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The Space Merchants & The Merchants War

Reviewed by Raedom

There have been many collaborative efforts by science-fiction authors over the years, but probably none more successful or better known than the team of Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth. Indeed, when I was a youngster just discovering science fiction, many times they were spoken of as though they were a single author named Pohl Kornbluth. And of all the marvelous stories they wrote, The Space Merchants may very well be their finest. Pohl once said in an interview that he and Cyril Kornbluth were the most perfectly matched collaborators ever known. He said that invariably when they were writing together, one would write a page and stop. If he stopped in the middle of a paragraph, or even in the middle of a sentence, the other could take up the story-line seamlessly. And this book shows that seamless quality, but it also shows the influence Kornbluth had on the team. He had an acerbic, sometimes vicious, imagination, and this shows in The Space Merchants. The Merchants' War, on the other hand, is a somewhat softer book (but only in comparison.)

The Space Merchants takes place in a future where advertising agencies effectively rule the world. Literally. In the United States, Senators and Congressmen are no longer elected from the various states, but from corporations controlled, not by stockholders, but by the advertising agencies, and each representative has voting power in proportion to the annual billing of his company/agency. A senator from a large agency, for instance, has 30 votes in the Congress, while one from a small agency has only one or two. Similar conditions prevail around the world: Russia (the Soviet Union at the time the book was written) is now RussCorp. And a former little third-world country is now the merchandising giant, Indiastries, where the entire country, thanks to an advertising agency, has been turned into one vertically and horizontally interlocked corporation.

In this world, consisting of the cognoscenti - admen and their tame lawmakers - and consumers, the only fly in the ointment is an underground group called the Conservationists. Contemptuously referred to as "Consies' by those in authority, this group is striving to overthrow the established order, feeling that the admen are responsible for the overcrowding and pollution rampant in the world.

In this world lives one Mitchell Courtenay, a star-class copysmith for the Fowler Schocken agency. Mitch is picked to head up a new project, the selling of the colonization of Venus. (Remember, this story was written in 1952, when it was thought that Venus might still be habitable.) Mitch promptly hires as a consultant the only man who has ever actually been to Venus, Jack O'Shea, a sixty-pound midget. O'Shea was sent to Venus because his body-size made the trip more economical.

Advertising has often been called a cut-throat business, and in this future world, it is even more so. The agencies are actually legally allowed, after proper notification to the authorities, to assassinate key men from other agencies, and two attempts are made on Mitch's life once he begins work on the Venus project. Rival agency Taunton Associates is suspected, but since they have not made the necessary notifications Mitch refuses to believe this, thinking they are merely accidents. Then, on an outing in Anarctica, Mitch is shanghaied, given a false identity, and put to work as a common laborer - a consumer. He makes contact with a Consie cell, pretends to sympathize with their goals, and they help him return to New York. Here he finds the Venus project in disarray. Matt Runstead, the man appointed to replace him (also the man who had him shanghaied), has badly mishandled the entire project, and, instead of the public being wildly enthusiastic, they are wary and afraid.

Into this situation steps Mitch's wife, Kathy, who is ambivalent about making their temporary marriage permanent. She finally reveals that both she and Runstead are Consie agents, and had Mitch kidnapped in order to try to open his eyes to the real world. Initially both shocked and angry, Mitch reflects on his experiences while a consumer, and joins their cause, which is not to sabotage the Venus project, but to assure that the majority of emigrants are Consies. How this is done is the climax of the story, and I won't spoil it by detailing it here.

"Pohl Kornbluth" have created a remarkably consistent future in this gem of a story. Overpopulation is not referred to directly, but is illustrated by such picaresque touches as Mitch's luxury two-room apartment, with separate bath(!), or the wildly extravagant conference room at Fowler Shocken, a huge eight-by-ten room. Pollution and it's consequences are dealt with by the routine matter of inserting nose-plugs when going outside, by the fact that there are no more internal combustion engines (the oil has been used up), and transportation is by means of foot-powered vehicles (ala Flintstones), and by other beautiful touches.

The influence of advertising on the "consumer" is detailed in such little gems as having a "man on the street" parrot advertising slogans when asked about a particular product. Mitch's life as a "consumer" is also used to further the notion that the lower-class is in actual bondage, by use of such illustrations as bribery to secure better living and working conditions, and inflated prices which keep him forever in debt to his employer, with no hope of escape (and breaking a contract is a major criminal offense.)

