Monthly Archives: May 2008

From Madison Avenue to Venus, the space merchants rule

Widely regarded as a classic of the genre, Pohl and Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants (1953) takes critical aim at the increasing commercialization of society, and particularly one of the main tools used to drive it: the advertising industry. Woven into this framework is commentary on many related topics such as overpopulation, depletion of natural resources, pollution, the political process, privatization of government functions, concentration of power, and so on. Taken all together, it’s a pretty sarcastic look at our materialistic consumer-driven society and where it might be headed.

The story takes place at some unspecified time in the near future; the Moon has been colonized, and Venus is next in line. The world is very crowded (lower-class people rent space in the stairwells of buildings to sleep), very polluted (one doesn’t walk around outdoors in the smog without “soot plugs” in one’s nose), quickly running out of important resources (metal is so scarce people wear rings made of wood), and dominated by a never-ending onslaught of advertising from the two main ad firms, which between the two of them manage the accounts for just about every product and business in existence. The story is told from the perspective of Mitchell Courtenay, a star-class ad-man with Fowler Schocken Associates, which has just gotten the Venus account — the ad campaign to convince a bunch of poor saps that colonizing Venus will lead to “the American dream,” rather than to a life of toil and hardship.

I’m not going to say much about the actual plot, since it wasn’t all that spectacular. Let’s just say it involves Courtenay’s fall from power and his attempts to regain his lost position, all while learning shocking things about the people he thought he knew. It wasn’t at the level of plot and characters that I enjoyed this book; it was at the level of its social commentary that it was strongest.

As for the world of advertising, there’s little here that will shock modern sensibilities (and perhaps that’s a sign of just how jaded our society has become). But the criticism of the ad world’s faults is right on target: its devotion to the “god of Sales,” its use of manipulation of all kinds, its attempt to convince people they need every new product that hits the market, and its arrogant “the world is our oyster” attitude. And its view of people as simply a resource to be exploited:

Increase of population was always good news to us. More people, more sales. Decrease of IQ was always good news to us. Less brains, more sales.

Fowler Schocken Associates wants Venus colonized so that there will be a new population to be exploited — by businesses they do ad work for, of course. And how did they get the Venus account in the first place? The government gave it to them. Government in this future world is a mere puppet of the business world. Senators aren’t elected by the people, but are sent to Washington by the corporations they represent. The President is elected, I believe, but is a mere figurehead; Congress “lets” him attend sessions now and then, and they give him the State of the Union address. In one of the funnier scenes in the book, a subservient little man tries unsuccessfully to get an audience with a Senator, then meekly introduces himself to our ad-man protagonist, and he turns out to be…. the President, of course.

In this world ruled by business and advertising, a kind of fearful respect for the powers-that-be has permeated every part of society and most people have perfected their transition to sheepdom. For instance, during a plane trip, a man complains about a certain ad, and when Courtenay takes him to task for it, he goes on the defensive and declares what a good little consumer he is:

It frightened him. “I only meant that it smelled a little strong,” he said hastily. “Just that particular ad. I didn’t mean ads in general. There’s nothing wrong with me, my friend!

And another indicator of the new modern attitude:

She’d been brought up in a deeply moral, sales-fearing home….

The Space Merchants takes pokes at many other topics, more than I can cover here, but here’s a brief rundown of some of them: corporate brown-nosing, easy credit and how it can get you in trouble, surrendering to TV to escape the dreariness of everyday life, the whittling down of paychecks by taxes and fees and withholdings and this and that and the other, and the silly attempt to gain status through low social security numbers (the way some people feel special for having a low license plate number).

The book is dense with these sorts of observations, criticisms, and spoofs of human failings and the frustrations of life in a modern commercial society. And since many of those frustrations have only become more pronounced since the book was written half a century ago, it is even more relevant today than ever.

