The Space Merchants

Frederik Pohl, C. M. Kornbluth
The Space Merchants Cover

The Space Merchants

Scott Laz

"Galaxy and Fantasy and Science Fiction were among the very few mass markets where, sufficiently masked, an antiauthoritarian statement could be published. There are rumors of professors and engineers trapped in the academies or industry who turned to the science fiction magazines and both read and wrote for them (pseudonymously) avidly as the only medium where the policies and procedures of the late Senator Joseph McCarthy were explicated fully and mocked. Cyril M. Kornbluth in a 1957 symposium spoke of the hundreds of people in advertising who had thanked him and Fred Pohl in desperation for publishing the only novel, The Space Merchants, that told the truth about their industry and what it wanted the world to be."

--Barry N. Malzberg, Breakfast in the Ruins, "The Fifties"

"I came off shift dehydrated, as they wanted me to be. I got a squirt of Popsie from the fountain by punching my combination — twenty-five cents checked off my payroll. The squirt wasn't quite enough so I had another — fifty cents. Dinner was drab as usual; I couldn't face more than a bite or two of Chicken Little. Later I was hungry and there was the canteen where I got Crunchies on easy credit. The Crunchies kicked off withdrawal symptoms that could be quelled only by another two squirts of Popsie from the fountain. And Popsie kicked off withdrawal symptoms that could only be quelled by smoking Starr cigarettes, which made you hungry for Crunchies . . . Had Fowler Schocken thought of it in these terms when he organized Starrzelius Verily, the first spherical trust? Popsie to Crunchies to Starrs to Popsie?"

--The Space Merchants, chapter eight

Under the title Gravy Planet, Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth's The Space Merchants was serialized in Galaxy in mid-1952, part of an amazing run of serials in that magazine's first few years that included, consecutively, The Puppet Masters, The Demolished Man, The Space Merchants, Ring Around the Sun, and The Caves of Steel. Galaxy's brand of social and often satirical science fiction had begun to eclipse Astounding's engineering-based SF, and The Space Merchants may be the best example of the type of SF H. L. Gold's magazine was featuring. It ultimately became one of the most successful science fiction novels ever, and remains entertaining and thought-provoking today. It still works in part because, even though it is really a novel about the 1950s, its predictions of the increasing control of our society by business interests continue to resonate.

The novel is narrated by Mitchell Courtenay, "copysmith star class" for Fowler Schocken Associates, an advertising agency at the head one of the massive conglomerates that controls the American economy and government in the novel's future. These agencies no longer create advertising for other firms; they are at the head of integrated corporations that create products based on sales principles rather than utility, as exemplified by the addictive Popsies/Crunchies/Starrs cycle described in the above quotation. Courtenay is a true believer in the religion of Sales, with little doubt that he and his firm are making the world a better place.

This future Earth is incredibly overpopulated, with the only open spaces remaining in the arctic regions at the poles (which have been turned into vacation resorts), and the ground around the Venus rocket launch area. Even star class executives like Courtenay must make due in tiny two-room apartments with fold-down beds, while the mass of lower-class "consumers" rent space in the stairwells of office buildings. Despite its inhospitable atmosphere and landscape, colonization of Venus is being held out as a new outlet for population growth, though the first colonists will face severe hardships for decades, until the planet can be terraformed. For the ad agencies, Venus merely represents a new opportunity for sales. Accustomed to selling consumers on the joys of shoddy and meaningless products in a world lacking in the really important resources like water, fuel, and fresh food, Fowler Schocken and its competitors now face the task of selling the colonization of Venus, while avoiding any message implying that maybe the Earth isn't such a great place to be after all. Courtenay, placed in charge of the Venus Project, sees it as the ultimate challenge for a copysmith.

Though the majority have been convinced (or brainwashed) by advertising, there is an underground movement of Conservationists, popularly known as the Consies, fighting back against the messages of the copysmiths, trying to convince people that the corporations are not making the world a better place, and that a different type of economic organization is needed if humanity is to survive. Economic growth has reached its limits, and the Earth can no longer support the expanding population. For the Consies, Venus represents the possibility of starting over on a virgin planet where emigrants can reject the god of Sales and create a new system based on Conservationist principles. For this to happen, the Consies must prevent Fowler Schocken from controlling the colonization process, by any means necessary. The idea of an environmentalist movement was quite prescient for 1952, which was well before that movement gained steam.

As the story develops, Courtenay is forced to confront the reality of what life is really like for the consumer class, after being kidnapped and stripped of his star class identity. Pretending to join the Consies, he uses their network to escape his new labor contract (most consumers work in indentured servitude). Even after being submerged in the lower class world, he holds onto his star class values, but as he works his way back home and investigates the intrigues surrounding the kidnapping and the Venus Project, he starts to realize that maybe the Consies aren't so crazy after all...

The Space Merchants is a novel that a Marxist can love. Marx described capitalism as a system in which labor becomes a commodity, and human beings belong to classes based on their relationship to the means of production — the owners of capital who control the means of production, and workers with "nothing to sell except their own skins", who must labor for the owners in order to survive. In the novel, Marx's proletariat is replaced by the consumer class. Marx also described the importance of ideology in maintaining the ability of a social class to accept its subservient role within the economic system, and for the ruling class to be able to believe that its domination is actually good for the dominated. Catholicism served this purpose in the feudal Middle Ages, just as the belief in the "free market" does within a capitalist system. The government also works to maintain the structure, and is essentially an agent for the ruling class. (This idea is made very explicit in The Space Merchants, where members of Congress represent companies rather than geographical regions — e.g., "the senator from Du Pont Chemical.")

Again according to Marx, the transition to socialism/communism occurs when the dominated class comes to understand the position it is in, and rejects the need for the ruling class, realizing that it can run things just fine without them. The Consies, then, are commies. This connection is even more explicit in the original magazine version, which instead uses the term "Connies." (It would be interesting to know how and why it was changed for the book publication.) Marx's post-capitalist socialism was supposed to be a classless society. As Courtenay puts it, contemplating his place in the new world order: "The thought stopped me for a moment: I was used to being star class by now. It wasn't going to be fun, being one of the boys. I gave my Consie theory a quick mental runthrough. No, there was nothing in it that indicated I would have a show-dog's chance of being sirred and catered to any more."

This is all quite amazing when it is realized that 1952 was the height of the anti-communist hysteria fostered by Senator Joseph McCarthy and his House Un-American Activities Committee. During these witch hunts, thousands of Americans were accused of communist affiliation. Blacklists were created and careers were destroyed. Some were even imprisoned, based on laws against advocating the overthrow of the government. And yet here was Galaxy magazine (and, a year later, Ballantine Books), publishing a novel warning of the long-run human and environmental costs of capitalism, presenting a positive alternative in the form of what are essentially environmentalist/communist terrorist cells working for an alternative economic system. How did Pohl and Kornbluth and their publishers get away with it?

Because, though the preceding analysis makes the novel sound like a political treatise, it is far from it. Rather, it's a satire, which has always been the best way to get controversial ideas across under the radar. After all, people capable of witch hunts generally lack both intelligence and humor, and are likely to be misled or baffled when presented with intelligent satire. As Malzberg notes in the quote that opens this review, the sentiments were "sufficiently masked." And, of course, it's not likely anyone was looking for communists in those juvenile science fiction magazines! The Space Merchants, then, while subject to some of the usual weaknesses of '50s SF (questionable gender portrayals, sketchy characterization, overly convenient plot developments), is still a great reading experience. It holds up well as a classic of the field and, I would argue, given its insight into the culture in which it was written, as a classic American novel.