Pohl, Frederik & C. M. Kornbluth. Space Merchants.

NY: Ballantine, 1953.

Fred Pohl was (and still is — he’s 93 now) one of the great names in modern science fiction. He published his first work in Amazing Stories in 1937 and his last novel (so he says) came out in 2011. That’s a career of nearly 3/4 of a century. He was mostly an editor, though, during the 1940s and didn’t begin to hit his stride as a writer until the postwar years, when he teamed up with Cyril Kornbluth.

For myself, like most nerds of my generation, I discovered science fiction through Robert Heinlein’s excellent juveniles in the mid-‘50s, but the first “adult” SF novel I can remember reading, about that same time, was this one. I think my father had bought it and I borrowed it from him. I didn’t know anything about advertising and I was too young to be really aware of the McCarthy witch-hunt mentality of the time, but I knew something was up with this story. I recognized sly literary subversion when I saw it.

Mitchell Courtenay is a hot young copywriter on the way up in Fowler Schocken Associates, one of the leading advertising companies in a near future that’s very different from ours, badly overpopulated and undernourished. Consumerism is what drives civilization. Even the lightest criticism of advertising will get you suspicious looks. They’ll probably call you a “Consie!” — a Conservationist, whom everyone knows are a lot of wild-eyed radical do-gooders who don’t understand the Real World and are only out to destroy American business. “Advertising” now includes marketing and corporate conglomeration, as shown by Schocken’s conversion of the whole of India into a single, interlocking vertical manufacturing and sales entity.

Mitch has just been promoted to head Schocken’s new Venus Division, with the goal of controlling Earth’s new project of settling and developing our neighboring planet. He has to make it appealing for prospective settlers, even though the first few generations will be confined to small, air-tight habitats (since there’s no free oxygen), and he has to come up with something for them to do — something profitable for Schocken, that is. And he knows just how to go about it. But not only is American business literally cut-throat these days — the Commercial Code allows for armed corporate warfare — competition within his own company can also be pretty bloody, and Mitch finds himself hijacked and packed off to a protein and carbohydrate plantation in Central America. How’s he going to escape and get his old place back? A good ad man can always find a way.

Pohl has always had a way with deadpan throw-away lines, and his readers knew what he was talking about, politically. In considering a piece of Consie propaganda: “It was an appeal to reason, and they’re always dangerous. You can’t trust reason. We threw it out of the advertising profession long ago and have never missed it.” Or Fowler Schocken, the boss: “That’s power, Mitch, absolute power. And you know the old saying. Power ennobles. Absolute power ennobles absolutely.” And, of course, “Decrease of IQ was always good news to us. Less brains, more sales.” Okay, it’s not very subtle, but that was the style sixty years ago. If this book were being written today, Cory Doctorow would bring in Disneyland. Bill Gibson would set it in Japan. Neal Stephenson would reference Mafia-owned pizza franchises. It’s a different world now, but this visionary and still very entertaining book is where much of it started. (And don’t get too hung up in the fact that the science is now dated, because that isn’t the point.)

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  1. I highly recommend Kornbluth’s short solo works — perhaps the collection The Explorers. I really think if he hadn’t died at 34 he’s be considered one of the greats… Also, his other collaborations with Pohl, although more hit or miss, are worth reading — for example, Gladiator-In-Law.


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