Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth: The Space Merchants

I don’t read a lot of science fiction these days, but it’s a genre I loved when I was growing up. Clearly, The Library of America knew what they were doing when they constructed their new science-fiction box set, because when I received the announcement for the collection I stared, like a child, at the cover art. I sent my brother a picture, and within a minute he told me he had pre-ordered the set on Amazon.

Review set courtesy of The Library of America

The set includes nine science-fiction novels from the 1950s: The Space Merchants (1953), by Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth; More Than Human (1953), by Theodore Sturgeon; The Long Tomorrow (1955), by Leigh Brackett; The Shrinking Man (1956), by Richard Matheson; Double Star (1956), by Robert A. Heinlein; The Stars My Destination (1956), by Alfred Bester; A Case of Conscience (1958), by James Blish; Who? (1958), by Algis Budrys; and The Big Time (1958), by Fritz Leiber. As usual, the books come with extensive notes. But outdoing themselves, The Library of America has also launched an accompanying website that contains essays about each novel, cover galleries, and several critical essays about science fiction in the 1950s. Check it out here.

I’ll be making my way through the set and happily started at the beginning of Volume 1 with The Space Merchants.

I’ve had a very miss-and-miss relationship with recent novels and short stories that, claiming to be science fiction, venture into our future a few years to some kind of corporate dystopia. It’s not that I don’t take the threat seriously, but the refrain is so familiar and blunt. It doesn’t challenge our perspectives or incite us to action. It’s become a formula: plug in a few references to current companies merged into super giants, like AmExDisneyGoldman; show that people are oblivious to their desperate state because advertising tells them they’re wonderful; but make that world as ugly and rotten and polluted and over-populated as possible; mix in stock characters with starkly black-and-white views – voila! The basic building blocks for many works of socially-aware fiction. Here are links to three I’ve reviewed on this blog: Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood; Gary Schteyngart’s “Lenny Hearts Eunice” (which I believe became part of Super Sad True Love Story); and George Saunders’ “The Semplica-Girls Diaries” (as well as many other short stories by George Saunders). Again, it’s not that I take issue with the aim; it’s the self-congratulatory and pedantic tones that overshadow any serious confrontation with where we’re going.

The Space Merchants is, in many ways, their forebear. Here we have a future where, through the power of suggestion and addiction, advertising executives rule the ugly world. Our narrator is Mitchell Courtenay, a highly skilled and admired copysmith for one of the two giant advertising agencies, Fowler Schocken. Courtenay is a star-class citizen, happily entrenched in the high life that few people enjoy. He doesn’t consider himself a “consumer,” but to keep accounts happy he uses their products. When the book begins, Courtenay is attending a work meeting and Mr. Schocken himself is introducing their new project: moving people to Venus to exploit whatever resources they can:

“There’s an old saying, men. ‘The world is our oyster.’ We’ve made it come true. But we’ve eaten that oyster.” He crushed out his cigarette carefully. “We’ve eaten it,” he repeated. “We’ve actually and literally conquered the world. Like Alexander, we weep for new worlds to conquer. And there — ” he waved at the screen behind him, “there you have just seen the first of those worlds.”

Courtenay is shocked and elated when he finds out that he will be heading the account. It’s hard work, even dangerous. After all, rumor has it Schocken stole the account from Taunton, the other advertising firm; if Taunton dares it can file a complaint and start a war with Schocken where associates really can be murdered in a legally sanctioned manner. Courtenay is pretty sure, though, that Taunton wouldn’t dare. He can focus all of his attention on getting enough people to move to the hottest planet in the solar system, one where the atmosphere alone will crush you, one with winds strong enough to take your remains and spread them across the entire land in a matter of minutes. It’s a challenge he accepts greedily.

But it’s not all roses in Courtenay’s life. Eight months ago, he married — kind of. Really, he and a doctor, Kathy, filed papers to start a kind of year-long trial. If they want to stay married, they file another paper. Courtenay has already done this; Kathy has not, and now she’s moved out. He genuinely loves Kathy and cannot quite understand why she won’t stay with him.

