Tag Archives: The Space Merchants

Pohl’s Jem may not be a “gem” but is still worth a look

jemIn various profiles of Frederick Pohl, I have more than once seen Jem (1979) listed as one of his best and most important novels. After giving it a read I can see why it’s considered “important,” but I haven’t read enough of his work (at the time of this writing) to know if it’s really one of his “best” or not. This is a book packed with very pointed comments about politics, power, greed, war, imperialism, and the uglier side of humanity in general, and for that it deserves its due. From a storytelling standpoint, however, it’s not quite as successful. Certain elements of plot and character are unconvincing or out of place, making immersion in this fictional world more difficult. Nevertheless, it’s still a worthy investment of reading time.

The story is set in a near future in which the nations of Earth have arranged themselves into three large-scale alliances: the Food Bloc, the Fuel Bloc, and the People Bloc. The three entities exist in essentially Cold War conditions, with minor skirmishes here and there, but managing to avoid any major wars through the strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction. That’s Earth, one of the story’s two locations; the other is a newly discovered planet, Jem, that happens to be habitable by humans. The three Blocs send their own separate expeditions to this new world to investigate its lifeforms, resources, and colonization potential. Officially they are bound by treaty to cooperate and share information; but the reality is far different, as each camp races for advantage and domination of Jem for its own benefit.

This race to exploit a new world isn’t hindered in the slightest by the discovery that Jem has its own indigenous intelligent life, three species in fact. Although sentient, these natives of Jem are primitive, and thus in no position to put up a fight against the invading humans, most of whom never even question the moral implications of what they’re doing. The Jemman natives are seen as a resource to be used and profited from, nothing more. One of the main movers and shakers behind the Food Bloc expedition describes one of the Jemmans’ expected roles:

“For openers, Dr. Ravenel, I’d like to see your people create some trade goods. For all three races. They’re all going to be our customers one of these days.”

This shot at unrestrained commercialism brings back fond memories of Pohl’s classic, The Space Merchants, which tackles the same problem much more thoroughly.

But the Jemmans are seen not only as future consumers, but also as recruits in the humans’ ever escalating series of conflicts. They are manipulated and pitted against each other as the alien invaders become more and more open and brash in their machinations. Finally, the situation devolves into all-out war, and not only on Jem:

The world she had left was blowing itself up, and the world she had come to seemed determined to do the same.

What happens in the end — annihilation or survival? — I’ll leave for you to discover on your own.

What I really like about this book is Pohl’s sense of political reality, his no-holds-barred skewering of our species’ arrogance, and his ability to illuminate deeply fundamental human flaws very simply, often in a single sentence, such as this one that brings to mind Orwell’s “more equal than others” line:

“But learning to live together doesn’t mean that some people can’t live a little better than others.”

The main problem I have with the book is that it can’t quite decide if it wants to be a serious straightforward novel, or if it wants to be satire. For the most part it comes across as serious. But then there are certain situations and events that could have come right out of a Robert Sheckley story. For instance, during one camp’s first contact with an intelligent Jemman species, one member tries to communicate, while another, with no apparent sense of incongruity, starts shooting them to collect specimens! This equivocation between the serious and the satirical lessens the novel’s impact, I feel. Also, some of the characters feel less like real human beings, and more like caricatures of various personality types; and there is little progression or change in them over the course of the story.

Even with those flaws, though, Jem still has a lot to say and is worth reading.

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.