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

“Increase of population was always good news to us. More people, more sales. Decrease of IQ was always good news to us. Less brains, more sales.”

“But–and here’s what makes this campaign truly great, in my estimation–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 his bed at night, just as it says on the jar.”

Frederik Pohl (b. 1919) and Cyril Kornbluth (1923-1958) first met back in the 30s as members of an influential group of sf fans in New York known as the Futurians (also in the group were Isaac Asimov, Damon Knight, and James Blish). The pair, which Thomas Disch referred to as “magnificent smart-alecks,” was unique. Kornbluth, for instance, was rumored to never brush–his teeth were literally green–and he drank black coffee not because he liked it but because writers were “supposed to.” The Space Merchants (originally serialized in Galaxy as “Gravy Planet”) was the first collaboration of many between Kornbluth and Pohl, though their partnership abruptly ended when Kornbluth died at the age of 34 from a heart attack.

I had always heard SM was a funny novel, a humorous take on Wall Street advertising agencies and corporate culture. While the humor is there, I fear readers don’t take Kornbluth and Pohl, who himself worked in advertising for a time, seriously enough. SM is deeply disturbing in its accurate, though metaphorical, depiction of a world handed over to marketing firms.

The narrator is Mitch Courtenay, a high-powered ad man in the dominate agency of the time. He’s given the task of marketing Venus to consumers in order to create a workforce that will strip the planet of its resources. Like all commercial goods and ideas in society, Venus’ true value to the consumer is not revealed through advertising; rather the planet is portrayed as an escape for the individual, a greener-grass community. In reality, Venus is barely inhabitable, and its future residents will live in industrial slums, work long hours, and garner very little pay. Mitch’s obstacles, however, are not the minds of the consumers. Rather, he fears two things. First, the competition. The world of SM is one in which corporations operate in a manner similar to the mafia. Hits are taken out on competing companies, a made man (i.e., executive) can only be offed by permission, etc. So will the Venus account be forcibly taken from him? Perhaps even by another executive from within his own firm? The other obstacle is the “Consies” (Conservationists). Consies believe environmental exploitation is wrong, and they act as a cell-based terrorist organization to stop it. Almost immediately, there are attempts on Mitch’s life.

Eventually, Mitch is given a taste of the consumer life when an enemy (internal office competitor? competing company official? the Consies?) switches his identity to that of a worker in a Costa Rica plant. This plant harvests a genetically manufactured, organic meat substitute known disgustingly as “Chicken Little.” Working in this plant is indentured servitude with all the trimmings: perpetually growing debt to the company, inflated charges for all services and goods (including bathroom time), malnutrition, and a dangerous work environment. But does this experience shake Mitch out of his well-fed corporate haze?

Pohl and Kornbluth’s world is fascinating: police are private agencies who have enforcement contracts with citizens, marriages come in varying degrees of contractual length, Congress represents corporations and not states, and the biggest celebrity in the US is a little person who’s the only human who’s actually been to Venus and who happens to be a womanizing drunk. Short marriages, ridiculous celebrities, corporate control of government, advertising that appeals to sex and death urges…no, it’s nothing like our world. Thank god it’s just science fiction.

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