The Space Merchants - Frederick Pohl & C. M. Kornbluth

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The Space Merchants
Frederick Pohl & C. M. Kornbluth
SF Masterworks
Gollancz Publishers
ISBN 0575075287

For a novel written in the 1950s, the bite in this satire is still surprisingly sharp. The Space Merchants postulates a world where advertising is king, where there is no higher moral ground than Sales, no doubting advertising's necessity, or its rightness, where companies have every right to invade your every waking moment with carefully calculated product placement. Consider recent books like Klein's No Logo, or Gibson's Pattern Recognition, and suddenly the central themes of the 51 year old The Space Merchants look remarkably prescient. Of course, this is a novel of its time, and in other ways it clearly has dated - but these are minor, like the recurring scenes where someone must wait at home to make phone calls.

It is the 22nd century and the world is over-populated and badly polluted. The two super-powers are Fowler Shocken Associates and their arch-rivals, Taunton Associates. Both are advertising companies, major powers in a world where corporate assassination and terrorism are permitted - but only if the paperwork has been done. The influence of the advertisers dwarfs any national or religious concerns, there is only advertising, the constant war to keep Starrezlius products preferred over rival Universal products. This is a deeply cynical book, with all-powerful corporations lording it over an environment devastated by the endless urban sprawl - a world now overly-familiar from the cyberpunk movement! I only wish that many of the later novels set in a similar world described it half as well as Pohl & Kornbluth though - we are not told about the state of the world, we are shown, hints smoothly embedded in the narrative of the central characters. Spacious conference rooms are only a few metres long, a luxury apartment is two rooms, fresh water is at a premium when washing, you slip soot plugs into your nose on going outside, taxis are pedalled, the golf club is in the office building... never are we preached at, never does the author's camera slip from the central character's view-point, a view-point which insists that not only is this normal, it's great, a constant triumph of capitalism, advertising and science over nature.

However familiar the themes or setting, The Space Merchants is still 1950s SF, and I loved the central image of a huge, fat rocket ship sitting on a plain, awaiting colonists bound for Venus - "a thousand-foot monster, the bloated child of the slim V-2s and stubby Moon rockets of the past."

Mitch Courtenay is the man who will fill that rocket - he is an executive with Fowler Shocken Associates, and he has been handed control of the Venus account. His task is to persuade the armies of lowly consumers that they want to emigrate to a hellish planet; a task he relishes, for he lives, breathes, and eats advertising. He is, in short, a complete slime-bucket, an utterly despicable character in many ways at the start of the novel. Having him go about his job as a psychological brand bully as a sympathetic character is huge fun, and the opening chapters of this novel pull no punches, with broad swipes at almost every aspect of corporate reality today. Within pages of the opening - and as it's a 1950s novel, naturally we follow Mitch on his way to the office, musing on problems with his wife - Mitch is at a meeting where a school lunch programme is being discussed as a weapon in the branding war.

'All primary schools east of the Mississippi are now using our packaging recommendation for the school lunch programme. Soya-burgers and regenerated steak' - there wasn't a man around the table who didn't shudder at the thought of soya-burgers and regenerated steak - 'are packed in containers the same shade of green as the Universal products. But the candy, ice-cream, and Kiddiebutt cigarette ration are wrapped in colourful Starrzelius red. When those kids grow up...'

(Arguably, the satire in the above quote doesn't go far enough - we now have fast food outlets in school, advertising in school-books and trips to corporate sponsored museums...)

Next on the agenda, Coffiest - "each sample of Coffiest contains three milligrams of a simple alkaloid. Nothing harmful. But definitely habit-forming. After ten weeks the customer is hooked for life. It would cost him at least five thousand dollars for a cure, so it's simpler for him to go right on drinking Coffiest - three cups with every meal and a pot beside the bed at night, just as it says on the jar."

Mitch is on the up with this new Venus account, and decides to use the excuse to celebrate to try and patch things up with his wife, who isn't keen on signing off on their first trial period of marriage. A beautiful surgeon, she nurses dangerously heretical ideas, not approving 100% of Mitch's line of work, nor his traditional views on how they should live. The cooling of their relationship is only the start of Mitch's problems though, things only really start to become worrying when he picks up the only man ever to set foot on Venus and live - the 36 inch tall and charismatic with it O'Shea, a pilot chosen for his economy of size. O'Shea saves Mitch from a falling cargo container at the airport, but it's only when Mitch is shot at again on getting home that he realises the stakes of the Venus account are higher than he thought... and not everyone on his side is playing the game fairly. Soon, in classic form, Mitch, the star-class advertising executive with a low social security number in a society jealous of status, falls from grace. His subsequent fight for survival leads him deep into the shadowy world of the Consie underground, a secret army of rebels - radical conservationists! But what is their agenda, and how does it fit with his fall?

I really enjoyed this book, the writing is tremendous, crisp and energetic, with well drawn characters hurtling along plot-lines seething with sharply observed throwaway details describing advertising's perversion of everything we hold to be noble and admirable. If I had to complain, I would say only that the ending lacks the snap and crackle of the rest of the story, losing momentum and edge in a surprisingly formulaic ending. Still, The Space Merchants has a right to its current label of SF Masterwork, I recommend it highly, especially to those who enjoy reading authors with a genuine flair for dialogue:

'Re-writes,' [Tildy] said wildly. 'I slave my heart out for that white-haired old rat, and what does he give me? Re-writes. "This is good copy, but I want better than good copy from you," he says. "Re-write it," he says. "I want colour," he says, "I want drive and beauty, and humble, human warmth, and ecstasy, and all the tender, sad emotion of your sweet womanly heart, " he says, " and I want it in fifteen words." I'll give him fifteen words, " she sobbed, and pushed past me down the hall. 'I'll give that sanctimonious, mellifluous, hyperbolic, paternalistic, star-making, genius devouring Moloch of an old -'

The slam of Tildy's own door cut off the noun. I was sorry; it would have been a good noun.

I've read plenty by Pohl, but this is the first story I've read by the collaboration of Pohl & Kornbluth. As most of their joint works look to be out-of-print, can anyone recommend titles to chase down - are they all up to this standard, or are there any weak efforts I should maybe not waste time searching for?

Posted: Sat - August 16, 2003 at 03:26 AM