Sunday 2 November 2008

The Space Merchants by Frederick Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth

Kornbluth and especially Pohl were formidable "golden age" SF authors in their own right (Pohl, who is now 90, carrying on into recent times; Kornbluth died young in 1958), but are still remembered for their collaborations. One of these, Wolfbane, was reviewed on this blog on 21 October 2007, but the best known is probably The Space Merchants, first published in 1953.

The title is rather misleading because space travel doesn't feature at all until right at the end of the book. The story is set a century in the future, at a time when humanity, still confined to the Earth, has expanded to many times its present population. The teeming billions are crowded into cramped apartments, fed on artificially-created food and sold addictive coffee to drink, use pedal-powered machines rather than cars, wash in salt water because fresh water is too precious, and are ruthlessly manipulated by all-powerful marketing organisations, with the lowest levels of society trapped in commercial slavery. Governments have become almost powerless in the face of the might of the big marketing corporations, whose only goal is to increase sales, and the US President is a figurehead.

Living in this dystopia is a successful marketing executive, Mitchell Courtney, who is given the task of securing control for his organisation of the forthcoming colonisation and terraforming of Venus (little was known about conditions on Venus when the book was written and they are portrayed as being less hostile than they are now known to be, but still with an unbreathable atmosphere, high temperatures and no water).

Events begin to slide out of control for Courtney as he becomes embroiled in the savage in-fighting of office politics and the open warfare of inter-corporate battles, is kidnapped, dumped at the lowest level of society and approached by the Consies; an underground conservationist organisation arguing against the ruthless exploitation of Earth's resources. His experiences shape his actions as he tries to battle his way back to his star-grade executive position.

At one level The Space Merchants is an amusing satire on increasing commercialisation, but there are clear echoes of the political times in which it was written. Pohl had been a member of the Young Communist League until he resigned as a result of the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939, and much of his idealism showed through in this and other works. The period when this book was written coincided with Senator McCarthy's notorious anti-communist witch-hunt, and there is an obvious parallel between the contemporary public attitude to the "Commies" and the hated and despised Consies in the story.

I have to admit that I generally dislike dystopian SF but this is an easy read, especially since it is only 170 pages long. This is a landmark novel in raising issues about the uncontrolled population expansion and the associated exhaustion of resources, coupled with the ever-increasing power of commercial organisations in general and marketing in particular. Many novels on similar themes subsequently emerged, but this is one of the key works which every SF fan should read.

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