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.