The Space Merchants
by Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth
Narrated by Dan Bitner
This review isn’t quite as funny as the last one, but then I did set the bar high by starting out with The Lord of the Rings
This is one of the great classics of Science Fiction. It was written in 1952 and serialized in Galaxy Science Fiction. It takes place in an over-populated world of dwindling resources in which businesses have replaced the government for all intents and purposes. The most prestigious businesses are advertising agencies. Indeed this is a world in which advertising has gone to its logical extreme. When I first read it in the late 60’s I still thought the world it depicted was possible. Perhaps not likely, but still possible. These days some might think we’ve gone down a different path, making this a somewhat dated future, but maybe not. Pohl did revise the book recently to include more recent corporate debacles as AIG and Enron. Much of what happens in this book does still go on in the real world.
The protagonist is a “Star-class Copysmith” named Mitch Courtenay, who is put in charge of the project to popularize the colonization of Venus. Along the way he falls afoul of fellow employees, conservationists and a rival, no, an enemy advertising agency.
I learned recently that the OED credits this book as the first recorded uses of several new words and phrases, including “R and D, tri-dee, soyaburger and moon suit. That surprised me a bit, but that is precisely the sort of thing science fiction is credited with.
The Space Merchants is a great satire on the business world in general that still stands up today. Not bad at all when you realize the story is sixty years old. The world it depicts is believable because without a strong government and its consumer protection agencies this sort of thing could happen. For example, one of the products Courtenay’s company advertises is an alkaloid-laced coffee called Coffiest. Mitch describes it best;
“… each sample of Coffiest contains three milligrams of a simple alkaloid. Nothing harmful. But definitely habit-forming. After ten weeks the customer is hooked for life. It would cost him at least five thousand dollars for a cure, so it’s simpler for him to go right on drinking Coffiest – three cups with every meal and a pot beside his bed at night, just as it says on the jar.”
This may seem over the top, but compared to the riders on some of the bills coming out of Congress merely addicting the public to your products is quite mild. How else can one account for so many votes that essentially waste time and so many bills that sound good go unfunded while money is set aside to build bridges that don’t actually go anywhere? Well, with only approximately one hundred and fifty work days per year, I suppose it is only natural for our Senators and Congressmen to never quite be in practice as legislators. What Pohl and Kornbluth apparently want to say is that even without a strong Congress, the populace will still be subject to the stupidity of a government. It just that the power has moved sideways to the large business enterprises.
Later on, as Mitch is forced to live life as a low-level consumer he still marvels at how his company has links the addictions of various products; a squirt or two of soda makes you crave a snack, the snack makes you want to smoke and the smoke makes you need a drink of soda. Given corporate greed, yeah I could see that happening. Of course these days I’d be more worried about hallucinogens coating some toy made in China, but there’s keeping up with the times for you. Hey, just replace Fowler Shocken Associates with Google or Facebook or any other large company claiming to be here for you and you could easily have a modern adaptation of The Space Merchants.
Pohn wrote a sequel, The Merchants’ War which, to me, is just more of the same, but if you liked this book you will probably also enjoy the sequel. The were both collected by the Science Fiction Book Club in a volume entitled, Venus, Inc.
The Audio Edition
I rate the performance as Very Good. Mister Bitner’s voices are varied and easily distinguished from character to character without the all-too common resort to silly and annoying voices that might have been irresistible to some readers, but each voice, while varied is clear and easy to understand. The otherwise excellent performance is marred only by a small tendency to speak a little too fast. Well nobody’s perfect.
How do you pronouce “Courtenay?” I’m actually wrong, but I always pronounced it with two syllables; Court-nee. To me it was just an upscale spelling of Courtney, so I found it a little jarring that the reader pronounced it with three syllables; Court-ten-nay. Well, like I said, I was wrong. Look it up for yourself. Mister Bitner is using the correct pronunciation. No points off for getting it right!
If you have not yet read this classic piece of science fiction literature, I recommend it highly. If, like me, you rarely have the time to read, or cannot read the book due to a disability then this recording is well worth your time.