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Venus, Inc

Venus, Inc. is the 1985 republication of two books, The Space Merchants, by Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth, and its sequel, The Merchants' War, by Frederik Pohl, in one volume.

Author BackgroundsVenus_Inc_edited.JPG

Frederik Pohl (1919-

Frederik Pohl first discovered science fiction in the 1930s, when he wrote stories to be published in 'fanzines' and joined the Futurians, a club of sci-fi writers (2). Around the same time, he joined the Young Communist League, but later felt that the "Communist experiment had failed" (11) After serving in World War II, he got a job in New York as an advertising copywriter (2).

Individual Pseudonyms: Elton V. Andrews, Paul Fleur, Lee Gregor, Warren F. Howard, James MacCreigh, Ernst Mason, Edson McCann, James McCreigh, Donald Stacy, Dirk Wilson. (5)
Group pseudonyms, with other authors in brackets: Jordan Park [Pohl], Scott Mariner [Kornbluth], S.D. Gottesman [Kornbluth] , Arthur Cooke [Kornbluth,Robert A. W. Lowndes], Paul Dennis Lavond [Kornbluth, Lowndes] (3)

Cyril M. Kornbluth (1923-1958)

Cyril M. Kornbluth has been quoted for saying "science fiction...should be an effective literature of social criticism" (11). He hoped that satire would affect readers to the point they would do something to fix society's problems (6). Like Pohl, Kornbluth was a member of the Futurians (1). Kornbluth was already an established sci-fi writer when The Space Merchants was published (3).

Individual pseudonyms: Cecil Corwin, Walter C. Davies, Simon Eisner, Kenneth Falconer, Ivar Towers.
Group pseudonyms, with other authors in brackets: Jordan Park [Pohl], Scott Mariner [Pohl], S.D. Gottesman [Pohl] , Arthur Cooke [Pohl,Robert A. W. Lowndes], Paul Dennis Lavond [Pohl, Lowndes], Cyril M. Judd [Judith Merril] (3)

Writing Process/Initial Reaction

The Space Merchants, originally a magazine serial called Gravy Planet, was Pohl's first big success (2). Pohl wrote the first third of The Space Merchants before he asked Kornbluth for help due to time constraints. Kornbluth wrote the middle third of the book, and the last third was written by both, alternating every four pages (3). Thirty years after The Space Merchants, and after Kornbluth's death, Pohl wrote the sequel The Merchants' War (4). The initial 1953 review in The New York Times praised the authors for their "slide rule precision" thinking and creation of a possible future society (8).

Plot Summary

The Space Merchants is about a star-class advertising man named Mitchell Courtenay, living in a world where advertising agencies are more powerful than the government. Most of the world's population are consumers, with the exception of the underground Conservationist 'Consie' movement. Courtenay's next big project as an ad man for Fowler Schocken Associates is selling Venus. Rather, convincing people living on overcrowded earth that Venus is a good place to colonize. When the project begins, only one man, Jack O'Shea, has ever been to Venus. He is immediately hired by Fowler Schocken to provide quotes and images from his travels. Here Courtenay encounters a minor problem: O'Shea hated Venus. To add to his worries, Courtenay narrowly avoids being assassinated, which is not unusual in the ad business. What is unusual is that ad agencies traditionally notify one another before trying to knock off employees. Competitor Taunton Associates gave no such notice. Without spoiling anything about the plot, it is safe to say that there follows changing identities, faked death, double agents, infiltration of a Consie cell, and sabotage.

