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The Space Merchants (by Frederick Pohl)

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Author biography

Born in 1919, Frederick Pohl is one of the most respected authors of science fiction. His proficiency became apparent in his teenage years, when he joined a group of sci-fi writers in New York and began publishing poems and short stories in various magazines. As he matured into adulthood, he gained experience working as both a magazine editor and a literary agent.

In his writings, Pohl often critiqued the impacts of capitalism on society. His most famous work is The Space Merchants, a satirical look at a futuristic society in which corporations and their attendant advertising agencies dominate the world, and then some: the word “Space” in the novel’s title refers to the extraterrestrial openness where there is more space to exploit for profit.

Due to time pressure from working two jobs, Pohl requested that an established sci-fi author, Cyril Kornbluth, help write parts of the novel. Kornbluth wrote the middle of the story and edited the beginning; he then worked with Pohl to write the ending.

Historical context

The Space Merchants first debuted in store shelves in 1952, when it was already clear that advertising would grow into a booming industry. Consequently, many contemporary readers of the novel considered it both a needed and an insightful look at a future in which corporations supersede governments. Although elements of it are now somewhat outdated, the novel continues to be regarded as a distinctly prescient work and an asset to the science fiction canon.

Plot summary

Set hundreds of years in the future, The Space Merchants follows the story of Mitchell Courtenay, an esteemed associate at a large advertising agency called Fowler Schocken. As Courtenay climbs up the corporate ranks, he is assigned to lead the agency’s next largest task: to create promotional materials encouraging people to move to and colonize Venus.

The task is far from trivial, but Courtenay is firmly ambitious. He needs to transform a practically uninhabitable planet into something appealing to ordinary citizens. Capitalizing on consumers’ mentality that “the grass is always greener on the other side,” Courtenay searches for people willing to visit Venus and to pretend to enjoy their stays. His ultimate goal is to entice people to depart the overpopulated Earth and colonize Venus en masse. Only then can Fowler Schocken exploit the new planet for profit.

Courtenay, however, faces many obstacles along the way, both inside and outside of his work assignment. He faces immense opposition from the conservationists (“Consies”), a group of anti-capitalist protestors who seek to disrupt corporate actions. He is involved in a shaky relationship with his separated wife Kathy. Furthermore, he faces opposition from coworker Matt Runstead, who actively interferes with Courtenay’s work out of sheer jealousy.

Warning: Spoilers follow after this point

One day, Courtenay visits Runstead, and the two engage in a violent battle, leaving Courtenay unconscious. News media report Courtenay dead; he is actually kidnapped to Costa Rica, where Courtenay is forced to assume a lowly position as a contract laborer in a poor environment. The area is rife with Consies; Courtenay is forced to treat them nicely, in the hopes of an escape back to Fowler Schocken’s headquarters in New York. He eventually does so—but after exposure to heavy Consie influences, Courtenay returns home a changed person.

Having embraced Consie ideology, Courtenay grants the conservationists their wish of preserving Venus as a non-capitalist environment, free of ads and corporate influences. In this process, Courtenay loses the respect of his coworkers—but regains and enriches his relationship with Kathy, who is revealed to be a Consie herself.

Thematic ideas

The superpowers of advertising: Even today, billboards and advertisements flourish in downtown New York City (where Fowler Schocken is headquartered), and in the society of The Space Merchants, the continued progression of immersive marketing has turned America's cities into even larger ad farms that overpower nearly all other entities, government and ordinary citizens alike. Courtenay and Fowler Schocken employees are aware that consumers in their future society are conditioned to be more submissive to advertising, even while advertising itself has made advances in effectiveness. In Fowler Schocken's Venus project, Courtenay seizes on the consumer notion that the "grass is always greener" somewhere else, despite the blatant fact that Venus is an effectively uninhabitable locale.

Overpopulation and the decline of natural resources: Food (as we know it) is reserved for the elite. Due to overcrowding, a standard diet involves artificially generated hamburgers and recycled entrees. Incredibly, advertising agencies are still able to profit from marketing such unpleasant nutritional horrors. "Coffiest," an addictive product more beneficial for corporate profit than consumer alertness, is an extremely successful venture sparked by Fowler Schocken's advertisements.

