Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth’s 1953 The Space Merchants is a near-future SF satire. It was followed by The Merchant’s War, written by Pohl alone.
Earth is a utopia. Population continues to soar and with it the economy explodes unchecked. True, supporting such a vast economic enterprise demands bold solutions to the challenge of dwindling resources, but only the worst sort of Consie—the Conservationists, lowest of the low — would object. Nation-states are guided by what best serves the corporations who effectively own the governments. At the top of this most perfect society sit the advertising experts who shape opinion.
Mitch Courtenay, a Fowler Schocken Associates advertising agency star-class copywriter, is one of the elite. He has his own lavish two-bedroom apartment, can afford unreconstituted food, and enjoys the confidence of Fowler Schocken himself. He is, in other words, a man on his way up.
There are one or two tiny flaws in his idyllic life.
Firstly, there is the personal: Mitch is certain he loves Dr. Kathy Nevin. Kathy on the other hand is not so sure that she wants a relationship, because she’s not at all convinced Mitch is capable of love. His determination to win her may be less due to affection and more due to the conviction he will best advertise himself if he can win a successful professional away from her career and transform her into an adman’s perfect wife.
Secondly, there is the professional: Fowler Schocken has the task of convincing American consumers that they want to emigrate to Venus. It’s a challenging task because Venus is way way too hot and quite hostile to Terrestrial life. Terraforming the planet will be the work of centuries. Whoever is stuck with the ad campaign will have an uphill slog ahead of him. Unfortunately for Mitch, that person is Mitch.
Mitch can devise ways to convince Americans they want to spend their lives in sealed habitats on Venus. He can spot in-house sabotage and take steps to prevent his rivals from winning before their efforts can hobble the Venus campaign overmuch. Even assassination attempts do not much deter him; they are simply the cost of doing business!
But a simple bludgeoning at the hands of a rival takes him by surprise, as does being left for dead in the Antarctic wilderness. Nevertheless, Mitch survives! But when he regains consciousness, he discovers he is now Groby, William George, indentured worker, and he is far from New York. Nor will anyone be looking for him. As far as the world knows, Mitch Courtenay died in Antarctica.
But Mitch is nothing if not determined.
I note that some versions have this cover:
Apparently, Pohl updated the book with references to Enron and AIG. This review is of the Disco Era mass-market paperback version.
The treatment of women in this novel is sexist, but because the setting
is dystopic readers may tell themselves “the treatment of women is one
symptom among many of this society’s illness” rather than “it was 1953
and that is the way many SF authors wrote about women back then.” Or
they can tell themselves “the treatment of women is one symptom among
many of this society’s illness”, except “this society” could refer to
America in the 1950s and not the society of The Space Merchants. There are lots of options.
The Space Merchants placed 24th for the 1975 Locus All-Time Best Novel award. I wonder if it would do as well today? I always wonder about All-Time Best contests. Did the voters in 1975 give works published after 1975 their proper weight or were they handicapped by their inability to see the future? Without precognition, can voters be sure it was really an All-Time Best?
Nobody has more respect and admiration for Mitch Courtenay than Mitch Courtenay. Good for him, because the text certainly doesn’t have any. Mitch is convinced he is a wealthy man whose good works serve the public interest, but every word he utters makes it clear he is morally compromised and far too blinkered to see what a horrible world he lives in.
One can divide the novel into two elements: satirical dystopian worldbuilding and the actual plot. The first provides an example of what used to be called “garbage man novels.” The idea is to take some current trend and extend it to absurdity: the writer notices a slight rise in the number of garbagemen and asks “what would the world look like if everyone were a garbageman?” In this case, Pohl and Kornbluth have fun with advertising: what if it were as important as advertisers believe it to be? What sort of world would they make? Not a great one, it turns out, but one that’s fun to read about. This aspect of the novel is nicely done.
The plot, on the other hand, is energetic but very slight. Providentially, the novel is short. My 1978 MMPB is only 216 pages. Mitch’s adventures can’t support lengthy examination. Thanks to the book’s brevity, they don’t have to.