because no such statement is made one way or the other. Lots of stuff is never explained in the book.
However, the story doesn't end well for most of his characters... which in my book vindicates others by default inasmuch as a more realistic analysis led them to make better choices.
That said, I don't think merely being wrong about some stuff means one is stupid.
Nathaniel wrote: "The only people who disagreed with the critique of economic theory were right-wing, corrupt, religious zealots (who are also even more stupid than anyone else)"
This is like the people who kept saying Dubya was so stoopid. But he was the POTUS and meanwhile they had what? Some stupidity, that!
Of course some right-wingers really are stupid. I don't mean to generalize.
Nathaniel wrote: "If I go back and reread to the end, is the economic content of the book going to get any less ignorant?"
Have I not said enough times that I don't think the book is economically plausible? Then again I'm biased: the economics baked in most SF settings are terrible as far as I'm concerned.

Nathaniel Outis-

I don't think merely being wrong about some stuff means one is stupid.

I agree very strongly with that. I read stuff all the time that I disagree with, but that I think is intelligent and interesting.

Have I not said enough times that I don't think the book is economically plausible? Then again I'm biased: the economics baked in most SF settings are terrible as far as I'm concerned.

This seems to be the crux of our disagreement. I don't care how innacurate or clueless a book is in general, but if a book decides to take up a specific topic then I expect it to do competently.

Red Mars is a story about a new culture / society being started on Mars, with a lot of attention paid to economics. But there is not a shred of economic intelligence displayed by any character or by the author.

That ticks me off in a way that the silliness of Star Trek's post-scarcity economy doesn't.

Outis The trilogy his about a new culture/society being started on Mars. The first book is mostly a trainwreck as fat as social issues (economics included) are concerned... read it for the SF architecture, the Martian vistas and the mayhem or don't.
Since the very premise of the book is economically ludicrous (it's like 15% of global GDP that went into that colonisation project for several decades with no clear payoff for the stakeholders), I'm not that bothered by what happens next, no. There is no such thing as a realistic book in which Mars is colonized in the next few decades.

But evidently, what rubbed you the wrong way is it's a book in which left-wing viewpoints you are not often exposed to are heavily represented (plus you didn't even get to the less left-wing chapters by the looks of it). The author is a staunch left-winger and he wrote the book some time ago when people were generally to the left of where people are today. And close to half of the characters are Soviet-educated to begin with!
You may not like it but people in the real world don't care much for economics and really say stuff like "this system we call the transnational world order is just feudalism all over again". Obviously that wouldn't fly in a graduate seminar but that wasn't the context.

Nathaniel Outis-

But evidently, what rubbed you the wrong way is it's a book in which left-wing viewpoints you are not often exposed to...

I'm not sure why you feel the need to grasp at straws. The fact that KSR is left-wing isn't a problem. Lots of my favorite authors are left-wing, and lots of them write about their left-wing politics, and that's great. I like diversity.

Nor does "realism" have anything to do with it. No fiction is realistic. That's why it's fiction.

I just think that if an author chooses to raise a topic and focus on it, the author should be competent on that topic. You, apparently, do not.

And that's fine, too.

message 18: by Nate (new)

Nate Oman The economics in this book is incredibly stupid. Incredibly stupid. You can do left wing economics in a non-stupid way, and you can do sci-fi with incoherent economics that is cool. (Most sci-fi has incoherent economics.) On the other hand, you can't do a book that in large part is about what purports to be a serious set of economic ideas and then be stupid, stupid, stupid about economics. Kim Stanley Robinson is an ignoramus on economic matters. It's like reading what purports to be hard sci-fi written by someone who believes in the truth of flogiston and a geocentric universe complete with the music of the heavenly spheres while simultaneously getting their Ptolemy wrong.

Robinson is just stupid on the economics. Dumb. Idiotic. Worthless.

But perhaps I am too generous.

message 19: by Paul (new)

Paul Don't agree with your entire review but I also stopped reading this book 320 pages in.

Maureen Just started reading today. Am quitting today. Having read and loved “The Martian”, could tell immediately this book was not for me.

Andrew Post I don't even need to write my own review now. You said everything I was thinking. I'm over 400 pages in now and Robinson's lack of understanding of basic economics, his incessant bias against and scorn for capitalism, and his slavish worship of socialism is sickening.

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