The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl & C.M. Kornbluth = 4/5
The Space Merchants is a satire that follows the adventures of Mitch Courtney, a relatively well-off, self-centered copysmith working his way to the top of his corporation. His job is to create the best ads that will sell the most product to consumers and together with the other copysmiths at his firm, ideally create a cycle of dependency that ensures consumers are forever purchasing more and more products from the same brand. Mitch is dedicated to moving higher up the corporate social ladder and to convincing his trial wife to sign the paperwork to marry him for good after their one-year test marriage is up.
Everything changes when he’s put in charge of his firm’s Venus project–using his brilliant copysmithing skills, he must develop an advertising campaign that will convince the public that the inhospitable planet is the greatest, newest American colony. It seems like business as usual, until unknown assailants from rival corporations start trying to off him and he ends up kidnapped and press-ganged as an manual laborer producing an arguably edible substance that he helped successfully advertise the public, and he gets a taste of what it’s like to be an actual consumer. He has a run-in with the Conservationists, who are vehemently against America’s consumerism, and even joins the organization as he just tries to return to his own life. He eventually makes his way back to his old firm, but I’ll let you read the book to find out how Courtney’s story ends.
I read The Space Merchants almost a decade ago (!) and thought it time for a re-read. The book was first published in 1952, and I much prefer it to a lot of other contemporary American science fiction I’ve read from the time period. In places, the story is hard to put down because it feels like it’s moving at a break-neck speed (this is, however, not always the case). I couldn’t really empathize with Mitch Courtney and I kept getting frustrated when he made choices that, while logical for him, were not the choices I would have made in his shoes.
TL;DR: If you’re looking for a good, relatively quick Cold War science fiction story, a well-executed satire of mid-20th Century America’s advertising workplaces and of consumerist culture, or a story about whether people are willing to make lifestyle and personal changes when they’re forced to walk in someone else’s shoes, The Space Merchants is the book for you.
Review originally written 30 August 2017