Simak’s Cemetery World

I read one of Simak’s books (Way Station) when I was a teenager, and I recall that way back then I rather liked it. On the other hand, that’s been a long time ago and I couldn’t remember anything concrete about that story or Simak’s stlye. So I decided it was time to give this classic author another shot. Since Cemetery World presented itself to me on a recent used bookstore visit, I decided that would do. Now, after reading Simak as an adult with a decent amount of SF under my belt, I can’t say that I’m too terribly impressed. There are some parts of his writing style that I like, but overall I don’t think he’s going to become one of my favorites. And that’s OK; not every author can be a favorite.

Published in 1973, this is the tale of a future Earth that has been abandoned by most of humanity, and has become a high-prestige graveyard for humans from other planets (those who can afford it anyway). When a young artist travels there to make Earth the subject of his masterpiece, he finds a lot more trouble than he bargains for. This future Earth is under the control of a corporation that gets filthy rich selling burial plots on mankind’s original homeworld, and exorbitantly-priced travel packages to those wishing to visit the cemetery world. They keep a tight control over their golden goose, not tolerating any interference with their stranglehold on Earth.

There is some good commentary here on the world of business and its less-then-exemplary practices. It’s amusing to see the local Cemetery administrator try to justify his company’s behavior. For example, he dismisses the excesses of the company’s ad men on other worlds, claiming they are too far away for the company to be held responsible for them. He then tries to excuse the company’s outrageous fees with an appeal to emotion, playing up the nobility of what they’re doing and what a good thing it is for humanity. The hypocrisy is evident at the start of the book, and only becomes more apparent later on when the company is found to be involved in theft, deception, attempted murder, bribery, and all sorts of distasteful enterprises.

The best parts of the book are Simak’s elegant descriptions of Earth and what it means to humanity, even after all these centuries as a graveyard. For example:

“You remember Mother Earth,” he told me, “all the days you’re gone, all the years in space and on the other planets. You call up in your mind exactly what it’s like. Then you land and open up the port and walk out on its surface and it hits you, suddenly, that you’ve remembered only half of it, Mother Earth is too big and beautiful to hold it all in mind.”

Simak is very good with passages like this, evoking the wonder and majesty and beauty of the natural world. And in this book he deftly depicts the deep emotional bond we have with the planet of our birth. There is a reason his style is so often referred to as “pastoral.” These passages are quite soothing and enjoyable.

However, after about the first third of the book it started going downhill for me — and not just going but wildly tumbling downhill. I can only explain by saying that the further the story went, the more absurd and juvenile it got. The events of the plot became less and less realistic, while the cast of characters became more and more ridiculous. It was just one crazy situation after another, in a sequence that was far too simplistic to be believable, and with the characters taking it all in stride without much analysis or protest. At a certain point it became too much to take, what with the ghosts, metal robot wolves, and hillbillies, among other oddities. I mean, when there are ghosts floating around, are you really reading sci-fi anymore? (There was no SFnal explanation for them; they apparently were actual ghosts.) And it was quite a shock to find that 10,000 years down the road, the Earth will be populated with honest-to-goodness hillbillies — telepathic hillbillies, at that! — and after all that time they’ve miraculously retained all the identifying cultural marks (hoedowns, square dances, moonshine, living in shacks in the mountains, and so on). Talk about your dystopias!

So to recap: some very nice descriptions of nature and our planet’s value, some good social commentary, but a clunky and simplistic plot and lots of hokey and shallow characters. On balance, I can’t say this book was a very enriching experience. Sorry Cliff, I gave you a chance, and you gave me hillbillies. I’m not sure I can forgive or forget that.

“…living in an SF scenario.”

I found this article at the UK’s Times Online, “Why don’t we love science fiction?” I’m sure we’ve all read plenty of articles about the snobbishness of the literary establishment toward SF, and why SF is important and worthwhile, and this is another of the same type. Of course with me, they’re preaching to the choir, but I thought it was a very good article nevertheless, and worth sharing. Here are some of the most share-worthy parts:

“The truth is,” Aldiss has written, “that we are at last living in an SF scenario.” A collapsing environment, a hyperconnected world, suicide bombers, perpetual surveillance, the discovery of other solar systems, novel pathogens, tourists in space, children drugged with behaviour controllers – it’s all coming true at last. Aldiss thinks this makes SF redundant. I disagree. In such a climate, it is the conventionally literary that is threatened, and SF comes into its own as the most hardcore realism.

