The Space Merchants (1953) by Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth

TheSpaceMerchants1It’s a jarring experience to read ‘50s SF after devoting a month to the ‘70s. After a set of socially critical, sometimes psychedelic reads with Pohl, Silverberg, Dick, and Farmer, even a sophisticated 1953 satire like The Space Merchants feels stodgy and quaint. I often turn to ‘50s SF when my brain is tired of broody and sullen plots, because that Golden Age lightness feels fresh and inviting in comparison… especially when you recognize that every decade (even our own, omg!) has its own brand of whitewashed, gender neglect.

I mentioned last week that criticism of SF’s future tech is unfair and irrelevant because the albeit wayward juxtaposition of flying cars with landline telephones has no impact on the overall message of the story. Pohl and Kornbluth are no different in this regard. But, much as I love William Gibson for his (occasional) bulls-eye accounts of future tech, the most fascinating and more important SF prophesizing comes from authors speculating on issues that most impact us socially: climate change, gender & racial oppression, class divide…

… and corporatism.

And that’s where we find The Space Merchants.

TheSpaceMerchants2It’s 1984 and Mitch Courtenay is a star-class copywriter for Fowler Shocken, one of the biggest advertising agencies in the U.S. His biggest assignment yet, he’s in charge of the campaign to encourage the consumers to support efforts to colonize Venus, essentially a death trap with no viable plans for terraforming. But a series of setbacks occurs, which suggest sabotage, but he can’t identify his enemies. Can he trust his competitive colleagues? His wife? And what about those crazy Conservationists?

Wedged in between an incredibly prescient social message and the trappings of 1950s social stiflement, The Space Merchants is a conflicting brew of clairvoyance and jammed gears. Amid the onslaught of jokey jabs at homosexuality, persons of short stature, and “girls” (we usually call them women), Pohl and Kornbluth warn of the dehumanizing and undemocratic dangers of capitalism run amuck, where:

India has been converted to Indiastries, “merging a whole subcontinent into a single manufacturing complex” (4),

School cafeterias are zones for subliminal consumer loyalty programs where “Kiddiebutt cigarette rations are wrapped in colorful Starrzelius red” (4),

Corporate interests overwhelm government decisions, (“it’s odd how we still think and talk of that clearinghouse for pressures as though it were an entity with a will of its own” [10]),

Corporate warfare is a real thing (“And they say there are still bloodstains on the steps of the General Post Office where Western Union and American Railway Express fought it out for the mail contract” [16] and “Killing in an industrial feud is a misdemeanor. Killing without Notification is a commercial offense” [45]),

The decline of intellectual pursuits where “The correlation is perfectly clear. Advertising up, lyric poetry down” (48),

Overpopulation on Earth where “the most impressive thing about it to me was not the rocket itself but the wide swathe around it” (57),

And the invasion of advertising on our landscape, which even blocks the view from airplane windows, (“… wham: a sleazy, over-sexed Taunton ad for some crummy product opaques the window and one their nagging, stupid jingles drills into your ear” [68]).

And even Mitch’s behavior as a corporate schmuck is a hilarious and honest portrayal of the white collar boardroom and the sycophantic behavior of lower-management types:

“He took time to look at each of our faces searchingly, ignoring the forest of hands in the air. God help me, mine was right up there too” (4),

“… made all of us capable of any act that served our god of Sales” (9),

“And you know the old saying, ‘Power ennobles. Absolute power ennobles absolutely’” (44).

There are two classes of people in this world of unbridled corporatism: the star-class (advertising and corporate executives, and their “girls”) and the consumers. Little interplay occurs between the two classes, except in the form of the daily infiltration of advertising, overt and covert, to convince the consumer drudges that happiness will come from more bags of salty Crunchies and more bottles of fizzy Popsie (and more of those recommended cups of Coffiest, which may or may not contain a dangerous amount of addictive substances).

