The Space Merchants

by C. M. Kornbluth, Frederik Pohl

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth’s 1952 satirical science fiction novel, The Space Merchants, takes place in a dystopian future structured around humanity's painful stratification across class lines. Pohl and Kornbluth's fictional world examines the effects of rampant consumerism, exploitative corporate tactics, and manipulative advertising on the economy and those it holds captive. The novel begins as the narrator, Mitch Courtenay, introduces readers to the world of the future. As he narrates the dull events of a board meeting, he nonchalantly reveals the sordid details of contemporary life. Mitch explains that the world is heavily overpopulated, the government is merely a puppet for the big-business interests, and the masses are little more than tools for corporate interests. His narration lingers in his personal life, detailing his successful advertising career and juxtaposing it with his failing marriage to a prestigious surgeon named Kathy.

In this dystopian environment, advertising reigns, as, used effectively, it is the sole means for those in power to convince the public that their quality of life will improve with the purchase of novel products. Necessities are scarce, and survival is difficult. Yet, ad men like Mitch control the world and its warped image of reality. The gap between the rich and poor is widening, and most people cannot even afford a two-bedroom apartment. Even still, advertisers have convinced the public that widespread suffering and struggle is not only normal but desirable. It could, as they say, be worse. 

As the board meeting unfolds, Mitch soon learns that his role as an ad man at the agency Fowler Schocken is undergoing a drastic change. He is to serve in the lead role for a new ad campaign intending to recruit colonists for a mission to colonize Venus. The campaign implies that the mission is glamorous and desirable and focuses its marketing on poorer populations to convince them to embark on a mission that, realistically, would be incredibly undesirable. The project heads chose Venus to colonize because it would eventually be a good place for humans to settle, but it will be generations before the planet is ready. For the earliest settlers, life on Venus would be miserable: full of demanding manual labor and spent living in Earth-like domes.

After extensive work on the project, Mitch believes his work on the Venus mission was successful. Soon after, he travels to Antarctica and becomes lost in what appears to be a blizzard but, as he soon realizes, is a kidnapping attempt. His kidnappers alter his ID tattoo, and he cannot reclaim his identity as Mitch Courtenay, an ad man at Fowler Schocken and successful head of the Venus project marketing campaign. Instead, he must adapt to his new life as a low-class laborer working on Chlorella Plantations in Costa Rica. As a result of this ironic turn of events, Mitch has become one of the people he once manipulated and exploited.

Resigned to his new life, Mitch becomes involved with the Consies, a revolutionary group working against the advertisers. His involvement is initially a ploy to restore his position and betray the revolutionaries, and he returns to New York to determine who betrayed him. As he seeks those who once wronged him, Mitch learns that his wife, Kathy, is a high-level member of the organization. He refuses to betray her and becomes heavily—and genuinely—involved with the Consies mission. Mitch returns to New York, seeking to understand both recent events and the nature of the industry he once supported. His loyalties and opinions now changed, and Mitch uses his experience as an ad man to work against the advertisers.

The novel ends as Kathy and Mitch board the rocket to Venus. They reconcile and embrace in a weightless kiss; alongside the Consie settlers accompanying them, the pair eagerly awaits the strange, new life ahead. Terraforming this dangerous, unforgiving planet will be a difficult, labor-intensive task, but they are hopeful for the future they have the power to shape.

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