First published in 1953
With good reason, The Space Merchants is one of the classic science fiction novels of the 1950s: it is fun and prophetic, and it conveys a message that remains timely. What Gordon Gekko did with "Greed is good," Fred Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth did with "Power ennobles. Absolute power ennobles absolutely." In a story that is at once witty and scathing, Pohl and Kornbluth smack down the aristocratic pretensions of the business elite, the leaders of industry who comprise the de facto ruling class.
The protagonist, Mitchell Courtenay, an advertising executive with Fowler Schocken, is proud of his ability to redirect talent, turning poets into copywriters, musicians into jingle writers, all to further humanity's highest ideal: increased sales. He's even more proud of his ability to convince consumers that they need products they don't really want. Courtenay sits near the top of the economic ladder, marketing questionable products to those at the bottom who produce and consume them.
As the novel opens, Courtenay is surprised to learn that he has been placed in charge of the Venus Section. The government has given Fowler Schocken an exclusive contract to develop and exploit Venus, a task that requires the planet to be colonized. Before Courtenay has a chance to learn whether his newfound power is ennobling, someone takes it away. Courtenay is compelled by unexpected circumstances to work alongside the consumers.
Courtenay's fall brings him into contact with a group he has always despised: consumer activists, referred to derisively as "Consies." Given the novel's time frame, the similarities between the words "Consies" and "Commies" -- the favored demon of the 1950s -- can hardly be coincidental. The similarity does not end with the name: Consies, like communists, believe that workers should have a greater share of the wealth that their labor creates. Forced to share their pain, will Courtenay gain empathy for their plight, or will he imagine new strategies for marketing products to them?
In the political context of the early Eisenhower years, The Space Merchants' depiction of capitalism run amuck almost seems subversive. The exploitation of labor by capital and the strife inherent in class division is a central theme. Yet the story is more satire than polemic. Much of the novel has a tongue-in-cheek quality, as is evident when Courtenay must tunnel through a vast growth of chicken meat to attend a Consie meeting. Outright humor ranges from hilarious advertising jingles to lines like "I dreamed I was ice-fishing in my Maidenform bra" (the latter appears in a museum exhibit).
One reason to read science fiction of the 1950s is that writers were committed to the craft of storytelling. While modern sf authors too often indulge in lengthy explanations of every idea they can concoct, Pohl and Kornbluth toss off two or three ideas on a page, letting the accumulation of ideas build the story's context. The Space Merchants is filled with nifty ideas: government sanctioned "industrial feuds" that occasionally include assassinations; congressmen elected by businesses rather than individuals; religion as an advertising account; individual steps in stairwells rented to the homeless. Pohl and Kornbluth accurately predicted the clash between industrial development and conservationist philosophy (including environmental activism), the economic difficulties brought on by diminishing oil supplies, and reliance on subliminal advertising and addictive chemicals to increase demand for products.
An engaging plot and believable characters are the twin ingredients of successful sf storytelling. The Space Merchants delivers on both fronts. The story is full of surprises. There are so many clever twists that the reader, never sure where the story is headed, knows only that he is taking a joyful journey. The characters tend to be stereotypes, but they're fun stereotypes. In fact, I've used the word "fun" repeatedly in this review because it's the word that best summarizes my reaction to The Space Merchants. It's the kind of romp that is too rare in modern science fiction.