The Space Merchants
By Frederick Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth
Ballantine Books 1953/Penguin Books 1965
I happened to find this book in a second-hand bookshop in 2000. Luckily, I had read stuff previously by Frederick Pohl, and had heard of C.M. Kornbluth - in fact, I discover, I have read ‘Gunner Cade’ by Kornbluth and Cyril Judd (in reality Judith Merril) - as the groovy '60's cover is a bit off-putting!
‘The Space Merchants’ is a clever piece of satire, from the title on in. Set in a near future of chronic overcrowding, the Earth is an extremely corrupt capitalist dystopia, run and fought over by giant companies. Ordinary people only exist to produce the products they then consume in a downward spiral of raising expectations set against greater dependency on products they don’t really need.
The main character, Mitchell Courtenay, is a copysmith, a creator of advertising campaigns waged with all the intensity of full-blown wars. Working for one of the dominant advertising agencies, he is given the assignment of a lifetime – to convince thousands of people to leave Earth and settle in the hostile environment of Venus.
Through a series of events, Courtenay looses his exalted status and experiences life as a consumer before finally receiving the chance to escape from the corrupt system all together.
Elements of the story have dated – the data on Venus, for example, the casual sexism of the male characters, some of the obvious technology – but the story is still very readable and probably forms the archetype for the corporate dystopias of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s and possibly even of the Cyberpunk genre.
‘The Space Merchants’ is Number 54 on the Orion Books SF Masterworks List