With The Space Merchants, you get two clever authors delivering their darkly funny visions of the future (our past) in a democracy ruled by an unchecked free market, and they tell it from what constitutes a ‘50s liberal worldview, where they strive to demonstrate some social progress, if limited by our standards. We meet Mitch’s fiancée, a surgeon who is ready to dump him because she senses his expectations for her to prioritize home over career. We also meet a person of short stature, the most celebrated astronaut of his time, and a heartthrob among the ladies in New York. But even these two compelling characters cannot escape the authors’ easy jokes that come from being a “girl” and a “midget.”

TheSpaceMerchants3Which is part of what I appreciate about these ‘50s novels: we see the seedlings of social progress from the minds of “boys” who are clever enough to know that society can do better, yet they can’t quite picture the end product. And coming off a season of consumer holidays overlaid on a backdrop of civil unrest, I’m not sure our vision is any better today.

Recommended for folks who think Mad Men would be better if written by Orwell and Vonnegut.

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21 thoughts on “The Space Merchants (1953) by Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth

  1. Great review! One of the most notable social satires from some of the best in the business. I enjoyed it the last time I read it but wished Mitch had developed some as a character—I never really felt he moved beyond the shallow ad-man he was at the beginning, despite all he went through.

    Kornbluth is an underrated master at this kind of satire, along with Robert Sheckley and William Tenn. So very ’50s, though I’m sure someone’s satirizing society in modern SF…

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  2. I think I need to read this!

    Liked by 1 person

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Great! I think you will enjoy the satirical look at corporate life. Some of the jokes reminded me of your outlook on cubicle life.

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  3. fromcouchtomoon, Thanks for the well written article, it was inspiring and powerful.

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  4. sjhigbee says:

    This sounds like great fun! As regards modern science fiction satire – The Laundry series by Charles Stross nicely sends up modern culture and I also thought Makers by Corey Doctorow also a very sharp read… Have you tried either of these?

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I have sampled Stross’ Laundry series and I can see why you would classify him as satire. I read the one about the unicorns this summer and I find his style a little too unsubtle, as if he doesn’t trust the reader to get the joke unless he jabs you in the ribs with it. But I keep hearing great things about Accelerando, and I will be giving Iron Sunrise a shot later this year.

      As for Doctorow, I haven’t gotten around to him yet, but I will get around to him one day.

      Liked by 1 person

      • sjhigbee says:

        Stross is a little uneven. At his best, I think he’s up there with the brightest talents in the field, but he has also written a couple of books I simply couldn’t get through. I thoroughly enjoyed his fantasy/time travelling Merchant Princes series, which is as good as anything I’ve read in that genre.

        As for Cory Doctorow – ‘Makers’ is a gem in my opinion. It looked at the near future with great perceptiveness, if not a lot of comfort for our children…

        Liked by 1 person

  5. What is up with that cover with the bra? Is that somehow relevant to the story? Sometimes I love the old covers more than the insides, for their weirdness, but this sounds like something I would probably enjoy.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      AH, I remember now! They reference a silly ad campaign they did for a bra, but I can’t find the passage about it right now. I think that particular cover is supposed to look like some surreal department store window.

      It is such a weird cover, lol.

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  6. […] sensory overload. Polemics in the form of ADHD. Part oracle, part Anarchist Cookbook. A graduate of The Space Merchants Academy, hold the […]

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  7. […] This August (1955) by C. M. Kornbluth I enjoyed The Space Merchants (1953), and people say Kornbluth is the better half of the Pohl/Kornbluth duo, although I do have a […]

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  8. […] modern readers and his contemporaries don’t completely get it is a sign of Kornbluth’s very un-Space Merchant-like subtlety. Kornbluth is no Soviet apologist, so even the couple of shocking scenes portraying the cruelty of […]

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  9. […] overload. Polemics in the form of ADHD. Part oracle, part Anarchist Cookbook. A graduate of The Space Merchants Academy, hold the […]

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