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The Space Merchants (1953)

by Frederik Pohl, C.M. Kornbluth

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Space Merchants (1)

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
1,925578,480 (3.76)74
Fantasy. Fiction. Science Fiction. HTML:

In a vastly overpopulated near-future world, businesses have taken the place of governments and now hold all political power. States exist merely to ensure the survival of huge transnational corporations. Advertising has become hugely aggressive and boasts some of the world's most powerful executives. Through advertising, the public is constantly deluded into thinking that all the products on the market improve the quality of life. However, the most basic elements are incredibly scarce, including water and fuel. The planet Venus has just been visited and judged fit for human settlement, despite its inhospitable surface and climate; colonists would have to endure a harsh climate for many generations until the planet could be terraformed. Mitch Courtenay is a star-class copywriter in the Fowler Schocken advertising agency and has been assigned the ad campaign that would attract colonists to Venus, but a lot more is happening than he knows about. Mitch is soon thrown into a world of danger, mystery, and intrigue, where the people in his life are never quite what they seem, and his loyalties and core beliefs will be put to the test.

.… (more)
  1. 10
    Jennifer Government by Max Barry (prezzey)
    prezzey: Two satirical takes on capitalism and consumerism in the future, a classic and a more recent work.
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» See also 74 mentions

English (48)  Spanish (2)  Czech (1)  Italian (1)  Greek (1)  Finnish (1)  French (1)  All languages (55)
Showing 1-5 of 48 (next | show all)
Not my usual cup of tea, and read as part of my university course, but very engaging and entertaining nonetheless. ( )
  justgeekingby | Jun 6, 2023 |
Good sci. fict. novel. ( )
  kslade | Dec 8, 2022 |
3.8 stars! Amazingly true to these times, even written many years ago. ( )
  MakebaT | Sep 3, 2022 |
This possibly the ur-text for advertising/consumer-driven dystopian futures.

It's a shame that the story isn't told all that well. It's difficult to determine, at times, whether the authors had planned the entire thing out from the start, or just started making things up every time they got bored. To be fair, there are no glaring plotholes, and the story is satisfyingly concluded. It just feels a bit slapdash, like a cheap crime novel from the same period.

Genre writing, eh? ( )
  mkfs | Aug 13, 2022 |
review of
Frederik Pohl & C.M.Kornbluth's The Space Merchants
by tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE - December 13, 2011

WOW. WOW. For those of us who love the writings of Philip K. Dick (just about everyone who reads SF, I reckon) this is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. It's the only bk that I've read that I'd say is PROTO-P.K.DICK. It's as good as Dick, PUBLISHED 3 YRS BEFORE DICK'S 1ST PUBLISHED NOVEL WAS: The Space Merchants was published in 1952? in Galaxy & in 1953 as a bk & Dick's Solar Lottery was published in 1955.

Looking up The Space Merchants online I find that I'm far from precocious in appreciating it. EG: I find this under "Critical Reception" on its Wikipedia entry :

"In his study of the pioneers of science fiction, New Maps of Hell (1960), the novelist Kingsley Amis states that The Space Merchants "has many claims to being the best science-fiction novel so far." It is also ahead of its time in stressing the importance of limiting population growth and conserving natural resources. On its initial publication, Groff Conklin called the novel "perhaps the best science fiction satire since Brave New World." Boucher and McComas praised it as "bitter, satiric, exciting [and] easily one of the major works of logical extrapolation in several years. . . . a sharp melodrama of power-conflict and revolt which manages . . . to explore all the implied developments of [its imagined] society." Imagination reviewer Mark Reinsberg described it as "a marvellously entertaining story" and "A brilliant future satire." P. Schuyler Miller compared the novel to Brave New World, finding it "not so brilliant, but more consistently worked out and suffering principally . . . from its concessions to melodrama."

"It was rated the twenty-fourth "all-time best novel" in a 1972 Locus poll, jointly with The Martian Chronicles and The War of the Worlds.

"As with many significant works of science fiction, it was lexically inventive. The novel is cited by the Oxford English Dictionary as the first recorded source for a number of new words, including "soyaburger", "moon suit", "tri-di" for "three-dimensional", "R and D" for "research and development", "sucker-trap" for a shop aimed at gullible tourists, and one of the first uses of "muzak" as a generic term. It is also cited as the first incidence of "survey" as a verb meaning to carry out a poll."

SO, I'm just adding my 2¢ worth to an already existing plethora of what I consider to be well-deserved praise. I've already called attn to Pohl & Kornbluth as members of the Futurians (an SF-fans-turning-into-pro-writers group founded in the 1930s) & noted that Wikipedia states that "many of its members were in some degree interested in the political applications of science fiction". & is a political novel par excellence. & unlike this review, the novel is astonishingly precocious in its societal critiques.

While many might consider its forefronting of advertising (& lobbying) as the dominant socio-political force to be more satire than accurate description, I find it to be far too uncomfortably close-to-the-truth. In The Space Merchants' conflict between ad firm Fowler Schocken Associates vs Taunton Associates, I'm reminded of the present-day competition for health care dominance between UPMC vs HighMark. Do I trust either of them? Probably not - certainly not UPMC!

In The Space Merchants advertising ruthlessly exploits the consumer to addict them as much as possible to the products they represent & their most fierce adversaries are the "Consies" (Conservationists) who're illegal & whose resistance to the total debasement of humanity is met w/ extreme propaganda & harsh punishment. Given that this novel was written at a time of particularly vicious suppression of political systems alternative to the mainstream (HUAC, McCarthy, et al), The Space Merchants cd be taken to be a parable of Capitalism vs Communism. However, I think it goes even deeper than that.

