Consumerism Run Amok: The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth

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In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

One of the books I’d always intended to read, but only recently got around to, is the influential satire The Space Merchants, published in 1953. If you can imagine a dystopian future Earth run by descendants of the characters from Mad Men, you won’t be far from the setting the book portrays. And while the novel contains large dollops of social satire, it’s woven into a narrative that moves at a rapid clip, featuring quite a bit of action and adventure—more than one might expect from a story about a professional copywriter.

As I’ve mentioned before in this column (and because I’m old, will no doubt mention again), I grew up a huge fan of Analog magazine, which to my young eyes was full of interesting science, simple, enjoyable characters, and straightforward plots. I looked forward to it arriving every month, and sometimes argued with my father over who would get to read it first. He also subscribed to Galaxy, which I didn’t read as much—which is a shame, because in the years I was first learning to read for fun, the magazine was edited by Frederik Pohl, who was winning various awards for his efforts. Galaxy stories, though, were a little more complex and oriented more toward an adult reader than Analog stories.

Over the years, I’ve developed a deeper appreciation for Pohl and the type of stories he wrote or selected as an editor. While I wasn’t ready for them as a teenager, I now find they have a depth and complexity often lacking in Analog. In the end, though, I’m glad I waited to read The Space Merchants, because there are a number of elements to the story that would have gone right over my head in my youth. Moreover, it doesn’t hurt to have watched Mad Men before you read the book, because the story is so deeply rooted in the advertising business of the era portrayed in the TV show. I was also surprised, when researching this article, that advertising has been addressed often enough in science fiction tales to rate its own entry in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

 

About the Authors

Frederik Pohl (1919-2013) was an influential member of the science fiction and fantasy community who, over his long and fruitful career, was involved in the field in a wide range of roles, including fan, writer, magazine editor, book editor, and agent. I have discussed Pohl’s work twice before in this column, reviewing Gateway and The Starchild Trilogy, and you can find more biographical information in those reviews. At one point after World War II, Pohl took a job as an advertising copywriter, in part as research for The Space Merchants. The book was rejected by many publishers before Ian Ballantine bought it to publish simultaneously in hardback, and also in his new paperback book line. It garnered acclaim from within the science fiction community and more mainstream literary critics and reviewers, and went on to sell very successfully. Like many authors whose careers started in the early 20th century, you can find a number of Pohl’s early works on Project Gutenberg.

Cyril Kornbluth (1923-1958) is an American science fiction author whose work I have not yet examined in this column. He wrote under a variety of pen names, as well as adding an invented middle initial to his own name, publishing as Cyril M. Kornbluth. He was a member of the Futurians, the influential New York science fiction fan club, and it was there he met his future collaborators Frederik Pohl and Judith Merril. He began writing as a fan at fifteen, and his first professional publication came when he was only seventeen. He served in the Army in World War II, and earned a Bronze Star in the Battle of the Bulge. Kornbluth had a knack for writing quirky, funny, and thought-provoking stories, and one of his short stories, “The Little Black Bag,” was adapted for television by Rod Sterling. Most of his longer works were written as collaborations, some with Frederik Pohl, and some with Judith Merril, under the pen name Cyril Judd. His solo novels include the compellingly realistic World War III novel Not This August. Kornbluth’s successful writing career was cut tragically short when he died of a heart attack at 34. You can find several of his stories and novels on Project Gutenberg.

 

If This Goes On

One of the most difficult things to do in science fiction is to predict the future…especially the near future. Jumping to the far future, thousands of years away, into a world dramatically different than our own, is in some ways easier than imagining what changes might be just around the corner.

In the mid-20th century, when Pohl and Kornbluth were writing The Space Merchants, scientists were predicting that an ever-increasing population on Earth would begin to outstrip food production, possibly by the end of the twentieth century. They warned that fossil fuels and other resources could soon be exhausted, and pollution could cause ecological collapse. At the same time, freed from the brutal conflict of World War II, the U.S. was engaging in an orgy of consumerism, and there was every reason to expect that to continue. While they are exaggerated for satirical impact, you can see these themes woven into The Space Merchants.

A satirist has an even more difficult task than those who are trying to predict the most probable future. The world they create must serve the points they are trying to make; at the same time, if the future they create is not at least somewhat plausible, they are creating a farce, not a satire. Pohl and Kornbluth depict a world where rampant consumerism, without any consideration for consequences, is bringing the planet to its knees. While the elite of this society do not suffer much, the common people teeter on the edge of scarcity while being pressed ever harder to consume and produce. The misogyny of the mid-20th century has gotten even more dire, and in one case, a woman is forced to become a company-employed prostitute, serving the firm’s executives after her boss leaves. Only addictive drugs and a constant barrage of advertising keep the common people in line. The water is not fit to drink and the air cannot be breathed. Any pretense of democracy had given way to the power of the almighty dollar, and corporations rule (U.S. senators, for example, represent corporations rather than states). The only glimmer of hope is the promise of building a new home for humanity on Venus. In the face of the more alarming trends and anxieties of the post-war era, The Space Merchants served as one of many warnings our civilization needed to plot a different course.

