Friday, March 7, 2014

Review of The Space Merchants by C. M. Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl

The dystopian novel has become a tradition in science fiction.  And it’s easy to see why: the facets which separate the genre from the rest of literature are conducive to manifesting societies and ideologies at odds with whatever the current social reality is.  Brave New World presents a society in which nearly all humanity has been drained from humanity; Fahrenheit 451 takes books away from society; Nineteen Eighty-four envisions a world wherein personal freedom is lost to government control; We presents a scenario in which individualism is crushed beneath the sterility of conformity; and John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, The Jagged Orbit, and The Sheep Look Up present different facets of allowing corporate influence to usurp political and social concerns.  Stanislaw Lem's The Futurological Congress sees a society stymied by chemicals, reality always one hallucination away.  Unheralded yet fitting perfectly amongst these novels, C.M. Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl’s 1952 The Space Merchants is a dystopian novel that sees commercialism play out in a frightening scenario that stratifies society unhealthily.  Gaining prescience rather than losing it with time, the ideas of the novel are hurt only by poor plotting.  Otherwise, they ring loud and clear to this day.

The society Kornbluth and Pohl imagine is indeed all too realistic.  Set nominally in the 22 nd century, corporations have gained enough power to force political bounds to shift from the geographical to the commercial.  States no longer represented in government, business conglomerations and mega-corps instead compete and lobby fiercely on the highest stage to ensure products are consumed and profits high.  Playing the largest role in this are the advertizing agencies.  Able to use whatever methods they desire, the five senses are appealed to in commercials, billboards, etc., while the products themselves often carry addictive elements.  Wealth channeled to the top, the lower class grows while the rich prosper.  All services privatized, even a person’s ability to receive civil protection stems from their ability to pay—anything from Burn’s Detectives to Star Alliance Security available.  The poor having to subside on low quality nutrients, third world countries supplying labor for the wealthy, and many people wearing mouth filters on city streets, the world of The Space Merchants is exactly like ours in many ways.

But the novel is the story of Mitchell Courtenay, a star-class copysmith at Schocken Associates, the world’s most powerful advertizing agency.  A company man to his bones, Courtenay gives his life to Fowler Schocken the CEO, ensuring advertizing projects for many of the world’s largest corporations get the desired number of consumers.  Kissing ass, employing tricks of the trade, and an instinctive ability to exploit loopholes in the law have placed him as one of Schocken’s favorites.  It is thus when a big contract comes through—one questionably obtained—that he is picked to head it.  Called the Venus project, mankind is sending its first humans to settle our green neighbor, and it is up to Courtenay to ensure there are people on the ship.  After hand picking his team, researching the demographics, and interviewing the only astronaut who has actually set foot on Venus, he sets his plans in motion.  But arriving home to an assassination attempt, Courtenay’s world starts to crumble apart.

While on the subject, it’s best to get the discussion of The Space Merchant’s plot out of the way.  Confused, forced, and unnatural, it’s best to ignore.   It is PKD on a bad day.  It is random escapes without foreshadowing for the instrument used.  It is sudden character deaths for reasons that don’t make sense even when explained.  It is spastic caroming between equivocally unequivocal allegiance.  (Yes, you understood that correctly.) Suffice to say, the first half to two-thirds of the novel trundle along in standard, and at times, engaging fashion, but soon thereafter the plot disintegrates into a room of mirrors, nothing seeming to fit together no matter how hard you look. 

The Space Merchants is thus to be appreciated for its ideas.  If the world already described is not enough, there are several more nuances and underlying concepts which are intriguing—especially considering the novel was written in 1952. 

Actual cocaine in Coca-Cola, using subliminal messages at the cinema, and other such realities of mid-20 th century American commercialism appear to be what the novel is a response to.  Extrapolating upon these, Pohl and Kornbluth take the idea of corporations further by allowing them to prey upon society to the point nearly every facet of people’s lives is commercialized: like Big Brother, but with dollars signs in his eyes rather than civil control.  Everything in Courtenay’s life either requires payment or is filled with advertizing. Other ideas which possess full impact include: chicken little (a mutating lump of meat kept forever growing on hormones and fertilizers), taxies reduced to pedi-cabs due to fuel shortages, southern California and a chunk of Mexico forming Cal-Mex, the disenfranchisement of marriage and family in such a competitive environment, the disconnection from nature.  And on and on go the socially relevant concerns directly addressed.  My notes literally spilled over from the normal paper I use.

In the end, The Space Merchants is a fascinating novels of ideas that is only loosely cobbled together by plot.  Not as well-known as Huxley and Orwell’s cautionaries of dystopian nightmare, it would nevertheless seem that those well acquainted with the field were aware of Kornbluth and Pohl’s effort, and, took it to heart.  John Brunner’s work in the 60s, Philip K. Dick’s bleak societal backdrops, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s cyberpunk novels, even Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl to some degree possess a flavor of the novel.  Thus regardless of poor story, it is worth a read strictly for its place in genre and socio-political relevancy.


  1. I loved this novel. I also recommend their collaboration Gladiator-in-Law -- although it was less focused. One gets the sense they worked less closely with each other than on this one.

    1. Such is the danger of joint efforts. But generally if a tandem work well together once, they can do so again. That The Space Merchants itself is not the most focused effort may indicate, however, it was the peak of their collaboration. Should I find a copy of Gladiator In Law, I will check it out, though (and hope that it is not a mother in law run amuck).

    2. I wonder if Kornbluth's solo novels are more focus -- I'm staring at The Syndic on my shelf at the moment.... Also, read his shorts! (they are brilliant)

    3. I have read one short story by Kornbluth (“MS Found in a Chinese Fortune Cookie” part of the The Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus ed. by Brian Aldiss) and found it eccentrically engaging. It is a "story" not easy to get your head around, but far, far different than anything resembling mainstream genre.