The Consies, rather than being just a straightforward symbol of Communists, strike me more as just a collection of people who're intelligent & competent enuf to recognize & resist their total exploitation by greed. As "Conservationists" they cd be both 'conservative', in the sense of trying to conserve what they think is being destroyed, & as what these days might usually be called consumer & Green activists. Like Communists, they're forced to organize in cells & to be highly clandestine to escape destruction.

From the get-go, a world of depleted resources is established:

"I rubbed depilatory soap over my face and rinsed it with the trickle from the fresh-water tap. Wasteful, of course, but I pay taxes and salt water always leaves my face itchy. Before the last of the greasy stubble was quite washed away the trickle stopped and didn't start again."

This, from the perspective of a wealthy capitalist. Showing, of course, that when resources are in the death-throes of final depletion even one's wealth won't bring them back.

On p 8, the existence of a prominent Fowler Schocken Associates product, "Coffiest", is elaborated: "each sample of Coffiest contains three-milligrams of a simple alkaloid. Nothing harmful. But definitely habit-forming. After ten weeks the customer is hooked for life." The "Nothing harmful" being from the ad company's 'perspective' & highly suspect as inaccurate. Remember when Bayer sold heroin as non-addictive? Satire? Sure. But listen to the recordings of Enron traders gloating over the artificially manufactured California power outages & it'll probably be obvious that people motivated by greed above all will stoop at nothing to make more money.

On p 16 Fowler Schocken himself warns the protagonist against the "lunatic fringe". I don't know when this term was 1st used but I do know that I've proudly been a part of the 'lunatic fringe' (what I prefer to call being CRIMINALLY SANE) for probably my whole life.

The Space Merchants' world is completely topsy-turvy in a way that the power-hungry the world over (be they capitalist or communist or fascist or whatever) wd envy. As Schocken talks w/ the main character Mitch explains: ""[..] you've got power. Five words from you, and in a matter of weeks or months half a million consumers will find their lives completely changed. That's power, Mitch, absolute power. And you know the old saying. Power ennobles. Absolute power ennobles absolutely." The actual saying being: 'Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.'

This type of inversion is a current running throughout the bk. On p 135, Mitch is interrogating a prisoner:

""You're suspected of being a Consie."

"There was a gasp from all the UMPA people in the room. I was violating the most elementary principle of jurisprudence by informing the accused of the nature of his crime."

On p 137 this develops into: "'Better that one thousand innocents suffer unjustly than one guilty person be permitted to escape.'"

Are arrests under 'Homeland Security' much different from this? As I like to say: "When Money's God, Poor People are the Human Sacrifices" & "We are all UNEQUAL under the LAW & THAT is its PURPOSE". Let's hope I'm exaggerating.

More than just sayings & the supposed basis of justice is forgotten. Take this, eg: "Farther out there were some people playing a game I didn't know. They had posts with bottomless baskets set up at either end of a marked-off rectangular field, and the object was to toss a large silicone ball through the baskets." Later, Mitch goes to the Metropolitan Museum of art, Classics Room, to be "in front of the Maidenform exhibit." - "Maidenform" being a type of bra or some such. Advertising as all-pervasive.

Even Albert Fish passes thru the pages of this bk in connection w/ particularly horrific possibilities of power abuse. We need look no further than the torturers of Abu Grieb to find a parallel. Alas, there are many more.

Humorously & ironically, the cover of the edition of this that I have has a picture of astronauts in a space ship - as a way of, presumably, attracting aficionados of 'Space Opera'. This is 'classic' false advertising by publishers. Even the name The Space Merchants is a bit misleading & I wonder whether the publishers or the authors chose it. In the story's original Galaxy appearance it was entitled "Gravy Planet" - a title I find rather mysterious but not necessarily any more 'accurate'. Even more ironically, to me, is that I might've missed this bk for so many yrs partially b/c the appearance of it seemed too generic. Little wd I've known what incisive commentary lay w/in its pages.

This bk easily belongs w/ the other classics of dystopian projections of '20th century' '1st world' society such as 1984 & Brave New World. I, for one, may even prefer it over those 2 more famous examples! ( )
  tENTATIVELY | Apr 3, 2022 |
Showing 1-5 of 48 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (96 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Frederik Pohlprimary authorall editionscalculated
Kornbluth, C.M.main authorall editionsconfirmed
Bittner, DanNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Negretti, AndreinaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Powers, Richard M.Cover Artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Thole, KarelCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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As I dressed that morning I ran over in my mind the long list of statistics, evasions, and exaggerations, that they would expect in my report.
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Fantasy. Fiction. Science Fiction. HTML:

In a vastly overpopulated near-future world, businesses have taken the place of governments and now hold all political power. States exist merely to ensure the survival of huge transnational corporations. Advertising has become hugely aggressive and boasts some of the world's most powerful executives. Through advertising, the public is constantly deluded into thinking that all the products on the market improve the quality of life. However, the most basic elements are incredibly scarce, including water and fuel. The planet Venus has just been visited and judged fit for human settlement, despite its inhospitable surface and climate; colonists would have to endure a harsh climate for many generations until the planet could be terraformed. Mitch Courtenay is a star-class copywriter in the Fowler Schocken advertising agency and has been assigned the ad campaign that would attract colonists to Venus, but a lot more is happening than he knows about. Mitch is soon thrown into a world of danger, mystery, and intrigue, where the people in his life are never quite what they seem, and his loyalties and core beliefs will be put to the test.

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