The Space Merchants

So, to immediately ruin the concept of this blog, I’m writing my first entry about a book that I’ve just finished. (The idea was to write about books as I read them, but I wanted to start with this one, and I didn’t get around to starting the blog until I finished the book. Oh well.)

Anyway, late last year, I bought the American Science Fiction series from The Library of America. These two volumes contain a total of nine novels from the 1950s, and I’ll be reading them in order. The first of these is The Space Merchants, by Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth, from 1953.

This is a satirical novel, in which the authors extrapolate the trends of capitalism as they saw them, and end up with a world dominated by large corporations, the most powerful of which are advertising firms. The tools of advertising have become far more sophisticated and scientific, and almost anything is legal in the quest to sell a product. (For example, making food products addictive.)

Mitchell Courtenay is a star-class advertising exec for Fowler Schocken, the world’s leading advertising firm. (Star-class means that he’s a cut above us regular folks, known as “consumers.”) At the beginning of the novel, Courtenay is handed the reins to the Venus division, and thus is in charge of making sure that as Venus is colonized, all commerce on the new planet is controlled by Fowler Schocken and its clients.

While on a business trip to Antarctica, Courtenay is clubbed on the head and wakes up with a new identity as a consumer working in indentured servitude for the Chlorella corporation. The rest of the novel is about his attempt to work his way from his job on the production of Chicken Little (a chicken food product) back to his old life, and what happens when he gets there.

The real star of the novel, as in the case of many science fiction novels, is the world itself. Given that the novel first appeared in the early 50s, I’m guessing that it has been highly influential on later science fiction. While reading it, I was continually reminded of more recent works (though I probably won’t be able to remember many of them now). The most obvious descendants to me are the brilliant Max Headroom TV series, and the even more brilliant Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson, in the total triumph of corporate power that we are introduced to.

The book is packed full of neat, often comic ideas. Chicken Little, for example, is a giant piece of artificially grown chicken meat in an enormous, cavernous room, where workers slice off hunks for packaging from sections that are ripe. When Courtenay finally meets up with his boss while running from the cops, his employer is able to get all the charges dropped. The murder charge is easy, the breach of contract charge is much harder.

Anyway, I enjoyed this book quite a bit. It actually holds up very well, as the theme of capitalism run amok is still an issue today, and much of the book seems prophetic, or could just as easily have been written today. Normally, when I read something this old, I’m left with a feeling of “Well, this would have been much better back then.” I found this one enjoyable without having to consider its historical context.

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