People often say that science fiction is terrible at predictions, but it seems to me that just about every scientific invention and discovery of the 20th century was foreseen, if not in the precise details, then at least in a general way in SF literature. Foreseen, written about, the implications explored, then left on “simmer” until it (or something very like it) became reality. And like the author of that article, I too disagree with Aldiss about this making SF redundant. On the contrary, I think SF continues to become more and more relevant.

The big problem with being sniffy about SF is that it’s just too important to ignore. After all, what kind of fool would refuse to be seen reading Borges’s Labyrinths, Stanislaw Lem’s Fiasco, Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World or Wells’s War of the Worlds just because they were SF? These are just good books, irrespective of genre. But they are also books that embody the big ideas of the time – both Wells and Lem were obsessed with human insignificance in the face of the immense otherness of the universe, Huxley with technology as a seductive destroyer and Orwell with our capacity for authoritarian evil. Borges, like Lem, suspects we know nothing of ourselves. Interested in these things? Of course you are. Read SF.


The point is that SF is, in fact, the necessary literary companion to science. How could fiction avoid considering possible futures in a world of perpetual innovation? And how could science begin to believe in itself as wisdom, rather than just truth, without writers scouting out the territory ahead? Which is why this widely despised genre should be read now more than ever.

Exactly right.

The Listeners, for anyone who’s listening

James Gunn’s The Listeners, published in 1972, is a fictional tale of a SETI-style program to search for transmissions from intelligent alien civilizations. I have always seen this book described as almost a sister to Carl Sagan’s Contact; and I wish I could provide some comparison, but I can’t since I’ve never read the latter work. I have seen the movie version though, and if that’s any indication, I have a sneaking suspicion that I would prefer Sagan’s novel over Gunn’s — although final judgment must be reserved until I’ve actually read both. However, this is not to say that Gunn’s novel isn’t worthwhile as well. It is, but in different ways than I was expecting.

When I picked up this book, I was looking for a scientific adventure. I expected to read about scientists engaged in an magnificent enterprise, explaining all the technical details, experiencing the excitement of discovering an alien message, applying their intellects to deciphering it, and so forth. I was eager for an in-depth look at how science would deal with this situation and use all its resources to solve the puzzle. And all of this was there, but it was too generalized to be very satisfying. The way the signals were detected and analyzed, the way the alien message was deciphered…. it was all too facile, too slick. The results were simply given to the reader, but the process behind them was largely glossed over.

Instead, this book puts much more of its focus on the social issues surrounding the scientific ones. What kind of people would devote their lives and careers to a search that may never turn up anything and may ultimately be pointless? How would such a program continue to get funding after years of no results? And if, against all odds, it does turn up evidence of alien life, how would the people of Earth react? Would we be able to deal with it? Would it make us feel larger, or smaller? Would it be a benefit, or a curse?

I believe when judging a book, the author’s intent should always be taken into account, and I suppose Gunn’s intent is right there in the book’s title: he’s concerned not so much with the listening but the listeners. It’s less about the actual signal itself, and more about those (the species and the individuals) searching for it, and why. It’s more about the personal and the social than the scientific. So even though I would have preferred more of the science, I can see where Gunn is coming from here and respect it. He does a decent job of pointing out the sacrifices made by people who are devoted to important jobs, the need for effective leadership, the tensions between science and religion, and our never-ending need to ponder our place in the universe.

