The Space Merchants

by Frederick Pohl, C. M. Kornbluth

Wow, what a pleasant surprise. I’m reading Ready Player One along with the 372-pages-I’ll-never-get-back (372pages.com) and so I’m pacing myself there, which is good because I need a break from its awfulness. (And bad, because if I weren’t reading along with the book club, I’d be done by now.)

I half expected this to be another “patch-up” job where they took a bunch of loosely related stories published in a magazine and filled it up and twisted things around to try to make a novel about it. But while there was, apparently, an abbreviated version of the book in “Galaxy” (I think), this one does not show any seams of where it might have been cut or filled out. (In other words, I actually believe it was condensed for a magazine rather than written for a magazine and filled out.)

It’s tight. It’s not long but there is no wasted space here. It’s actually pretty breakneck while managing to flesh out a pretty good dystopic sci-fi world. In fact, I’d ding the book for being yet-another-example of “overpopulated, depleted earth run by evil corporations” but this may have been the first!.

OK, it probably wasn’t the first, but in 1952, it was still pretty edgy, and it has the advantage of the Golden Age’s heroic traditions undergirding it. So, while it gets dark—really, really dark—it does not get nihilistic.

The setting is like “Mad Men” meets Brave New World. Our hero is a copy man—a Star-class copy man, who lands a big assignment: He’s got to sell people on going to Venus, because a megacorp wants to exploit their labor. In this future world, people are born into castes—mostly poor, of course—and basically automated to within an inch of their lives. The two main divisions are “consumers” and, well, the guys at the top, like our hero.

There’s a lot of biting satire here that still has its sting 65 years later. (Though I guess Pohl added and updated the book right before he died, and I would read that.)

The plot kicks into gear when, through a bit of corporate maneuvering, Mitch (our hero) ends up at the bottom of the food chain, robbed of his identity and feeding sludge a giant-mutant-chicken-like-organism. He works with his arch-nemeses, the “consies”, who are…yes, conservationists. (That’s how old this book is: They had to make up a name for enviro-eco-whatevers.) (Ed. note: I’m sure the term “conservationist” predates this book going back to the 19th century, but this is an extraoridnary/extreme use of the word.)

The beauty of this segment is that Mitch manages to escape his fate almost completely unscathed in his worldview. Consumers, he decides, are much different from us and are right where they need to be in society.

Well, look, his life is pretty damn good; he’s got a lot of motivation to believe that society is just fine the way it is.

It’s that kind of depth that makes this book rise above the usual fare. (And I’m sort of embarrassed for not having known of it before, as it apparently generally does well on “top 100” lists.) Mitch is seriously tasked to change his worldview and I’m not really sure he fully does. In fact, like a real person, I sorta think he doesn’t. He comes around a little—in what would now be an uncharacteristically romantic twist.

The book throws words and concepts at you pretty fast, much like Mind Over Ship which I had just read. But despite being much shorter and having some interesting concepts (like the giant chickenish organism), it manages to anchor them to enough in the real world for me to grasp. (Mind Over Ship is much more ambitious in that regard, and much of what this book is pioneering is now part of the SF language, so that’s a big help, too.)

Anyway, at a blazing 150+ pages, it’s “can’t put it down” level stuff and was sorely missing from my education.

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