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The Space Merchants by Frederick Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth

Anthony G Williams

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Kornbluth and especially Pohl were formidable "golden age" SF authors in their own right (Pohl, who is now 90, carrying on into recent times; Kornbluth died young in 1958), but are still remembered for their collaborations. One of these, Wolfbane, was reviewed on this blog on 21 October 2007, but the best known is probably The Space Merchants, first published in 1953.

The title is rather misleading because space travel doesn't feature at all until right at the end of the book. The story is set a century in the future, at a time when humanity, still confined to the Earth, has expanded to many times its present population. The teeming billions are crowded into cramped apartments, fed on artificially-created food and sold addictive coffee to drink, use pedal-powered machines rather than cars, wash in salt water because fresh water is too precious, and are ruthlessly manipulated by all-powerful marketing organisations, with the lowest levels of society trapped in commercial slavery. Governments have become almost powerless in the face of the might of the big marketing corporations, whose only goal is to increase sales, and the US President is a figurehead.

Living in this dystopia is a successful marketing executive, Mitchell Courtney, who is given the task of securing control for his organisation of the forthcoming colonisation and terraforming of Venus (little was known about conditions on Venus when the book was written and they are portrayed as being less hostile than they are now known to be, but still with an unbreathable atmosphere, high temperatures and no water).

Events begin to slide out of control for Courtney as he becomes embroiled in the savage in-fighting of office politics and the open warfare of inter-corporate battles, is kidnapped, dumped at the lowest level of society and approached by the Consies; an underground conservationist organisation arguing against the ruthless exploitation of Earth's resources. His experiences shape his actions as he tries to battle his way back to his star-grade executive position.

At one level The Space Merchants is an amusing satire on increasing commercialisation, but there are clear echoes of the political times in which it was written. Pohl had been a member of the Young Communist League until he resigned as a result of the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939, and much of his idealism showed through in this and other works. The period when this book was written coincided with Senator McCarthy's notorious anti-communist witch-hunt, and there is an obvious parallel between the contemporary public attitude to the "Commies" and the hated and despised Consies in the story.

I have to admit that I generally dislike dystopian SF but this is an easy read, especially since it is only 170 pages long. This is a landmark novel in raising issues about the uncontrolled population expansion and the associated exhaustion of resources, coupled with the ever-increasing power of commercial organisations in general and marketing in particular. Many novels on similar themes subsequently emerged, but this is one of the key works which every SF fan should read.

(The Space Merchants by Frederick Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth)
 
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Fried Egg

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Nov 20, 2006
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I've just read it, here's my review:

I was blown away by this satirical and cynical novel. I couldn't believe how fresh it felt, even sixty years after it was originally published, it's still so pertinent, so topical. I would not have been surprised to find out it was written twenty years after it was.

Reading up about the origins of this novel, I was amazed to discover that Pohl actually decided to get a job in advertising just so he could know the industry better and write about it with more authority. And yes, one certainly feels that he knows what he's talking about when reading this.

This is a dystopian, consumerist future in which it is considered un-patriotic not to like advertisements and to be a fully participating consumer in a society of stark wealth inequality and acute shortages of basic things such as fuels, non-synthetic food and fresh water. It is the consumer's duty to consume, not for his own benefit, but for the benefit of production machine, and the "star class" executives at the top.

We are introduced to this world through the eyes of one of these star class executives, Mitchell Courtenay, a masterful copywriter who is appointed to run the next big project but things start falling apart as he is caught up in a deadly game of industrial espionage with one of their rivals and the seemingly deluded ideologues; the "Consies" (conservationists).

I notice that Pohl and Kornbluth collaborated on several other novels and I will definitely be interested in reading them.
 

J-Sun

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I notice that Pohl and Kornbluth collaborated on several other novels and I will definitely be interested in reading them.
I'd recommend Gladiator-at-Law for your next one, though I've yet to read Search the Sky, myself and it comes chronologically next, so might be a good followup, too. Wolfbane is also excellent but a bit different so might be best to run into first or last rather than in the middle. But beware that Pohl had the misguided notion of "updating" at least STS and TSM (if not all of them) and, while I can't say from experience, I suspect it would be wise to get the originals.

But, yeah, I recall TSM as being one of the true greats.

(They also collaborated on numerous stories, some oddly posthumously.)
 

Fried Egg

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Well, I have "Wolfbane" on my to-read shelf already so that will probably be my next Pohl/Kornbluth collaboration I read...
 

antiloquax

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I have just read "The Marching Morons". I am keen to read some more Kornbluth and will prob. read TSM next.
 

BigBadBob141

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Dec 23, 2013
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Try reading Kornbluth's "The Little Black Bag".
This is set in the same universe as Morons but in the present day.
Love this story, the BBC did a version of it in "From Out Of The Unkown".
 
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