And yet, I found some of his applications of these personal and social factors to be laid on a bit thick, or lacking in believability. For instance, the cult of personality surrounding the Project’s director; everyone worships him as if he’s the only person in the world who could have done the job. And the seemingly hereditary nature of his position that is later held by his son and grandson — not very realistic, that. Also, I thought the first director’s problems with his wife and her suicide attempt, his later problems with his son, the President’s problems with his own son, and a certain journalist’s inner demons and bitterness about his career, were a little on the overdramatic side, and unnecessary.

One thing that was utterly brilliant, though, was the alternating chapters that consisted entirely of quotations from various real-world scientists, philosophers, authors, poets, priests, and the like, all relating in some way to the possibility of the existence of alien life, all tackling the concept from different angles. These chapters were my favorite part of the book, actually. Among those quoted were such figures as Carl Sagan, Freeman Dyson, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Nikola Tesla, Immanuel Kant, William Butler Yeats, Walt Whitman, Theodore Sturgeon, H.G. Wells, A.E. Van Vogt, and C.S. Lewis. Gunn’s reputation as not only an author but also a scholar of science fiction shows here; the snippets from older sci-fi literature describing various aliens were amusing, but more seriously I think they were meant to represent how the average person may conceptualize aliens.

Another thing I liked was how Gunn showed just how ignorant people can be about scientific issues, or indeed about any kind of important world issue. For example: after the alien signal is discovered and has appeared all over the news, one woman has her tv viewing interrupted by a pollster asking what she thinks about it. Irritated, she replies that she doesn’t know what he’s talking about and just wants to get back to watching her show, ironically a sci-fi show called “Station in Space” (a forerunner of DS9 perhaps? lol). In another instance, one guy asks his friend if he’s seen the message from another star. His friend replies that he thinks the scientists made it all up, since there could be no life on a star! Yes, Gunn hits the mark on this score; that kind of stupidity really does exist, unfortunately.

Bottom line here, this was a decent book that did some things well, others not so well, could have been a lot better, but was worth reading all the same.

What was your introduction to sci-fi?

I certainly hope it was more elegant and, umm… cleaner than in this story Nancy Kress shares about one of her fans. Of course, if the young lady had to go through that to get some good science fiction, at least she was lucky enough to find such a superb novel. One could hardly do better than starting off with Beggars in Spain as one’s first sci-fi reading experience. Kress says she herself started with Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End.

My memory is a bit shaky going that far back, but I think the first sci-fi book I ever read was Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. That would have been in grade school, I’m sure, because I have a clear memory of the book being in the grade school library. I just don’t recall what year it was, exactly. Most likely I was around 9 or 10 years old.

It’s possible I read some other juvenile-type sci-fi around that time that has completely escaped my memory. The next thing I remember is reading whatever fantasy was in the school library, which wasn’t that much: The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, and Quag Keep by Andre Norton. Those were around age 11-12.

I think I was 14 when I was looking through a box of old books my parents had picked up at a yard sale. In it I found a hardcover book missing its dust jacket, called A Time of Changes, by some fellow named Robert Silverberg whom I’d never heard of before. I didn’t even have any idea it was science fiction. Out of idle curiosity, I opened to the first page for a brief scan to see if there was anything interesting. And there was. I was drawn in by the fantastic narrative hook, and before I knew it I was finished reading what was to become one of my favorite novels ever. At age 15 I happened upon another “favorite novel ever” — Frank Herbert’s masterpiece Dune. By that time, I was thoroughly hooked and and my sci-fi readings became more frequent.

So there you have it, some of my foundational SF experiences. All in the usual manner, I might add…. nothing strange, no stickiness involved, nothing like that. Just me and some great books.

So what’s your story?

Sheckley gains high status with me

Here’s another “first book I’ve read by this author” situation; and wouldn’t you know it, it turned me into an instant Robert Sheckley fan. Gotta love it when that happens.

The Status Civilization (1960) is yet another utopian/dystopian story, taking on the issues of conformity and societal pressure to subordinate the individual to the group. The novel is somewhat on the quirky side, reading like an extended episode of The Twilight Zone. In fact, with a little condensing it would have been perfect for that show. I can almost hear the back cover blurb in the voice of Serling: “This is future Earth — one vast and stratified society that brutally ejects all who fail to conform. And you’ve just entered… ” — you know the rest. There are some farcical elements here, which I normally don’t care for, but Sheckley succeeds brilliantly in presenting some substantial and thoughtful social commentary, and does it with style.