The Merchant's War is the sequel to The Space Merchants, and takes place an unspecified number of years later, when Mitchell Courtenay has his own holiday on Venus, the "Day of Planetary Mourning" on the anniversary of his death, and advertising is illegal on Venus, now colonized by Consies. Tennision Tarb is stationed on the Earth embassy on Venus, where he and his girlfriend, Mitzi Ku, issue return visas to earth and run a 'Huckster' spy ring among the 'Veenies.' After a nasty tram accident, Tarb and Ku both go back to earth, where Ku receives a large payment from a damages suit against the tram company. Tarb receives nothing, and has to readjust to life on earth, complete with polluted air--nose plugs are standard attire--and advertising. Advertising has become more vicious with new Campbell techniques, which stimulate the brain directly in combination with visual and olfactory advertisements. Areas marked as 'Commercial Zones' have emitters for this new technique, and when Tarb stumbles through one, he becomes addicted to Mokie-Koke, a "refreshing, taste-tingling blend of the finest chocolate-type flavoring, synthetic coffee extract and selected cocaine analogues."(10) His addiction shapes the remainder of the story as he is bounced about through multiple ad-man posts, a stint in the army, and time at a detox camp. Like the first book, there are changed identities, double agents, and explanations of the nasty inner workings of advertising.

Thematic Ideas

Pohl and Kornbluth satirize advertising, politics, and consumerism. In a world where advertising agencies rule the world, politicians are chosen purely on appearance. The dystopic element to the book is most obvious when Courtenay and Tarb are forced to live as consumers, in cycles of addiction.
Advertising- The powers in control of the world of the story are advertising conglomerates. Pohl and Kornbluth effectively warn people against becoming addicted to consumerism and materialism through advertising. In the sequel, the army doesn't fight wars to kill people or take over land, they fight to convert people to their particular brand name. While Tarb is in the army, the mission is to convert the last holdout of non-consumers, the Uygurs. The army uses the new Campbellian techniques on the Uygurs, only larger-scale than that which addicted Tarb to Mokie-Koke. The warning is basically to not let advertising get out of control. The consumers live a miserable life, addicted to brand-name products, unable to stop buying.
Politics- One of the best lines in The Merchants' War comes when Tarb is working in politics, during auditions. Governmental positions are filled the same way as parts in a cast, based purely on appearance. Instead of state senators, each is blatantly owned by an advertising firm. After listening to a young woman sob about how she knows what it is like to be sad, and how much she would like to help you, Tarb's assistant asks him if she is too sappy. To this, Tarb replies, "There's no such thing as too sappy for Congress, Dixmeister." (10) Tarb also says that his best Congressman candidate he found in a police line-up. Pohl takes Martin Van Buren's invention of image, not substance when running for office and takes it to an extreme. Frederik Pohl evidently did not have the best opinion of Congress.
Consumerism- Pohl and Kornbluth take the trend of increasing consumerism and extend it to the point of being a world-dominating addiction. The entire population of the earth exists for one thing: to consume. The ad men fight to get more consumption for their brand name, and unless they are assassinated, they always come out on top. The tricks used by the advertising companies to win consumers are too close to reality for comfort. The authors warn against this sort of consumerism, especially evident in the second book where some people go to detox camps for addiction to collectibles.


Despite Pohl's disappointment in the Communist League, both books in Venus, Inc. are decidedly anti-capitalist (9). Pohl and Kornbluth have created a planet where most of the population is consumers, controlled by ad men (11). Pohl and Kornbluth's writing takes after both Aldous Huxely's Brave New World and George Orwell's 1984. This puts the original book under the category of 'subversive' in a country dominated by McCarthyism (7). Some of the techniques described in The Merchants' War are not so far off from modern-day politics, which makes the advertising-enslaved consumer that much more realistic and scary (7). The Space Merchants has been critiqued both as "satire and story perfectly blended" with a "beautifully detailed framework" (8) and "manic satirical inventiveness hung on a clichéd melodramatic plot"(9). The books are written with the meaning fairly clear, so there is little room for debate. The main character starts at the top of the chain, falls to the bottom against his will, and experiences exactly how miserable the majority of the world is. To say if the experience changes them or not would give away the endings.

Historical Information

The Space Merchants was written during a time when the U.S. was focused on eradicating communism. The 'commies' of the 50s are translated into the 'Consies' of The Space Merchants. In 1949, William Z. Foster, the American Communist leader, said that "the most ruthless capitalists in world history" were trying to "establish a Wall Street mastery over the world" (11). This quote is a fairly accurate description of the world of Venus, Inc, except the ruthless capitalist have already succeeded, and are trying to take over a second world.


