- A standalone novel
- Published by Penguin
- Published in 1953
- Social SF
- 170 pages
Money makes the world go round, and few know the truth of that more than the advertising agencies. But when Mitch Courtenay is put in charge of advertising the first trip to Venus, he soon discovers that the rewards come with their own share of risk, and that some business is worth killing for . . .
Having not really read the back cover, I was a little disappointed to discover that a book called The Space Merchants was not, in fact, about interstellar traders zipping about in their spaceships. The title actually refers to the companies and individuals who are selling the idea of space travel to the general population. My disappointment quickly turned to curiosity, then to enjoyment. Because while no book I’ve read has been diminished by setting it in space, this slightly more Earth-bound tale is a whole lot of fun.
Before we get into the book proper, I just want to say something. I’m not one of those people who thinks capitalism is the worst thing to ever blight humanity. Sure it’s prone to abuses, but show me a social structure that isn’t. Wherever you have an economy, you’ll have people competing to be at the top. Yes, it can go to far, but competition is generally helpful. Nothing great without struggle, and all that jazz.
Like all good social SF stories, The Space Merchants takes one part of society and runs wild with it. Pohl and Kornbluth (names so well known at the time that only their surnames appear on the cover) project a future (now only a few decades away) in which corporations have all but taken over the world. We as readers get to experience all the adverts for Venus, and ask if they are too long to hold the public interest. We hear the catchy jingles, and celebrate when sales of cigarettes for children are through the roof. When the novel is at its best, there’s a thick vein of satire running through it. I particularly enjoyed the mathematically logical but slightly irregular choice of choosing astronauts who have dwarfism in order to save on space, and the reference to Sales as the highest of ideals.
The latter half of the novel does suffer slightly from becoming more of a thriller than an exploration of ideas. Still good, but not on the same level as before. Though I will say that Phl and Kornbluth did a great job of building the Conservationists into a threat. Science fiction has an unfortunate habit of glorifying terrorist acts in the name of freedom, so it was refreshing to see this well-intentioned group of eco-extremists being painted with a less than white brush. Both they and the corporate elite are as bad as each other, which all contributes to the rather messy ending. I’m not sure if the authors had a preference for which faction I was supposed to side with, which speaks volumes for their ability to write a balanced narrative.
The Space Merchants is the sort of book best read in a single sitting. Fun, dark, and with a bit of bite. Definitely not the last Pohl and Kornbluth book I’ll be sinking my teeth into.