Will Barrent wakes up on a starship with no memory of who he is, or anything else for that matter. He soon learns he’s one of a cargo-load of criminals being dumped on the prison planet Omega (last letter of the Greek alphabet… “end of the line”… nice symbolism). After being told his name and his crime (murder), he is thrust into the chaos of trying to adjust to Omegan society. For on this prison planet there are no cells and no guards (except the guardships in orbit). The criminals are left to govern themselves, and have formed a bizarre society that is at once savage and unpredictable, but also orderly and lawful in its own way. The Omegans revel in their criminality, and have formalized that attitude in their legal and civil structure. One gains status by killing others, but this must be done according to certain complicated rules. And breaking the rules gets you into trouble with the Omegan justice system, consisting of departments such as the Kangaroo Court, the Star Chamber, and such. But even if one is found guilty, the sentence can be avoided if one is creative or brazen enough to find the loopholes, which Barrent seems to be good at.

While explaining the legal system of Omega, Sheckley takes the opportunity for some barbed commentary which could apply just as well to our own world:

Without the law, there could be no privileges for those who made the law; therefore the law was absolutely necessary.

Life has a superficial appearance of normality on Omega, but underneath that everything is utterly backwards. People have their own homes and businesses (common among these are weapon shops, drug emporiums, poison and antidote sellers, assassin’s guilds, and the like). They go to church (although they worship pure Evil). They visit psychologists (to help with problems like not wanting to kill). It’s a very strange world with a strange outlook. The philosophical “problem of Good” cracked me up.

All that may sound entertaining (and it is), but things get more serious when Barrent finds reason to believe he is innocent of the crime he’s here for. Even more, he finds others in the same situation. From what they can piece together from their almost-wiped memories, it seems a good portion of the prisoners on Omega were sent there not for real crimes, but for the offense of nonconformity on Earth — for criticizing the government, for expressing unpopular opinions, for failing to follow the crowd like good sheep. So, a daring plan is formed: when the next prison ship arrives, Barrent sneaks aboard for a ride back to Earth to find out what really happened, and why he was really imprisoned.

Once he gets there, he finds a society on Earth that is every bit as bizarre as that on Omega. This future society has taken conformity to a disgusting and insidious extreme. Disgusting, because the urge to conform is so thorough as to turn people into robots. Insidious, because this society has grown soft and weak, losing touch with its technology, leaving everything automated by machines which continue to enforce the desire for conformity through psychological manipulation of humanity. In this regard the book has parallels with Gunn’s The Joy Makers, published in the same year and one of my favorites; indeed, the two novels seem to me somewhat similar stylistically. (Also, both novels have a similar scene in which the protagonist arrives on Earth and walks across an eerily deserted landing field.)

Barrent finds a history book which attempts to justify the drive to conformity:

The need was dictated by the continued explosive increase in population, and the many problems of unification across national and ethnic lines. Differences in opinion could be deadly [...]

That sounds very familiar. In fact, it’s the same reasoning behind the conformist society in Silverberg’s The World Inside, which I recently reviewed.

Barrent finds the information he’s looking for about his past, and in the process encounters one of the best plot twists I’ve ever seen. He then comes to the ironic conclusion that Omega is now a better examplar of individuality and freedom than Earth is, and only a merger of the two societies will save humanity and lead it forward. I like that. Nicely done, Mr. Sheckley!

My first (but not to be the last) taste of Stapledon

Looking to increase my familiarity with earlier eras of science fiction, and its classic works and authors, it’s natural that I would come at some point to Olaf Stapledon. Published in 1935, Odd John is, I’m fairly certain, the oldest sci-fi novel I’ve read so far. And I must say, if there was SF this good being produced back then, I’m sure I’ll be reading more of it. Especially from Stapledon, who is an interesting author. He had degrees in Modern History and Philosophy, and that background seems to have given depth and insight to his fiction. It certainly is evident in Odd John.

