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

Published on 8th April 2020

I deliberately (some might say indulgently) included this book jacket cover in the body of the blog text, despite having already displayed it as the main blog image. This is because it seems to perfectly embody corporate saturation, as if the world before mass consumerism were nothing more than a brief and forgettable entry in a moth-eaten scrapbook.

YouTube recommended the audiobook version of The Space Merchants to me as a result of my listening to Gateway, arguably one of Frederik Pohl's most original novels. And on that note, it's important to mention that this particular novel is the collaborative effort of two people, one of whom is not Pohl, but Cyril M. Kornbluth. The more I hear about Kornbluth, the more I like the sound of the man. He was, based on what I've read so far, a visionary in the field of science fiction. Sadly, he died of a heart attack at the age of 34. 

The title of this novel drew me in at first because I thought I was going to get a story about intergalactic prospectors or mercenaries, which I was enjoying a penchant for at the time. But what I got is a satire about the advertising industry, set in a future where governments play second fiddle to the power of multinational conglomerates. Sound familiar? The novel happens to be set some time in the 22nd century.

What struck me first was the voice of the first person narrator, and the novel's protagonist, Mitchell Courtenay. Mitchell, or Mitch, is a star class copysmith, which is essentially a very high ranking copywriter. Picture copywriting being one of the best paid and most respectable professions a person can do. This is where it probably diverges most from our own time entirely - I kid, of course. The very name of the narrator seems to suggest a person who has a religious attachment to the profession of advertising, and believes that its manipulative techniques have limitless potential.

As a copywriter and content designer, I was at a loss not to find Mitch's character interesting, if a tad indoctrinated, but that's the point right? The opening lines would no doubt paint a familiar picture to anyone from advertising.

'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.'

Through Mitch's morning activities, I got an idea of the kind of world Pohl and Kornbluth imagined for this story. It's a resource-starved one, where even someone of fairly high rank and earnings has to finish washing their face in salt water.

'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.'

For anyone who's read American Psycho, Mitch's observations might seem to bare similarity to Patrick Bateman's. This isn't surprising in a way, as they're both devoted to material gain, valuing surface over substance. The main difference, and reason I favour the character of Mitch, is that he's capable of change, is intellectually curious, and doesn't spend his evenings torturing and killing.

The ultimate adman joke running through this novel is Mitch's project. He's in charge of something called the Venus project. The project is all about selling the idea of going to live on Venus. As now, some of the problems of inhabiting Venus remain. For example, it has a surface temperature of roughly 462 degrees Celsius. It's atmospheric pressure is comparable to being 3,000 feet under water on Earth. But the thing that really puts us humans off, if not the other things, is the fact that its atmosphere is made up mainly of carbon dioxide and sulfuric acid. It's a tough sell for any planetary frontiersman, but damn it, Courtenay got the Venus account. And so the parallels with the golden age of advertising continue.

But then, Courtenay is forced to see how it is for the not-so-fortunates when his identity (and star class status) are erased. His protective suit is sabotaged during a trip to Antarctica to confront his adman rival colleague, Matt Runstead. He falls unconscious, only to wake up aboard a labour freighter heading for the Chlorella Corporation plant in Costa Rica. Yes, it makes Madmen look unadventurous by comparison. Instead of trying to escape his position as a protein scum-skimmer, Courtenay uses his skills as a topnotch sales wordsmith to get a promotion. This gets him back to New York, from where he is able to try and make a return to his own corporate paradise.

So why should you bother reading this book? Well, firstly, because Pohl and Kornbluth were heavily involved in its creation. And boy do they know their way around a first person narrative. Science fiction gets a lot of stick for producing literature of concepts over characterisation. And some other things too, which I won't go into now. But The Space Merchants wrestles a lot of other books I've read to the ground, period.



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