Thursday, March 17, 2016

Book Review: The Space Merchants

© 1952 by Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth

I grabbed my phone and slammed a connection through to my special detail in Business Espionage. “Put tails on Jack O’Shea,” I snapped. “He’s leaving the building soon. Tail him and tail everybody he contacts. Night and day. If I hit paydirt on this you and your men get upgraded and bonused. But God help you if you pull a butch.”

- The Space Merchants, ultimate paragraph, chapter 16

If you were a movie-goer in the early 80s, particularly if you watched a Monty Python movie (or a movie starring a Monty Python alum, like, er, Time Bandits), you may recall seeing a pretty clever ten minute clip. It featured a bunch of stereotypical office workers whose company suddenly – and quite literally – decides to go to war. Or rather, fend off an attack. Skyscrapers become 18th-century warships, moving past each other, as grappling hooks are thrown out windows. Pirates in three-piece suits and casual Friday attire swing into battle. Cannons are fired, file cabinets explode, and the whole this become a surreal detour to something like Blackbeard meets The Office.

Well, this was the image that took up residence in my mind reading Pohl and Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants – except with a science fiction space opera twist, of course. Say, Michael Scott and Dwight Schrute fighting the bugs in Starship Troopers. Or something like that. My imagination’s vivid.

Anyway, need I expound on how great a writer Frederik Pohl was / is? Don’t know much about his occasional literary partner Cyril Kornbluth except that he died tragically young (age 34 it turns out) of a heart attack. How much of what is who’s contribution, I can’t tell. I’ve never read anything else by Kornbluth but I have read other Pohl works (Man Plus and Gateway come immediately to mind). Together they make a great team. Space Merchants is gritty 50s noir meets action potboiler, where everyone talks like Bugs Bunny and dresses like the Jetsons. It’s that awesome.

There are too many twists, turns, and genuine surprises over the course of the tale to rehash or even hint at in this little review. It’s basically a sharp, eerily prescient satire of Big Advertising. Advertising so powerful and ravishing it controls just about every facet of human life on 21st century Earth, business so dominant that congressmen come directly from corporations, life so cheap that one can find oneself trapped in such a nasty occupation as a scum skimmer on the drop of a dime. It’s all tongue-in-cheek, witty, fast-paced, but it’s still dystopia. Big business, with advertising as its mace, its battleaxe, its Minuteman peacekeeper missile, is so ravenous its set its sights on the next open frontier: the virgin world of Venus.

Mitch Courtenay is a rising star at Fowler Schocken Associates, a Madison Avenue powerhouse locked in a fight to the death with its rival, Taunton Associates, for, well, literally everything, from daily fixes such as coffee, chips, and cigarettes, to where people should live and what they should do. He’s tasked with the job of stealing Venus – inhospitable, deadly Venus – from Taunton, and in the process, convincing the average Joe and Jane to move there. Where, of course, they’d eat Schocken-approved food and live in Schocken-approved dwellings wearing Schocken-approved clothing, etc.

And the fight is literally to the death as Mitch dodges a couple of creative assassination attempts and an unnerving date with a creepy torturer. While trying to come up with a creative angle for Venusian emigration via a dwarf with a chip on his shoulder. While trying to woo his strangely distant doctor wife who he’s madly in love with. He’s shanghaied, and has to fight back by infiltrating an underground ecological revolutionary movement. There’s office politics, presidential politics, a very hostile takeover attempt, all sprinkled deftly with lots of crass and clever humor. The plot moves, the pages turn, spiraling to an ending I didn’t anticipate.

It even had the tinge of sadness from unrequited love.

I liked it a lot.

Grade: solid A

[Now, the book’s entire premise satirizes and parodies the whole Big Advertising phenomenon, nascent in Pohl’s time and full-blown in ours (though not as hyper-realized as it is in The Space Merchants). But this is okay, because the authors don’t wage sloppy, heavyhanded war against it like, oh, a devout Bernie Sanders disciple might. We all know and understand that completely unfettered capitalism, like just about anything completely unfettered, is not a good thing. I like my capitalism just fine. It enabled me to earn the money to buy this book freely. After reading The Space Merchants, I feel certain Pohl and Kornbluth agree.]

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