Jun 3 2009 1:36pm

Advertising dystopia: Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants

The Space Merchants is a short sharp book the way they used to make them. It’s a future that extrapolates the advertising techniques of the early fifties and makes a nightmare future out of them. It’s pointed and satirical, but it’s kind of a one note joke—extending how advertising is manipulative, and making the quasi-religious attitude some companies have towards sales principles an actual religion. (I remember bits of it coming back to me very uncomfortably when I had a job in a company like that.) It’s a long time since I last read it, and I remembered all the atmosphere, some of the jokes, and none of the plot. (The plot’s pretty silly, and just what you’d expect from two hyper Futurians swapping the typewriter. No wonder I forgot it.)

The Space Merchants was first serialised in 1952 and published in book form in 1953. It’s typical of SF of the period in some ways—it mostly has horrible gender politics, there are nods towards characterisation, and it tries hard to stay close to the point of view of Mitchell Courtnay, its first person protagonist, but the important thing is the ideas. What was unusual about it and surprised people when it was new was taking an entirely sociological central idea rather than starting from the engineering. There are rockets in The Space Merchants, but it’s really about the copywriters, and it wasn’t made up from whole cloth, but written from a deep knowledge of how advertising worked at the time. (Pohl worked for a time in an advertising agency.)

Unfortunately, this central idea that seemed so cool then hasn’t aged all that well. The manipulations of the ad men look laughably simple, compared to the complexities of advertising now, because people have become less easy marks. We might have a consumer class, but we don’t have an advertising agency elite. Anyway, it’s not supposed to be prediction, it’s meant as satire. Unlike a lot of SF written at the time, it doesn’t have a continuing Cold War. The hunt for secret undercover “consies” (conservationists) clearly owes a lot to McCarthyism, but this is a future where capitalism didn’t just win but went rampantly rogue, where all the world is the worst bits of America.

Much more interesting as futurology are the incidentals of the background. This is a ridiculously over-populated Earth, only in Antarctica and around the blast-off range of Venus rockets is there any empty space at all. Rich people live alone in two rooms, with fold-out beds and tables. Privacy doesn’t exist. The entire planet is at worse than the density point of modern Tokyo. Well, there’s a future that didn’t happen, but you can see how in 1952 in the middle of the Baby Boom it looked as if it might. There are golf clubs on high floors of corporate sky scrapers.

It’s interesting to see conservationists so demonized, yet the forms of pollution and consumption everyone else is embracing so enthusiastically aren’t the ones that we see as the problems. They’re wearing “soot filters.” That kind of pollution turned out to be a fixable problem and is pretty much gone in first world countries. They’ve run out of oil and are pedaling their cars and using rockets for long distance travel, but there doesn’t seem to be any shortage of plastics. They don’t have any climate change problem, and they’re all eating hydroponic food and syntho-protein (with yummy addictive additives) because there’s literally no room for farms. They’ve paved the planet without having problems without the “lungs” of the rainforests. They’re also eating protein from Chicken Little, a giant chicken heart that keeps on growing and they keep on slicing—the image of that had stuck with me, especially the consie cell having a secret meeting in a chamber surrounded by it. And it’s weird to see the conservationists essentially giving up on Earth in favour of Venus. I’d forgotten that. This is a much nicer Venus than later probes have reported, it’s still pretty unpleasant but it’s comparatively easily terraformable. But even so!

I’m sure the idea of having short term marriage contracts seemed wonderfully innovative, and the idea of having our hero in love with a wife, Kathy, who won’t renew because of his attitudes (and secretly is a high-up consie) but that all reads very oddly now, in the same way romantic comedies are sometimes only a hairsbreadth from being stalker movies. I’m not judging 1952 by the standards of today, and they get a point for making Kathy a top heart surgeon, and a competent revolutionary. It still feels off.  Kathy won’t renew, because she loves him but hates advertising. He also has a devoted secretary, Hester, who literally gives up everything for him and even kills herself for him. The fact that he’s a total jerk hasn’t apparently dawned on either of them.

Courtney being a jerk is what makes him real. He genuinely loves advertising, and sales, and it takes a lot to make him even think about reconsidering his attitudes. It’s chilling. This genuine love is what makes the future convincingly dystopic—imagine an ad for a boot flashing on a human retina forever. Even when he’s been shanghaied to a work camp where he’s getting deeper in dept every day and has to pretend to become a consie to get out, his actual faith in advertising is unwavering. He does eventually reconsider, and gets the girl and the trip to Venus. Abandoning Earth is the happy ending. I wonder if that seemed as odd in 1952 as it does now?

(By the way, Fred Pohl has a very interesting blog, which I commend to your attention.)

