In 1953, a tiny publishing house called Ballantine released The Space Merchants, a novel-length adaptation of "Gravy Planet," a Frederik Pohl short story that had taken the SF world by storm. That story was about the future of the advertising industry, written by a guy who had been an ad man for several years. Dark and snarkily political, The Space Merchants expanded on the original story (it was co-authored by C.M. Kornbluth), becoming a novel that Pohl says nobody wanted to publish. But it influenced at least two generations of SF writers, and offers a satire so sharp that it still draws blood even today.
Now out in a "Revised 21st Century Edition," The Space Merchants is quite literally Mad Men in space. It's also a reminder that this book should take its place among the great literary satires of the twentieth century.
Pohl co-authored The Space Merchants with longtime collaborator C.M. Kornbluth, who no doubt added a lot of the delightfully absurdist touches. It centers on a "star class" copywriter named Mitch who has just gotten the biggest break in his career. He's going to head up a team that will design the first ad campaign for Venus settlements. It's going to prove a lot harder than selling kiddie cigarettes, or turning India into Indiastries, the world's first corporate state. One of his big problems is going to be those pesky Consies, who keep staging protests where they say advertisers shouldn't be pushing everybody to get addicted to Coffiest and have more babies all the time. As if that isn't enough, Mitch has to deal with domestic problems too. His temporary wife Kathy refuses to sign a long-term marriage contract because he doesn't respect the fact that her job as a doctor makes it impossible for her to cook and clean for him.
Mitch lives in a kind of nightmare capitalist world, where the President is a harried little man who begs for a few minutes of time from the business interests that control Congress. Advertisers seem to have replaced politicians and religious leaders - and anyone who dares criticize advertisements is branded a traitor and forced to undergo a "brain burn." America is divided into producers like Mitch and consumers who are lucky if they can afford to rent a stair to sleep on in one of Manhattan's many office towers. Most products are doped with drugs that make it impossible to stop craving (and buying) candy, pop, and cigarettes. Only the underground Consie movement dares challenge the system.
It's as if Pohl and Kornbluth wrote an SF manifesto for Occupy Wall St. almost sixty years before it happened. In this novel, you'll find the seeds of Philip K. Dick's paranoid future of ubiquitous advertising, and Max Barry's insane corporate wars where advertisers stage drive-by shootings to advertise Nikes. (In fact, we learn in The Space Merchants that it's legal for corporations to wage war and kill each other's corporate executives.) And the idea of libertarian crazies vs. conservationist crazies battling for Earth is a staple of contemporary SF, found in the work of Elizabeth Bear, Ken MacLeod, Margaret Atwood, and many others.
Flying in the face of the sappy, happy Golden Age science fiction so prevalent in the 1950s, Pohl and Kornbluth offer us a story of how space colonization begins with lies fabricated by Madison Ave copywriters, who use "see hear touch words" to make the blasted, wild-tortured deserts of Venus sound like paradise. At the same time, they give us one of those fun yarns that made 50s space opera so enjoyable.
While jetting around to find the perfect focus groups, Mitch gets caught up in a larger conflict he doesn't understand. First he's shot at by snipers, and then he's mysteriously kidnaped and sent to work in a protein farm owned by his own advertising company. Things don't look the same from the bottom of the algae sludge pool, and he starts to understand what the Consies are really about. The best part is that Mitch manages to get out of almost every scrape by using his incredible copywriting and propaganda skills. By the time you've followed him from the stairway dwellings of New York, to the rarefied boardrooms of the Moon, you'll thoroughly entertained - and blown away by how much this feels like a contemporary novel.
Of course some of that is the result of Pohl's revisions in 2010 - he's updated most of the corporate references (we hear about Walmart, Microsoft, and Bollywood), and tweaked some of the science for accuracy. These are largely cosmetic changes, however; the meat and bones of the story are unchanged.
The Space Merchants ranks right up there with other mid-twentieth century classics like The Day of the Locust and The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit when it comes to sour, sometimes disturbingly funny reactions against American corporate culture and entertainment. Don't miss this crucial piece of SF history, and American literature.