The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl and C.W. Kornbluth


Mitchell Courtenay is the best copysmith the advertising company of Fowler Schocken has…so when they get the advertising campaign to sell Venus as a colonizable world to the people of an extremely overcrowded future Earth, they give it to Courtenay. He consults with the astronaut who landed on Venus and returned to tell about it, a midget named Jack O’Shea, and the ad campaign seems to be off to a good start, at least from Fowler Schocken’s perspective. Things go wrong, badly and early. Courtenay’s lady love, a surgeon named Kathy, refuses to marry him. Courtenay falls victim to a well-planned bit of industrial espionage, which results in his abduction by Fowler Schocken’s chief competitor, and subsequent sale to the Chlorella Plantations in Costa Rica. Here, he falls in with a local chapter of the Consies (short for Conservationists) a wingnut terrorist group who are fruitlessly attempting to bring some measure of sanity, order and greenery to a world spiralling out of control. He does make it home, and to safety (not quite the same thing), but along the way learns no one is what they seem and the world he believes is real…isn’t.

This is an overcrowded world of deep economic divisions; the rich get 12′ by 12′ suites of rooms and plenty of artificial food created in the chemical agribusinesses, while the ordinary middle class ‘civilians’ can afford only a stair (two for a married couple) in the stairwell of one of the multi-story office buildings and barely enough food to keep them alive. Businesses have not only come to control what passes for governments in this future, but have themselves become the overt power in control of the countries. I suspect, however, that many people who read it but forgot the plot will remember one thing: Chicken Little. For those who haven’t read the book, Chicken Little is a chicken heart kept alive in vitro and grown large enough to provide protein for much of the Earth’s population. How big was it exactly? Big enough to conceal secret meetings of the local chapter of the Consies without showing a bulge.

It’s a science fiction satire about a dystopic “future”1. Don’t let the comparative light-heartedness of the novel fool you; Frederik Pohl’s and C.W. Kornbluth’s works are individually humorous, sardonic, satiric and so on. Together, I’m not sure they could have been anything else. This future may not be as high-tech or as literary as, say, Brave New World, or as fascist an example of faux socialism as 1984, but all three are satires and all three are dystopias. The government of Brave New World controls its population through genetic manipulation and drugs. The government of 1984 controls its population through terrorization and manipulation. The powers that be in The Space Merchants use…advertising?

Couldn’t happen? What’s the best fast food hamburger out there? If the thought of McDonalds or Burger King crossed your mind, even briefly, think again about whether the future of The Space Merchants is so very impossible as all that2.

It’s not the subtlest thing going, but then not much science fiction is for people capable of reading between the lines of the modern newspaper. If you liked the general writing style, Pohl’s got a few books going–Kornbluth died sadly young. The latter’s short story, “The Marching Morons”, most closely resembles The Space Merchants, but he wrote a good many other short stories, many of which are collected in His Share of Glory. If you liked a dubious take on advertising, written by someone who worked in the field, try Murder Must Advertise. Bertie WoosterPeter Wimsey is a bit hard to take at times, but keep in mind he’s supposed to be an irritatingly effete upper class twit in the earlier books.

1in the past now as of the writing of this blog post, but it was in the future, though only by a few decades, when it was written
2I’m not suggesting that those two ARE in competition for the best chain hamburger out there, though if there’s anyone out there (short of the supertasters) who can really tell the difference between Coke and Pepsi, I’d appreciate an explanation…

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