But on to Venus. One of Courtenay’s first tasks is to get all of the information he can from the one person who has flown to Venus and back, the thirty-six-inch tall Jack O’Shea. Which brings me to one of the reasons I liked this book much more than most others of its type: Pohl and Kornbluth really seem to understand the advertising and corporate worlds they are criticizing. As outlandish as the world they create is, they establish its reality with an appropriate tone, nuance, and mentality sourced directly from Madison Avenue. This explains why, according the Oxford English Dictionary, this book is the origination of the now-common terms “soyaburger,” “R&D,” “sucker-trap,” and “musak” as a general term. Pohl and Kornbluth show us how Courtenay approaches problems and explains his method as he creates copy that will sell the product. For example, why does Courtenay speak with O’Shea even though O’Shea has been already been drilled by researchers and has written exhaustive reports? Because Courtenay’s kind of advertising doesn’t rely on technical reports: “I wanted to know the soul of the fact, the elusive subjective mood that underlay his technical reports on the planet Venus, the basic feeling that would put compulsion and conviction into the project.”

Sadly (for me, anyway) when the book is not world-building and starts dealing with an adventure plot, it isn’t nearly as strong. Not long after Courtenay starts to work on the account, he is high-jacked in Antarctica, his death is faked, and he left to join the ranks of the consumers, getting a taste of how terrible things really are. He lives the life of the oppressed:

At sunset you turned in your coveralls and went to dinner — more slices of Chicken Little — and then you were on your own. You could talk, you could read, you could go into a trance before the dayroom hypnoteleset, you could shop, you could pick fights, you could drive yourself crazy thinking of what might have been, you could go to sleep.

Mostly you went to sleep.

Thankfully, the book isn’t so simplistic as to make this an immediate cause of conversion. He retains his conviction that the world is fine and that he just needs to find a way to let the people who love him know he is not dead. How to do that, though, when everything is stacked against you?

I won’t spoil any more of the plot — and this book does get very plot heavy as Courtenay dashes around the globe in his efforts to regain his social status and control over the Venus project. I was glad when later in the book we do go back to world-building and see Courtenay’s mind, rather than convenient plot points, work him through and around his problems. Also, thankfully, the book is so cynical we really don’t know how it’s going to end.

So, though I was disappointed in the heavy, often convenient, plot, I still found a lot to love in this book, not the least of which was the nostalgia I felt. It’s a great start to this nine-book set.

5 thoughts on “Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth: The Space Merchants

  1. Is “world-building” the same as “inventiveness”? My favorite thing about the novel is its inventiveness – especially the nightmarish Chicken Little – but that is generally my favorite thing about science fiction.

    I’ll warn you, every novel in that set is going to get plot-heavy at some point.

  2. Trevor says:

    I think we probably mean some of the same things when I say “world building” and you say “inventiveness,” though I was thinking more of the ideas and language and the transition from this world to that fictional world than the physical world in the novel and things like Chicken Little. Speaking of Chicken Little, what a nightmare!

    I am excited about the rest of the set. I hope they, being plot heavy, handle the plot mechanics a bit better, but still if they manage to put a nightmare like Chicken Little in my head I will be glad :).

  3. That’s a really good list of books (excepting possibly the Leiber, his fantasy tended to be better than his SF). The Stars my Destination is often seen as the greatest work of SF ever written, which actually is overselling it (how could there be a single greatest work of anything ever written?) but it is very good. A Case of Conscience is fascinating. Who? is a lovely slice of cold war paranoia. I could go on.

    Except about The Space Merchants, which criminally I haven’t read despite it being so well regarded. Thanks for this review, which reminds me that I really should, particularly since I have a copy kicking around at home.

  4. Trevor says:

    That’s excellent news, Max. My brother and I got this set together, and he’s a bit ahead of me. He says they keep getting better, but both of us still really liked The Space Merchants.

    I’ll be anxious to hear your thoughts when you get to it!

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