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The Space Merchants
Frederick Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth
Gollancz paperback £6.99
review by Patrick Hudson
Mitch Courtenay is a star-class copysmith for Fowler Schocken Associates, one of the two advertising agencies vying for control of the upcoming colonisation of Venus. When he's put in charge of the Venus account, he is kidnapped and reduced to the level of lowly consumer working in an artificial food plant (the main product of which is "Chicken Little" a lump of vat-grown meat 15 yards in diameter). He makes contact with the revolutionary World Conservationist Association and sets about using his skills as an ad man to work himself into a position where he can exact vengeance on his enemies.
The action takes place in the 22nd century, when advertising companies manipulate politics and commerce to their own advantage. They more or less own the companies they represent, and what we would now call "integrated marketing" allows them to control every aspect of the peasant-like consumers' lives. Corporate corruption is now the status quo: Congress is made up of company representatives based on how much money they have and the murder of business rivals and small-scale wars between corporations is legislated through a legal notification system.
First published in 1952, it's scary to think how close our world is to Pohl and Kornbluth's imagination, given the satirical exaggerations they employ - a handful of huge, global brands do largely control manufacturing, distribution and finance, although in our world they are kept in check by an equal political mechanism that ensures the courts are at least nominally independent. As such, The Space Merchants is a classic "if this goes on..." novel that still rings true today.
Kornbluth is chiefly remembered for this novel and - to a lesser extent - his other satirical collaborations with Pohl (Search The Sky, Gladiator-At-Law and Wolfsbane) but was a highly regarded writer of bitter, satirical stories before his death in 1958 aged just 36. The 1950s was a great era for these acid observations on the capitalist system. Authors such as Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Sheckley, Bob Shaw, Harry Harrison, Jack Vance, and Pohl and Kornbluth filled the gap between the gee-whiz optimism of the pulp era and the more radical politics of later eras with great style and wit, as exemplified in The Space Merchants.
If the book has a weakness, it is Courtenay, whose Songs For Swinging Lovers-era hipster persona highlights the 50 years that have passed since it was written. In the face of scientific and social change, older SF inevitably goes from being contemporary to period fiction and many of the books that struck we readers of a certain age as startling and adventurous on first reading are beginning to look a little twee, particularly those of the 1950s and 1960s. The Space Merchants is very much of its era, and while there's a nice line in futuristic slang, Courtenay doesn't ring true as a real character when compared to characters created by some of Pohl and Kornbluth's contemporaries, such as Dick and Vonnegut, whose humanity and depth transcend the genre conventions of the era.
Still, this brand of satire wasn't really picked up again until the 1980s, and now even early cyberpunk is beginning to look quaint and na�ve. It's a credit to Pohl and Kornbluth that the sharp observations of The Space Merchants still stand out against the more period elements, and it's a fine work of pulp adventure fiction to boot, with plenty of action, a femme fatale and a dwarf space pilot.
This is another fine addition to the SF Masterworks series - they could base a university course around this and the Fantasy Masterworks list. In fact, I feel like I've been taking it for the last two years: I've reviewed half a dozen of them and read twice as many again, at least. I've said it before but it bears repeating: this list is the finest collection of classic SF in print today.
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