Space Merchants, The by Pohl, Frederik and C.M. Cornbluth, 1953

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The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl and C.M. Cornbluth often is categorized as a SF masterpiece. It certainly is a very well written, well researched and interesting story, but I have always had a problem attaching that label to it because in the end it just fails to say anything big. It's the story of a sleaze-bag advertising agency in a world of even sleazier advertising executives who learns an important lesson about ecology and the foibles of a dominating government. It was written during a period of dissatisfaction with the way Madison Avenue did things, though those motivations are hardly remembered today, and are not critical to the text.

Mitchell Courtney was a senior executive in a company called Starzelius Verily, a very important advertising company in New York City in the next millennium. The management at Starzelius had what we would call serious morality issues, but they paled in comparison to the competition, Taunton (probably coming from Ton-Ton Macoute, the Haitian Boogeyman), which was run by a ruthless murderer who would stop at nothing to get his way. Starzelius was not a captive company, but instead owned exclusive rights to an enormous stable of products, most of which were engineered to be addictive. In the course of business Starzelius won a contract to market a permanent colonization mission to Venus, which was known only by a very few to have a poisonous and deadly atmosphere. Certainly none of the promotional materials showed that detail, instead showing "projected" images of what Venus would look like in two or three generations, so as to fool potential colonists to get on the transport and go. After Courtney was made the program manager of that contract he was mysteriously assaulted and kidnapped. He woke up as a manuel laborer assigned to a cultured meat farm in Central America. Not able to contact his friends in New York because he of the restrictions placed upon someone in his situation, the bulk of the story was about how Courtney worked his way back up to a position of leadership and regained his position at Starzelius through a combination of hard work and scheming.

The most interesting element of this book is the setting. It took place in the near future in an only vaguely recognizable remnant of the United States. In this world corporations had all of the political power. Personal influence, assets and cash determine one's rights to avail of public services. For example, police and fire/rescue services are available only through contract. Murder and espionage have become highly ritualized and follow forms and proscriptions that are generally recognized to be outside of the reach of the law, and which only work when paid for. Corporations, rather than political entities, have representation in the legislature (one of the best lines in this book: "The chair recognizes the gentleman from Yummy Cola!").

The environmental changes were drastic as well. The Earth was an environmental wasteland that was pock-marked with disaster sites. It was extremely resource depleted and chronically overpopulated. Even the fabulously wealthy were required to avail themselves only of small rations of fresh water. Fuel supplies were practically exhausted, agriculture was a dim memory, and most of the population relied on manufactured protein and scarce staple products for sustenance. Venus was these people's only hope, and that fact was pretty much the only one that saved Courtney from being a total scuz-ball; he was doing a necessary job. The picture that the authors painted of the environment was startlingly similar to the film version of Blade Runner. The book that movie was adapted from, Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, had a very sterile environment as well, but the major feature there was dust, and in that sense resembled the movie not at all. Iíve wondered how much, if any Ridley Scott drew from this book when he was creating the world in his film.

Some of the themes that ran through this book were well developed, but others weren't. I think that the story here is pretty good, but the way that Pohl and Cornbluth explored one of their themes really gets this book high marks. At its heart this book is a darkly humorous reversal of 1984, by George Orwell. Instead of a corrupt, power-hungry and control-mad government that co-opted the language to forcibly shape opinion and thus drive mind control policies, here powerful business with masterful control of the language have co-opted government to delude the masses into thinking that they have it better than they actually do. Both of these approaches rely on a dumbing down of the population and both do damage to individual rights in favor of the health of the population as a whole, though the goal of the health of society turns out to be a sick joke in both books. The main difference was that Pohl and Cornbluth used persuasion as a tool to control and slowly add more bonds. Orwell applied total body control first, with mind control to come later. I personally think that both books got it right, and especially appreciate that both show that at most all it takes to topple the system are the efforts of an intellect that somehow escapes the controls that they seek to enforce. In this story it is a group of "terrorists" called "Consies," short for Conservationists, who have a strong environmental agenda.

That environmental sub plot actually is where this story came up short. As one of the economically advantaged Courtney at first did not have to worry much about health and food, but when he was cast into the lower castes he learned quickly what it was to want. Unfortunately the physical characteristics of the Earth at the brink of an ecological collapse are really not well drawn by the authors. Instead environmental failure is just some faceless enemy that needs to be fought - the bad seems bearable, in other words, and despite the suggestion that it was on everyone's minds, it was never encountered directly. Furthermore, the awakening to the true scope of the environmental crisis was supposed to serve as a catalyst to bring Courtney to the realization that something must be done, but the character never had a moment of epiphany, and also never really stopped playing the privileged and wasteful advertising-man role that helped cause the problems in the first place. By the very end of the book Courtney had chosen to side with the Consies, but he was more pushed to that choice by lust and fear for his personal safety, rather than pulled into it by a desire to do some real good. I suppose that is the nature of humanity; we all make our choices based on personal desires and its only in blind hindsight that anyone calls them altruistic or selfish, and in that way the authors may have gotten it correct. But as a literary exercise Courtney winds up going from detestable capitalist to a limp-noodle opportunist and abandoner of Earth. It just doesn't sit very well in a book that is supposed to be a masterpiece, even though it really is.

Copyright © 2007, Gregory Tidwell.

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 3.5 star(s)


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