Friday, November 9, 2012

The Space Merchants, by Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Written some sixty years ago, The Space Merchant’s basic theme remains one of our time. The novel dramatises the conflict between the ideology of the conservationist movement and that of market capitalism. The earth is running out of natural resources like water and energy, while huge advertising agencies try to dupe people into volunteering to help colonise Venus as the answer to such a looming environmental crisis. Pohl and Kornbluth use science fiction to raise questions over the supposedly omnipotent powers of science and technology.

This classic of the science fiction genre has apparently sold some 10 million copies since it was first published in 1952. It has also given the English language several words. The Space Merchants is cited by the Oxford English Dictionary as having been the source for such modern day expressions as ‘soyaburger’, ‘R and D’ for ‘research and development’ and ‘muzak’. The novel also contains the first usage of ‘survey’ as a verb, i.e. to carry out a poll.

Frederik Pohl wrote a first version called For Some We Loved, but thought it so bad he junked it. One of the main problems was its inauthenticity according to Pohl. The main character was an advertising copywriter, but Pohl had no experience in the industry. To fix this problem he took on a job in a Madison Avenue agency. Several years later, after having burnt the original manuscript, Pohl started work on a new novel with similar themes. This new manuscript was shown to his friend Cyril Kornbluth, who made some suggestions and wrote a 20,000 word middle section. Finally the two writers completed the novel together.

The plot is amazingly relevant and up to date, especially considering it was written 60 years ago. The United States is now run by advertising agencies and government is pretty much owned by large corporations. The advertisers, part of the economic elite, freely admit to brainwashing people into buying crap they don’t need. Meanwhile, the planet is quickly running out of vital natural resources, like water and fuel. The solution to this problem is to colonise Venus. By applying enough technology, it is believed that the planet can be made habitable.

Enter Mitch Courtenay, a ‘star class’ advertising copy writer. It’s his job to sucker people into signing up to become colonists for Venus, even though the early years of the colony will most likely be a living hell. Mitch believes wholeheartedly in the capitalist system, but then strange things start happening. He finds himself demoted to the lowest class, a ‘consumer’, who must work as a virtual slave for a huge trans-national. In his reduced circumstances he joins a ‘Consie’ (conservationist) cell. In his privileged role as a copywriter he’d been deeply prejudiced against the Consies, but his new life causes him to reassess the whole social order.

I must confess that I don’t read much, if any, science fiction, but found the plot intriguing and the rave reviews a good reason to give the novel a go.

The story is pretty much an adventure, and sometimes the writing can seem a bit clunky. Nonetheless it had me riveted most of the time and I finished it pretty quickly. What stands out is how it is so utterly relevant to how we live life today, with big corporations owning political parties and the population brainwashed by advertising. The second major theme, the argument between science's confidence that technology can save us, versus the conservationist’s philosophy that there are limits to how much we can exploit the environment, make the novel startlingly modern.

The Space Merchants, by Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth. Published by Gollancz. ISBN: 9780575075283  RRP: $22.99