And in many ways, since the book was written, humanity has taken a different course. Population growth has moderated, and new innovations have caused farming yields to increase significantly. New energy sources have been found. Pollution laws have led to significant improvements in air and water quality in many areas. At the same time, rampant consumerism is a continuing problem, and the communications explosion facilitated by the internet and cell phones has allowed advertising to infiltrate even further into people’s lives. Our politics are troubled, and corporations are more influential than ever in the political sphere. And while we’re not much closer to establishing habitats on other planets, nuclear weapons and climate change remain two potent threats among many in Earth’s future.

Satire remains an important and effective form of storytelling, and always will. A skillful satirist can illuminate dangers in a way other forms of literature cannot, and—while entertaining and amusing us—point us toward a better course.

 

The Space Merchants

Mitch Courtenay lives a life of privilege, living about as well as anyone in the United States of the future. He deals with shortages of fresh water, eats reconstituted meat substitutes, and wears an air filter when stepping out on the streets, but hey, who doesn’t have to deal with those things? His society is one where advertising agencies and corporations rule the world, and his advertising agency, Fowler Schocken, is one of the biggest and best. He doesn’t concern himself much with organized religions, largely because their accounts are handled by a competing agency. The only nagging flaw in his life is his relationship with his wife, Kathy. She is quite a prize, a respected physician. They are on a short-term marriage contract he wants to make permanent. But she remarks on his shallowness and vanity—things he doesn’t see in himself—and continues to keep him at arm’s length.

Besides the whole “Earth’s running out of resources and being poisoned” thing, the only defect Mitch sees in this capitalist utopia is a group called the “Consies.” The first few mentions of the group in the novel are in relation to terrorist activities, although we are eventually told the organization is the World Conservationist Association, or WCA. We learn that it’s a group made up of many thoughtful and dedicated people who believe if nothing changes, humanity will engineer its own demise.

Mitch’s life changes forever when he arrives at work one morning to find he has been assigned to lead one of the biggest projects in the firm’s history, organizing the colonization of Venus, and attracting colonists to join the effort. His first task is to meet with Jack O’Shea, the first man on Venus, who was picked for the first mission because of his diminutive size, the rocket not being powerful enough to carry an average-sized person along with enough food and life support. At the airport, Mitch is almost killed by falling cargo, which he initially thinks is an accident. But then someone takes a shot at him from a helicopter, and he begins to suspect that one of the firm’s competitors is involved (in this future, legally sanctioned violence is sometimes an inevitable part of doing business). He is excited that his wife is pleased about his promotion, but the excitement is dampened by jealousy when she asks him to introduce her to Jack O’Shea. And then one of his subordinates, Runstead, is found to be either incompetent or involved in deliberately sabotaging the Venus project. Mitch tracks Runstead to a resort in Antarctica, and is attacked and knocked unconscious.

When Mitch awakens, he finds that his life has changed once again…he has suffered a major reversal of fortune, one which allows us to see his future society from the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. His identity tattoo has been altered, and his new identity is William Groby, a laborer indentured to a company in Costa Rica, Chlorella Proteins. His first job is harvesting algae out of giant chemical tanks, and every day he finds himself further indebted to the firm. He tries to befriend people who might be able to help him, and is recruited to join a cell of the infamous Consies. The cell meets in a secret room hidden under a giant mass of engineered chicken flesh, from which tissue is constantly removed and packaged for sale—horrifyingly, the flesh reacts to stimulus and feels pain. Mitch decides to play along to escape his situation, and eventually succeeds. He is transferred to a new job in New York, which puts him within spitting distance of his old life. He is kidnapped by a competing advertising agency whose staff tortures him for information. But he escapes, and while he eventually finds his way back to Fowler Schocken and his old job, he realizes he is now a different person. There are plenty of twists and turns in the final pages, but Mitch is finally able to find as close to a happy ending as is possible in his future dystopia.

 

Final Thoughts

When I was young, I wasn’t particularly attracted to this book because the topic of advertising held little interest to me, and the premise sounded a good bit different from the action and adventure stories I liked best. That turns out to be my loss, because I missed out on a book full of humor, and quite a bit of adventure as well (and for those who have concerns over the book being dated, Pohl put out an updated edition in 2011). The Space Merchants also turns out to be a book that makes the reader think, blending a good deal of insightful social commentary into a compelling tale. I’d recommend this novel to anyone who wants a story that will challenge them while it entertains them.

And now it’s my turn to listen to you: If you’ve read The Space Merchants, I’d like to hear your thoughts. And if you can offer suggestions for any other great science fiction satires, I’d like to hear about them as well.

Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.

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