The Venus, Inc. books fit better into the sci-fi category than the dystopia category, but they are still somewhat dystopic. The admen see happy consumers with plenty of material goods, but from the consumer side, materialism is an addiction, and textured vegetable protein --though sold as Reel-Meet and Turr-Kee-- is still textured vegetable protein. A world where the entire world population is held in a cycle of product consumption is not that far off. Most dystopias, it seems, take a trend in the real world and extend it to the obvious conclusion as a warning to the world to veer off the path it is following towards a miserable, constrained society. In Venus, Inc. the trends are consumerism and advertising. For the 1959 reprint of The Space Merchants, the authors stated that "The best of science fiction is that sort which extrapolates from known facts to an imagined but perfectly logical world of the future"(11). This is where dystopias overlap with science fiction. Following Pohl and Kornbluth's definition of good science fiction, it seems that any good science fiction can be a dystopia if it takes a trend far enough.

The inflated fear of Communists of the 50s is also worked into the plot, as the 'Consies' scheme not to take over earth, but to take Venus. At one point in the book, Courtenay mentions having read about Communists in his history class, but they had eventually fallen to capitalism. The Consies want to establish a planet without advertising and without consumer addiction to brand names. The Consies do not object to selling products, merely to the massive amounts of brand-names on earth and the captivity of consumers. In the second book, Tarb reads the menu at a park café, which declares that "The red wine is corky and not a good year" and that "The cocktails are canned premixes and taste like it" (10) He also laments that the Veenies eat fresh food, with none of that good 'ol flash-frozen tang. The café still sells food, but there is no false advertising or massive packaging plants. Truth in advertising is something that people whine about in the present, but the Veenies actually make it happen. When it is honest, they don't consider it harmful.

In the 50s, materialism was the way to achieve happiness. Accumulating possessions was supposed to satisfy you. Pohl takes this a little farther so that you experience physical withdrawal symptoms when you don't buy, or buy the wrong brand product. As a working-class consumer on the Chlorella plantations in Costa Rica, Courtenay becomes the perfect consumer, automatically spouting off slogans and following product with product, caught up in the advertising trap he helped create. The initial board meeting in The Space Merchants is surely inspired by Pohl's time as a copywriter, as are the ads scattered throughout the book. Readers get a taste of futuristic advertising, which sounds more like 1950s jingles than anything from the 2000s.

The political critique evident in The Merchants' War takes backseat to advertising, but is one of the few fresh ideas in the second book. The sequel matches the original a little too well, since the basic plots are fairly identical. The inclusion of the inner workings of futuristic politics, and a larger-scale anti-advertising scheme make the second book worth reading. Pohl relies on obvious satire rather than hidden symbolism to get his point across. The only aspect of the story that is dated is the description of the condition of Venus, but if every 'Venus' was replaced with 'Mars' the story would be current.


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2. Brockington, William S., Jr., and Jeff King. “Frederik Pohl.” Cyclopedia of World Authors. 4th ed. Salem, 2004. MagillOnLiterature Plus. EBSCO. 20 Mar. 2009 <http://search.ebscohost.com/>.

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7. Jonas, Gerald. “Science Fiction.” The New York Times Book Review 10 Mar. 1985. Literature Resource Center. Gale. 27 Feb. 2009 <http://infotrac.galegroup.com/itweb/?db=LitRC>.

8. McComas, J. Francis. “War of the Hucksters.” New York Times 6 Sept. 1953: BR13. ProQuest Newspapers. ProQuest. 27 Feb. 2009 <http://proquest.umi.com/login>.

9. Moylan, Tom. Scraps of the Untainted Sky. Revised ed. Westview, 2000. Google Books. 2009. 18 Mar. 2009 http://books.google.com/books?id=2wGj6tKx_3UC&printsec=frontcover&dq=Scraps+of+the+untainted+sky>.

10. Pohl, Frederik, and C. M. Kornbluth. Venus Inc. New York: St. Martin's, 1984.

11. Seed, David. American Science Fiction and the Cold War.Taylor & Francis, 1999. Google Books. 2009. 20 Mar. 2009