The Space Merchants is a science fiction novel written by Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth and published in 1953. It’s also one of the great dystopian novels of the modern era.
The future world of The Space Merchants is controlled entirely by huge corporations. Government functions merely as a rubber stamp for the decisions of the corporations. Congress is owned lock, stock and barrel by these corporations and the President is a figurehead with no power at all. By far the most powerful companies are the advertising agencies, and the most powerful agencies are Taunton Associates and Fowler Schocken.
This is a horrifically overpopulated world but population growth is still enthusiastically encouraged. More population means more cheap labour and more consumers and therefore more sales, and that means more profit. No-one questions the assumption that this is a good thing.
This is also a totalitarian society but it’s what we would today call a soft totalitarianism, enforced mostly by propaganda and social pressure. The iron fist beneath the velvet glove is only revealed when a consumer commits a really serious crime, such as questioning the value of advertising.
Competition between corporations is fierce but out-and-out murder is frowned upon unless proper notification has been given that a state of commercial feud exists. Corporations have gone beyond the stage of running the state - they now function as states themselves. There are no police forces - law enforcement has been entirely privatised.
Art and popular entertainment no longer exist apart from their role in providing opportunities for advertising.
The story is narrated by Mitch Courtenay, a star class copysmith with Fowler Schocken. Mitch has just been given a new assignment. He has been put in charge of the Venus account. An immense rocket has been constructed which will transport the first Earth colonists to Venus. The colony will of course be run by Fowler Schocken entirely for the benefit of Fowler Schocken and its associated companies.
One minor problem is that nobody in their right mind would want to be a colonist on Venus. But this isn’t really a problem at all. By the time Fowler Schocken’s Venus advertising campaign is in full swing everyone will want to be a Venus colonist.
Mitch Courtenay’s life is going pretty well, apart from his marriage. He’d like to make the marriage permanent but Kathy won’t agree. In fact she wants to end the agreement before the end of the trial period. And there is one other minor irritant in Mitch’s life - someone is trying to kill him. This is puzzling since as far as he knows no other corporation has declared a commercial feud against Fowler Schocken.
Mitch soon finds himself on a roller coaster ride of terror and misery. Having people trying to kill you is bad enough but he finds that his identity has been stolen and he now faces the most appalling fate imaginable - having to live as a consumer.
He also gets mixed up with the consies. The consies are the Conservationists. These are dangerous fanatics who believe that overpopulation is out of control, that life has become sterile and meaningless and that deurbanisation and a return to a more traditional lifestyle are essential. They are so extreme that they even question whether increasing consumption is a good thing.
The plot has some rather wild twists and turnings as Mitch discovers that all his assumptions about the world and about the people he knows may be quite wrong.
While this novel doesn’t have the literary polish of the great dystopian novels of Huxley and Orwell it does feature a dystopian which is every bit as fully worked out and every bit as convincing. If 1984 was the great communist dystopian novel then The Space Merchants is the great capitalist dystopian novel. There is however one feature that both dystopias have in common - they are societies in which the elites have absolute power while the mass of the people have no power at all. And, interestingly enough, the capitalist elites of The Space Merchants maintain their control by much the same methods as the communist elites in 1984 - through the control of language, by rewriting the past, by encouraging people to denounce dissidents and through endless and all-pervasive propaganda. And the consies serve much the same purpose as Emmanuel Goldstein in 1984 - it seems that every totalitarianism has to have an enemy as a focus of fear and hatred.
Pohl and Kornbluth are careful not to introduce any radical new technologies into their tale. Every technology is this novel is merely an extrapolation of technologies that existed in the early 1950s such as rocketry, radio and television. The intention was obviously to make this dystopia as plausible as possible. What makes the book truly terrifying today is not this plausibility but the fact that so much of what the authors predict has already come true.
The Space Merchants is also very amusing (in a sometimes very dark way) and highly entertaining. It’s very pulpy but in a way that’s a strength - the crassness of a wold run by advertising agencies lends itself to a pulpy treatment.
Very highly recommended.