Before commenting further on this book, let's look at it's sequel, The Merchants' War. This book was written in 1984, some thirty years after the first book, and long after the death of C.M. Kornbluth. It takes place some indeterminate time after the colonization of Venus. (Indeterminate because Pohl says variously that it is thirty years later, fifty years later, and at one point references the fact that the protagonist's great-grandfather worked with Mitchell Courtenay, which would make it about 100 years later.)

Tennison Tarb is a diplomat from Earth, working at the embassy on Venus. As with most of the diplomats, he has two functions; he is also a Terran spy. He has a relationship with a co-worker, Mitzi Ku, whose undercover job is to direct sabotage against the Venusian government. (The inhabitants and government are disparagingly referred to as "Veenies" by the Terrans.) While on a site-seeing tour shortly before Tennison (Tenny) is due to rotate back to Earth, they are struck by a train. Tenny is badly injured, and Mitzi is at first reported to have been killed, but later is said to be in critical condition in a Veenie hospital. Since his rotation date is near, Tenny is patched up and put aboard the rocket in cold-sleep, to complete recovery on the way home. When he awakens, the first (heavily-bandaged) face he sees is Mitzi's. It seems as though she received a huge settlement for her injuries, and instead of remaining on Venus, decided to also return to Earth, where both are employed by the Taunton-Gatchweiler-Shocken advertising agency, successor to the old Taunton And Shocken agencies, both of whom were crippled financially because of the original Venus colonization debacle.

Having been away from Earth for several years, Tenny is unaware of some changes in marketing rules, and almost instantly becomes addicted to a new product, Moke-coke. Because of this, his work suffers, and as Mitzi's star is rising at the agency, his is plummeting. Eventually, he is reassigned from selling "product" to "intangibles" (religion and politics.) Even though he is a "moke-head" he is quite successful at this, though his emotional and physical health is trending steadily down-hill.

Mitzi, meanwhile, has taken her injury award, and in a surprise move, has started her own advertising agency, along with one of the account executives from the old agency. Tenny, still enamoured of her, eventually convinces her to let him join her firm. He wants to return to selling product, but she says she wants him to continue with intangibles, and get as many officials that are beholden to her agency elected as possible. She also gets him involuntarily committed to a rehabilitation clinic, where he shakes his "Moke" dependence.

Tenny soon learns that Mitzi is not in fact Mitzi, but a Veenie agent who took her place after the accident (that is no major spoiler to the plot, anyone but a "Moke-head in love" could have spotted that early on.) Their plan is to gain control of the government and create a major depression, so that Earth will cease interferring in the affairs of Venus. Tenny is supportive of her goal, but quite unhappy with the means, because he still has strong loyalty to Earth. How he manages to accomplish the goal of leaving Venus in peace without harming Earth is the climax of the book, and you'll have to read it to find out what it is.

I do have one quibble with The Merchants' War, and that is the relationship between Tenny and the false Mitzi. This is a subject that is a particular irritant to me with many science-fiction stories. It's easy to see that Tenny could be in love with Mitzi; he, after all, had a relationship with the real Mitzi, and he is also a confused dope addict. But why the woman masquerading as Mitzi should ever fall in love with him is not satisfactorily explained, in my opinion.

Both books, it should be noted, are satire as well as science-fiction, and as such, the projections of a future society from the current one (as of 1952) are exaggerated to make their basic point. Could such a thing happen? Unlikely (although there are those today who would maintain that it has already begun.) But one of the reasons that it is unlikely to happen is because of books such as these, warning of possible future outcomes of trends the authors saw happening in their society (be it 1952 or 1984). After I finished these books, I also read Murray Leinster's "Operation: Outer Space," which also had an advertising man as it's protagonist, and also dealt with an over-populated Earth, but had a completely different outlook on the problem. I was a reporter for a radio station for many years, and as such, depended on advertising for my living, so I have a built-in bias to which I will freely admit; but, in my opinion, advertising fills an important function in the economic cycle. Like guns, nuclear power, or any other subject you care to mention, however, advertising can be misused as well as properly used. Books like these will hopefully put us on guard against the potential for misuse, so that it does not occur.

I would highly recommend both books to read just for the pleasure of a good story, and also to make you think a little.

Related Links:
Galen's Frederik Pohl Profile page


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Frederik Pohl
C. M. Kornbluth

Space Merchants 1952
Merchant's War 1984

The former is available in paperback from Check amazon, ebay or for used copies of "War."