Friday, 16 April 2010

"The Space Merchants" by Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth

I'm continuing to work through the Gollancz SF Masterworks series, I was pleased the other day to finally find a copy of "The Space Merchants" by Frederick Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth, one of the few remaining books in the series to have eluded me thus far.

Although there's a bit of corporate warfare and global overcrowding mixed in as well, this is largely a book about a consumer society grinding towards an end in which free space and raw materials can only be found on other planets (Venus in this case). Fittingly, we experience this material world through an advertising man.

Philip K. Dick wrote a lot about salesmen, both in his science fiction, and in his straight fiction like "In Milton Lumky Territory" and "Mary and the Giant". He focuses on the hopelessness, boredom, powerlessness of junior salesmen at stores, and the isolation of a travelling salesman driving from town to town. These men are a step above serfs in the commercial world. They're the tax collectors who feed money up to their betters and get to hold onto a bit themselves. The focus of "The Space Merchants" is advertising executives, who are much further up the chain. These are the men who craft the campaigns, who travel the world in style in constant contact with a team of people whose job it is to make their whims reality. Like any good royal court, they also fight for power among their peers.

We follow one of the princes of a major advertising firm (Mitchell Courtenay) as he is stripped of his power and forced to live as a wage slave in the world he helped create. Advertising is everywhere, and products are designed to introduce the consumer to a never-ending chain of addiction (finish a cigarette, have a drink, get a snack, have a cigarette, and so on). In his struggle to regain his power, Courtenay stumbles across conspiracies within conspiracies, which reminded me somewhat of the role-playing game Paranoia, in which no one is allowed to join a secret society, and yet everyone does. That's a roundabout way of saying the book has a good ear for satire, which is one of many things that make this an enjoyable read.

I have great hopes for collaborative works like this, as I've enjoyed Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's works (such as "Mote in God's Eye" and "Footfall") in the past. Whether their writing styles are largely compatible, or they review each other's work, or they have a good editor, the net effect is reading a single author with a single voice. I plan to keep following Pohl and Kornbluth's collaborations, I'll be reviewing "Search the Sky" by the same two authors shortly, and "The Merchants War" (the sequel to "The Space Merchants") as soon as I can find it.

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