The Space Merchants

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



Science Fiction as a prescient guide to future technology and society has never much interested me. I read recently that Jules Verne kept abreast of all the latest scientific journals just to up his odds on getting something right. But even with his background research he came up mostly with plots that today are absurd given almost any background in science. Occasionally you read that some writer predicted the internet or the types of computers that we now take for granted. And they "predicted" manned spaced flight, but who couldn't see that coming? But we've only gone to the moon, which is a far cry from the type of intergalactic travel on which much of sf depends. Who is holding their breath for travel faster than the speed of light, time machines, or telepathy as the common means of human communication? These are useful plot devices, as are our encounters with alien life forms. If we were to travel to other galaxies and meet up with aliens, they would be nothing like ourselves or else they would zipping around the galaxies as well. They would most likely be below our evolutionary development, anywhere from an early hominid or more likely a bacteria. If aliens came to see little ol' us, they would necessarily be so far advanced technologically that they might consider us lichens.

That said, there are moments in Pohl and Kornbluth's The Space Merchants (1952) where well-heeled advertising executives take off for a round of golf or a game of tennis and appear to be playing something very much like a Wii machine. But I don't think this constitutes a "prediction" of the Wii. It is an natural development from Pohl's and Kornbluth's imagining of a future world where space is so limited and the atmosphere so dangerous that anyone who can afford to stays inside.

If there are predictions in this novel, they are much more disturbing than executive pastimes or even the hint of severe global warming. In The Space Merchants, Earth has been monetized, states have been incorporated into commercial zones, and the government has forgone the fantasy of elected officials and allowed corporations to place their own candidates in the senate and the house. Given the recent Supreme Court ruling on corporations' free speech rights when it comes to political contributions, this development may far outweigh whatever foresight the authors showed when combining physical exercise with video games. The author team has also forecast the replacement of "commies" with "consies," dangerous environmentalists who, possibly because of some genetic defect, do not see the total exploitation of Earth and neighboring planets as a necessarily good thing.

The Space Merchants is a thriller in which Mitchell Courtenay, a Star Class Copysmith for the most prestigious ad agency in the universe, has been assigned the plum job of preparing a campaign for the colonization of Venus. This involves convincing pioneering sorts that it will be patriotic, exciting, and lucrative to make the move while not letting them know the planet is a hellhole. But corporate intrigues find Courtenay drugged and shipped to a Central American industrial plant where the algae used in manufacturing most of earth's food stuff is grown in conditions so degrading they could be confused with those on the banana plantations Dole maintained about the time the book was written. But Courtenay's innate abilities as a copywriter can serve him well even there, as well as in the Consie underground that he sees as his ticket out.

I read a review more or less contemporaneous with the novel that used it as a example of sf's failure as social criticism, an evaluation based on the fact that Madison Avenue types, the target of the satire, became one of the novel's most enthusiastic audiences. But of course they did. Didn't New Jersey and New York mafiosi tune in weekly to The Sopranos? Doesn't Hollywood loves to "expose" itself in films like The Bad and the Beautiful and The Player. Had The Space Merchants come out ten years later, I'm sure the producers of Mad Men would have placed a copy on Don Draper's nightstand. And he would have loved it.