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The Space Merchants: SF Masterworks 54

by Frederik Pohl and CM Kornbluth

(Gollancz, 6.99, 186 pages, paperback, first published 1952, this edition published 10 July 2003.)

cover scanIn 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 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.

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 works).

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.

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