1. CT2000
Heh. Chicken Little's always stuck with me too...that and Coffiest. It's the Coffiest!
2. DemetriosX
In a way, the book cover in your graphic makes me sad. Kornbluth's name is there in tiny print, almost an oversight, under the name of the famous guy. Yet Kornbluth deserves to be just as famous as Pohl. If he hadn't died young, he would probably have been rated among the very best of his generation, I dare say even ahead of Fred Pohl.
Jon Evans
3. rezendi
I always describe The Space Merchants as a book fifty years ahead of its time.
4. Ben O'C
Forgive me, Ms. Walton, if you've covered this in a previous thread --- and I'm almost certain you have, but you're so prolific I don't know where to look --- but how quickly do you read? Based on your posts, it seems like you knock out more books in one month than I do in one year. And, somewhat related, how much of your reading is devoted to material you've never read before? I know your posts here are (exclusively?) re-reads.
Jo Walton
5. bluejo
Ben: I tend to read about a book and a half a day, or around ten books a week. That varies depending what else I'm doing -- if I'm just lying in bed reading, I can get through five or six books in a day. (Or, as happened on one memorable occasion, A Suitable Boy.) It does vary by length of book -- the Doctrine of Labyrinths books took me more than a day each, for instance, because they're really long.

At the moment, I'm mostly re-reading. I feel like I'm goofing off when I squeeze in a new book.
6. Nancy Lebovitz
Pohl & Kornbluth's _Search the Sky_ has a chapter set on a planet with reversed sex roles-- and the point is that women have a lousy deal. The only bit I remember is about men crying at weddings because getting married makes the groom much worse off.

I'm not saying this makes the gender stuff in _The Space Merchants_ any different, but just that it might be worth looking at.
Stephen W
7. Xelgaex
Chicken Little sounds very similar to the Torchwood episode "Meat." I wonder if this book is where the idea came from.
Jo Walton
8. bluejo
Nancy: I think the gender stuff was, as with Heinlein, a genuine attempt to try to be feminist, on top of an awful lot of unexamined expectations.
Paul Eisenberg
9. HelmHammerhand
I got on a classic Pohl kick a little while back, and the book that I thought was even more pertinent these days, perhaps, than when it was first published was "The Cool War," which examines a world in which terrorism is a driving force in the world. But rather than 9/11-style, big explosion terrorisim, it was little acts of terrorism, such as importing exotic weeds, or leaving the sink running at the hotel - minor things that added up to take away the productivity of a citizenry as a whole.
I think at the time Pohl was putting it out there that many of these things we were doing to ourselves, but in the new century, it's taken a whole new light and is an example of where the writer was well ahead of his time. But there are a few commonalities with the book examined here in Jo's post, such as the death of privacy and overpopulation. And in the Cool War, capitalism has failed, resulting in a raging market in "collectibles" as the only currency with value.
Chris Pitchford
10. databoy
Ooh, typo?

"...deeper in dept (sic) every day..."

I think this shows that Mrs. Walton should be engaged in writing her next highly anticipated book and not writing these enjoyable articles for

Seriously. Don't make me copy-edit a blog post and write distracting little comments that Mrs. Walton will kindly read, taking her even further away from writing her next book.
Chris Meadows
11. Robotech_Master
The thing that always got me was the description of Coffiest, the coffee substitute, as containing an alkaloid stimulant that was addictive enough that it was less hassle for most people just to keep buying Coffiest than to kick the habit. Oooh, I thought, those evil ad men.

I didn't realize until years later that caffeine is an alkaloid stimulant that is addictive enough that it is less hassle for most people just to keep buying coffee than to kick the habit.

Incidentally, the book was adapted fairly well into a two-part CBS Radio Workshop drama. Part One, Part Two. (Or find the entire series on
12. SpeakerToManagers
DemetriosX @ 2

I agree completely. And you have to remember that Kornbluth was the cynic of the pair. He was working as a copywriter in an ad agency when he died, and his view of advertising was extremely jaundiced.

Kornbluth died young, but he left a number of really fine works behind. His short stories are mostly gems, often showing his cynicism: "The Luckiest Man in Denv", "Last Man Left in the Bar", "Two Dooms" "Clouds of Glory", "The Advent on Channel Twelve", "Theory of Rocketry", I could go on and on.

And what was probably the first novel to predict that the US would be run by organized crime, The Syndic.
13. neuroadvert
This is one of my favorite books! I credit it with pointing me toward my career (mass communication/ cognitive neuroscience research). For all the stuff not predicted in this book, there's an awful lot that's dead on. Thank goodness most of what I find demonstrates the limited power of persuasive techniques as currently employed... at least not without accounting for a bunch of moderating/mediating variables. Certainly not the incredibly bleak picture painted here! Although I have to laugh that some of the Greenies' techniques as represented in the book have been found to be more powerful than overt advertising :) Oh well, it is science *fiction*, after all.
John Armstrong
14. JohnnyYen
"...imagine an ad for a boot flashing on a human retina forever"

Nice one, Jo

The line I've never forgotten is the one about the "harmless addictive" they've added to the product.

Someone once said that if you want to know about an era, don't read its histories; read its satires
15. kiptw
I liked the book in the 70s, and re-read it a decade or so after. I'm almost afraid to read it now, though.

Chicken Little impressed me, too. I'm surprised nobody's mentioned Arch Oboler's 1937 "Lights Out" show about the chicken heart that grew to monstrous size. It was the basis for a hilarious Bill Cosby sketch in the 60s. (Young Bill, terrified by the radio monster, smears jelly on the floor to make it trip and sets fire to the couch to scare it away. Only... funny!)

Some say the world will end by fire, some by ice. A chicken heart in constant growth is not as nice but will suffice.

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