Written a few decades before the term “transhumanism” was coined, this novel deals with that kind of issue: the emergence of a new strain of humanity that is so far advanced it threatens to make “normal” humans obsolete. The mechanism behind these superbeings (which he labels Homo superior) is good old-fashioned genetic mutation, even though it’s not explored in any real depth; it’s not a “how did this happen” story, but rather a “what would be the consequences of…” story. The novel revolves around one particular superbeing, an odd fellow named John, born in England early in the 20th century. Right from the start it is clear to everyone that John is different. Very different.

After a gestation period of eleven months, John is born looking extremely frail, underdeveloped, and peculiar, with short white hair and abnormally large, dark eyes. Throughout childhood and later life, he suffers from a delicate digestive system, and due to his small body he always looks years younger than his true age. His mental development, however, is the complete opposite. His mind quickly outstrips those of everyone around him: siblings, parents, teachers, mathematicians, scientists, everyone. He voraciously absorbs all the knowledge he comes across, mastering a subject, then getting bored with it and moving on to another, all the while feeling disdain for the cognitive limits of the “normals.” At a young age he comes to the realization that he is of a different species than those around him. As he grows older, John goes through various life stages. For a while he spends his time creating novel new inventions. Later, he goes through a period of “finding himself” — a spiritual journey, for lack of a better term. Later he develops telepathic abilities and discovers that there are others like him around the world. There is then a period of travel to gather these kindred souls together, and later still they all travel to a tropical island to found their own colony dedicated to their purpose of creating a new and better world. But this ends in disaster when the normals discover what they are up to and sense a threat to the established order.

Through the instrument of John, Stapledon offers quite a critique of we Homo sapiens. On the receiving end of this criticism are such topics as politics, religion, social conformity, the desire of the rich to get richer, nationalism, and human nature itself. Consider this striking opinion of humanity:

I have looked pretty carefully into lots of minds, big and little, and it’s devestatingly clear to me that in big matters Homo sapiens is a species with very slight educable capacity. He has entirely failed to learn his lesson from the last war. He shows no more practical intelligence than a moth who has fluttered through a candle-flame once and will do so again as soon as it has recovered from the shock. And again and yet again, until its wings are burnt. It’s as though the moth knew that the flame meant death, yet simply couldn’t stop its wings from taking it there.

And this passage so predictive of what was to happen in the next decade or two with Hitler and Stalin:

But Christianity’s played out. So these folks will probably invent some ghastly religion of their own. Their God will be the God of the hate-club, the nation. That’s what’s coming. The new Messiahs (one for each tribe) won’t triumph by love and gentleness, but by hate and ruthlessness.

Ironically, these superbeings sometimes behave ruthlessly themselves. They are not above killing normals who obstruct their plans. Stapledon never comes right out and condemns this; rather, he presents it as a philospohical problem for the reader to ponder. Should Homo superior’s treatment of Homo sapiens be considered any different from Homo sapien’s treatment of other animals? One “normal” who is basically John’s pet has this to say:

Certainly, had the killings been perpetrated by members of my own kind, such a deed would have deserved the sternest condemnation. But who am I that I should judge such beings who in daily contact with me constantly proved themselves my superiors not only in intelligence but in moral insight?

John and his compatriots sometimes look kindly on humanity, but it’s a patronizing sort of kindliness, the way we would view dogs or cats or cows; if they need to be killed for a greater good, that’s mildly distasteful, but so be it.

This novel certainly makes one think about the issues surrounding an advanced daughter-species of humanity and how they might view their parent species. I was also struck, many times throughout the book, by how it reminded me, in lots of little ways, of other books written in later decades. I get the sense that a lot of later authors were influenced by Stapledon, and had read this book in particular. Now I’m glad I’ve done the same.