The man in the gray flannel spacesuit
Wrapping up another good year, the Beamers got wrapped up in a classic 1950s sf tale, The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth, one of the selections in the Library of America’s 2-volume American Science Fiction (9 Classic Novels, 1953 – 1958). Written as a serialized work for Galaxy magazine (under the title Gravy Planet), it is a relatively short, idea-crammed work that slams along from crowded New York skyscrapers to vertical Costa Rican algae farms and, ultimately, to Venus. Some of us enjoyed the whirlwind journey, but a few felt taken for a ride.
Fly the Friendly Skies to Venus!
Mitch Courtney, a Copysmith Star Class, is given the Venus project by his firm, tasked with making the idea of a Venus colony a sellable, desirable commodity. Threatened with assassination attempts by a rival firm and worried about the “invisible” enemy, the Consies (members of the World Conservation Association), Mitch is also fighting rival department heads within his own firm and trying to win back the love of his contractual wive, Kathy. Through the course of the book, Mitch will lose his position and have to work from the bottom up to regain it, while suddenly coming to question the validity of Sales as a principal virtue in life.
In a number of ways, the book does show its age and its origins as both a collaboration and as a work published serially. Mitch’s firm is mainly gender segregated, with men in executive roles and women in support roles (and a snide comment or two towards the one female department head is heard). Some of the satire of how advertising firms will conquer the world can seem obvious, even in the context of this novel’s pioneering position within science fiction. Certain terms and allusions are no longer as clear as they were 60 years ago, enough so to warrant a set of notes at the back of the LoA edition. And the constant set of cliffhanging plot twists seem to reflect more on the publishing circumstances than on the organic plot requirements.
New, Improved, Now with More SF!
And yet, it still hangs together. Much like the current Mad Men television series, The Space Merchants offers a trenchant look inside the world of commercial advertising. Fran, who worked in marketing and had occasion to write ad copy, found that the attitudes of the ad men toward replacing thoughtful text with “punchy”, action-oriented, hyped-up prose (as when Mitch reworks a political manifesto into a fiery propaganda piece) rang true to her experience. And the satire extends in many directions, not merely to the (m)ad men.
Liz liked how the President, reduced in a political scene ruled by multinationals (senators are known by corporate affiliation, not by state: “the gentleman from Yummy-Cola”), was introduced as a quiet man sitting in a corner of an office, patiently waiting his turn and leaving politely when told it was past closing. Much of the work consists of sly lines slipped in, with none of the dread “As you know, Bob” infodumping that can plague a book crammed with ideas as this one is, a slick sense of worldbuilding that impressed me. Merrie remarked how Mitch was intrigued by religion but wasn’t observant, since the Church was a rival agency’s account.
Green is the Color of Money
Along with the evident satire there is also a deep concern for matters of ecology, something for which I found surprisingly little mention in reviews or essays about the book. Again, Pohl and Kornbluth insert the evidence for overpopulation driving the action of the book, making the need to exploit Venus depend on the rapidly approaching exhaustion of Earth. But, there is a lack of preaching of ecological truths, the kind of polemics that dogged the later eco-catastrophe novels of the 1960s and ’70s. There is little overt statement, in fact, just the kind of compressed detailing (Mitch, despite his upper-class status, lives in a small apartment with a folding bed; Kathy, taken to the most luxurious hotel, is thrilled to discover an actual *bathtub* and not a mere shower stall) that is often given as the hallmark of superior science fiction (witness Heinlein’s “The door dilated.”).
The book’s ostensible boogeymen, the Consies (aka “the Commies”, as Fran noted the similar names and reputations) are apostles of sustainability, the kind of folks who would found Earth Day in the 1970s. Well before Dune (1965) or Make Room! Make Room! (1966, filmed as Soylent Green) or Stand on Zanzibar (1968), The Space Merchants was warning about the long-term effects of unbridled consumerism on the environment and critiquing the “space race” as an enabler for the corporate exploitation of nature.
The Medium is the Massage
But its warnings were not always received well. In addition to the work’s hostility toward its female characters (a flaw that Kornbluth noted in a talk that he gave on the role of science fiction as social criticism at the University of Chicago in 1957), we found other holes to poke in the text. Robin, via e-mail, related that the plot seemed obvious, the message lacked relevance, and the characters were lacking in emotional impact. Kathy ran into problems right away, finding on page 1 that Mitch’s internal musings were overly aware of his “future” circumstances and thus breaking her sense of the verisimilitude of the book.
Merrie found that the clear sectioning of the book into distinct subplots (NYC, Costa Rica, Venus) tended to disrupt her immersion in the storyline. Plus, there are some lapses, even in terms of 1950s levels of planetary knowledge (space travelers in free-fall, aka “zero gee”, do not get “butterflies” from the gravitational pulls of planets).
A Whole, New You in Just 178 Pages!
A general concern was Mitch’s development over the course of the work, going from wholehearted Organization Man into radical liberationist Consie, being a bit difficult to swallow. Chris defended the book for at least demonstrating a transition in personality, Mitch being affected by his experiences and changing as a result of his various traumas and emotional crises. While making a valiant attempt, Chris’s argument found few takers among the Beamers, who rather suspected the “happy ending” syndrome for bringing Mitch and Kathy together. Plot trumped character, we felt.
The relationship between Mitch and Kathy was also problematic. We could see why Mitch was interested in a successful, caring, intelligent, independent character like Kathy. But, even as Alan offered that the book could be viewed as a love story, given Mitch’s constant attempts to impress her and win Kathy’s love, we were puzzled as to why she would want Mitch. Love may be blind, but we Beamers are not, and Mitch’s overall attitude and behavior did not seem attractive enough to win Kathy’s declaration of love returned at the climax. Of course, since Mitch is an unreliable narrator, as Merrie pointed out, maybe Kathy says no such things. Ad man, sell thyself!
Try It without Obligation!
The overall impressions, though, were favorable, with positive ratings (6s, 7s, even 8s) from the attending Beamers. Alan hesitated a bit, but when I prodded him about the book being on his “100 SF Novels Everyone Should Read”, he moved up into the “Recommended” range of 8. I had to grant the book the same status. Maybe it suffers a bit from being written under heavy deadline pressure (Pohl and Kornbluth, after selling the book rights, realized that the magazine contract required several thousand more words and so hurriedly wrote 3 more chapters for Galaxy). Or, as Merrie noted, for being split into 3 pieces for magazine publication. But, as Alan put it, it is “comfort food”, the type of classic sf that first attracted most of us into the genre. And sometimes, a good meatloaf will do the job that a refined artisanal meal cannot.