Critical reception

Reviewers love this book; in fact, while searching for commentary, I never came across even a single negative impression. But while some acclaimed books are renowned for their literary merits, scholars say it is the thematic ideas of The Space Merchants that is this book's primary claim to fame. This book is "a premier satirical science fiction novel" (2) yet "told in a straightforward and elegant style ... [and is] meant to be read for enjoyment." (4)

Though conscious of their mid-20th century audience, Pohl was also successfully forward-looking, scholars say. According to one source, the The Space Merchants uses "stylized dialogue" that is "curiously bound to the manners, morals, and slang of the day." Nonetheless (and this is not a contradiction), the novel "is remarkably free from the dating of technology and concepts that seem to go hand in hand with Sci Fi from the fifties." (2)

The Space Merchants is not quite a groundbreaking work; much of the ideas it incorporates, such as artificial food and a group opposing the mainstream, have been used in previous novels. Scholars, however, like the way Pohl uses these ideas in his book. More specifically, they emphasize that Pohl creates an effective societal critique. In one paper analyzing several science fiction novels as a whole, the author writes that The Space Merchants is "a classic example of the use of science fiction as a medium for criticism of major contemporary trends." (6)

Personal analysis

Just like the critics, I found The Space Merchants to be an incredible piece of literature. The book was more than just an enjoyable story; it presents a strong warning message that applies equally both to contemporary and modern readers. There is no telling how accurate Pohl's dystopian vision of an ad-dominated future really is, but the issues Pohl raises are certainly legitimate. Without checks and balances, it is all too easy for one superpower to throw the world into a catastrophic mess.

As chaotic as the Pohl's dystopia may seem, the novel includes elements of hope and redemption, some of which come to fruition. We saw in Orwell's 1984 that there were people who quietly opposed the authorities; however, at the novel's close, Winston does not rise above Big Brother but instead is conditioned to love Big Brother even more. The Space Merchants, by contrast, results in somewhat of a success as Courtenay learns the errors of his overzealous and deceptive marketing ways. Despite having a happier ending than other dystopias, critics still see The Space Merchants as an effective and excellent criticism of marketing methods. (3)

Throughout this novel, Courtenay holds a wide range of mindsets. Early on in the novel, he tries to justify Fowler Schocken's unethical tactics: "I do not mean to say that we were criminals. The alkaloids in Coffiest were, as Harvey pointed out, not harmful." (9, 7) But as the story progresses, Courtenay's thoughts change. As one scholar put it, Courtenay eventually learns to see misleading advertising and marketing "for the deception that [they] have become" (5).

In the process of Courtenay's transformation, Pohl includes some highly exaggerated scenarios. Sure, The Space Merchants is set in the future, but there are some overly wacky events (such as the happenings following Courtenay's abduction) in the novel that involve no futuristic technologies. Although some scholars appreciate the ridiculousness, saying that it's "closer to reality than one might first have imagined" (10), I feel as if their inclusion detracts from the overall tone of the story. In most ways, The Space Merchants is meant to show readers an only slightly embellished picture of what society could potentially become. It is meant to advise readers to be cautious consumers and not absorb their lives in advertising and marketing. Incorporating events that are absolutely over-the-top is not necessarily something that helps this novel's cause.

At times, I felt that Pohl's satire was also a bit extreme. However, since the novel went to press during a huge advertising boom, contemporary readers may have felt differently. (10) The Space Merchants never mentions anything positive about advertising, but all things considered, it has no real reason to.

I would recommend The Space Merchants without hesitation. An overwhelming majority of critics would likely agree with Sci Fi Australia's overall verdict of this novel: "If you've never read it, do." (4)

References

  1. Belasco, Warren James. Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food. Los Angeles: University of California, 2006. 131-33.
  2. Booker, M. Keith. “The Space Merchants (1952).” Encyclopedia of Literature and Politics: S-Z. Westport, C.T.: Greenwood, 2005. 685-87.
  3. Brown, Steven, and Anthony Patterson. Imagining Marketing. New York: Routledge, 2000. 112-13.
  4. “The Golden Age: Classics of Sci Fi (Part 4): The Space Merchants.” Rev. of The Space Merchants, by Frederick Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth. Sci Fi. 29 May 2008. 5 Mar. 2009 <scifitv.com.au/‌Blog/‌2008/‌05/‌The-Golden-Age-Classics-Of-Sci-Fi-part-4-The-Space-Merchants/>.
  5. Hassler, Donald M., and Clyde Wilcox. Political Science Fiction. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina, 1997. 19-23.
  6. Livingston, Dennis. “Science Fiction Models of Future World Order Systems.” International Organization 25.2 (1971): 254-70. Business Source Complete. EBSCO. 5 Mar. 2009 <search.ebscohost.com.proxy2.library.uiuc.edu/‌login.aspx?direct=true&db=bth&AN=5189090&site=ehost-live>.
  7. Luckhurst, Roger. Science Fiction. N.p.: Polity, 2005. 110-19.
  8. Moylan, Tom. Scraps of the Untainted Sky. Boulder, C.O.: Westview, 2000. 168-73.
  9. Pohl, Frederick. The Space Merchants. New York: St. Martin's, 2002.
  10. Seed, David. A Companion to Science Fiction. India: Blackwell, 2005. 180.
  11. Smulyan, Susan. Popular Ideologies: Mass Culture at Mid-Century. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2007. 137-38.