The Space Merchants: SF Masterworks 54
(Gollancz, £6.99, 186 pages, paperback, first published 1952, this
edition published 10 July 2003.)
The Space Merchants. Horace Gold, infamous editor
of Galaxy, wanted a novel to serialise--if Pohl could finish the book,
Gold would publish it. However, with pressing work commitments, Pohl
could not guarantee to finish the book on time--so enter C.M. Kornbluth.
He'd worked with Pohl on stories before, and agreed to see what he could
add to the first 20k. He rewrote the beginning of the book, added a
middle section of his own, and the pair finished the novel in turns.
The book was serialised by Gold under the title of Gravy Planet
(with chapters set on Venus added). Then the hard work of selling the
novel to a book publisher began. Every major house in New York turned
it down flat--one editor going so far as to say that it wasn't very
good and that it needed a pro-writer to pull it into shape.
1951, working as a literary agent and with little time to spare for
his own fiction, Pohl wrote the first twenty thousand words of what
was to become
Then Ian Ballantine started a new SF paperback line, published The
Space Merchants in 1952, and the rest is history. The book became
a classic, cited by Kingsley Amis in New Maps of Hell as having,
"... many claims to being the best science fiction novel so far." The
book was translated into twenty five languages and has sold an estimated
ten million copies world-wide.
And here it is yet again, presented in the excellent SF Masterworks
series, with a Blade Runner-inspired cover by Steve Stone (which
But is it a classic, and does it deserve Masterwork status?
Reading this novel more than fifty years after its first publication,
I was struck by two things. The first and most important is Pohl and
Kornbluth's prescient extrapolation of globalisation and the power of
advertisement. The second is the characterisation of Mitchell Courtenay.
The world is one vast global economy run from America, and specifically
by two advertising agencies--Schocken-Fowler for whom Courtenay works,
and the Taunton agency. These super-powers rule supreme. Cultural status
is defined by one's ability to afford consumer goods. It's a divided
world of haves and have-nots, with everyone fighting to have. What is
incredible about this vision, written half a century ago, is its far-sighted
grasp of the evils of a consumer-driven society. (There is even a terrorist
opposition known as the Consies--Conservationists)
The characterisation of Courtenay is interesting, too. For much of
the book he is an anti-hero, a top-level advertising copywriter content
with his privileged status and ignorant of the suffering in society.
Courtenay is not an appealing character, and for Pohl and Kornbluth
to portray an unsympathetic central character in the early '50s was
a brave risk--but one which worked within the context of the story.
As for the story... it's a pretty conventional thriller run-around.
Courtenay gets the job of selling the idea that the colonisation of
Venus, an almost uninhabitable hell-hole, is desirable; the Taunton
agency and the Consies oppose the idea; Courtenay finds himself officially
'dead' and working at a menial job in Puerto Rica--his first taste of
life as a have-not . It's a fast-paced, complex, twisting read with
plenty of thrills and spills and turn-arounds. Courtenay's conversion
towards the end of the novel, when he comes to appreciate the ideals
of the Consies, is a trifle glib and unconvincing, and the ending is
a little skimpy--but what makes The Space Merchants a classic
is the fact that Pohl and Kornbluth, knocking out this short novel in
New York in '51, proved to be eerily accurate foretellers of a future
very much like the one we are now inhabiting.
Review by Eric Brown.