On, Jo Walton has a sharp-eyed review of Frederik Pohl and CM Kornbluth's classic sf novel The Space Merchants. I happen to be in the middle of writing a story called "Chicken Little" that's a tribute to this novel, for an anthology in honor of Fred Pohl, and I've been thinking about it nonstop for weeks -- and Walton nails it.
Much more interesting as futurology are the incidentals of the background. This is a ridiculously over-populated Earth, only in Antarctica and around the blast-off range of Venus rockets is there any empty space at all. Rich people live alone in two rooms, with fold-out beds and tables. Privacy doesn't exist. The entire planet is at worse than the density point of modern Tokyo. Well, there's a future that didn't happen, but you can see how in 1952 in the middle of the Baby Boom it looked as if it might. There are golf clubs on high floors of corporate sky scrapers.

It's interesting to see conservationists so demonized, yet the forms of pollution and consumption everyone else is embracing so enthusiastically aren't the ones that we see as the problems. They're wearing "soot filters." That kind of pollution turned out to be a fixable problem and is pretty much gone in first world countries. They've run out of oil and are pedaling their cars and using rockets for long distance travel, but there doesn't seem to be any shortage of plastics. They don't have any climate change problem, and they're all eating hydroponic food and syntho-protein (with yummy addictive additives) because there's literally no room for farms. They've paved the planet without having problems without the "lungs" of the rainforests. They're also eating protein from Chicken Little, a giant chicken heart that keeps on growing and they keep on slicing--the image of that had stuck with me, especially the consie cell having a secret meeting in a chamber surrounded by it. And it's weird to see the conservationists essentially giving up on Earth in favour of Venus. I'd forgotten that. This is a much nicer Venus than later probes have reported, it's still pretty unpleasant but it's comparatively easily terraformable. But even so!

Advertising dystopia: Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth's The Space Merchants


  1. this book seems infinitely more interesting when i add “of venice” to the end of the title.

  2. GREAT book. You could easily update the science if you were going to do a screenplay. (In fact, it almost WAS a movie; see Pohl’s blog.)

    * * *

    Number two on my To-Do list when I get a time machine:

    Shovel out Cyril Kornbluth’s driveway; leave a bottle of beta blockers in his mailbox.

    Number three: Go watch the whale explode.

  3. This and Gladiator at Law are must-reads – really fine stuff. The details are off, but as cautionary tales they’re pretty much perfect – especially when put in the context of 50’s USA.

    Wa-wa-wabbit twacks!

  4. Number two on my To-Do list when I get a time machine:

    Shovel out Cyril Kornbluth’s driveway; leave a bottle of beta blockers in his mailbox.

    Damn skippy. And pushing him to be pals with Michael Bennett, so Shark Ship could become Bennett’s followup to Dreamgirls….

  5. I don’t like the cover. Pohl and Kornbluth were coauthors, but Pohl’s name is splashed across the cover. Kornbluth died young, Pohl went on to be a big name as an author critic editor and now blogger.
    But it’s a great book, a classic, and nice to see a reissue.

  6. This is odd timing because I just read Gateway the other night and was curious if anyone else has read the other three books from the Heechee saga. I didn’t care for the stuff taking place in Sigfred’s office but everything else was pretty good, although not great. Should I read the rest of it or just move on (I own a lot of unread classic sci-fi, including The Space Merchants)?


    Loved that book. My fave Pohl/Kornbluth collaboration is Wolfbane, which presaged the Matrix franchise by half a century.

  8. I agree with the people who say this new edition is Pohl-heavy (at least on the cover). Incidentally, it’s an absolute classic of sci-fi. Also, don’t you love old-school sci-fi author names? Frederik Pohl, C.M. Kornbluth, E.E. “Doc” Smith, etc. I think my personal favorite has to be A.E. van Vogt, because of the initials and the bonus points for ‘van.’

  9. Space Merchants was also adapted into a 1957 radio play by CBS Radio Workshop. Audio files are available for downloading from the Internet Archive. The producers managed to compress the novel into one hour and still retain the gist of the storyline. Additionally, the audio play has the charming feel of the period, the sound effects, and whiskey-filtered speedy accent of the Madison Avenue advertiser. You can almost choke on the greed and superiority complexes of the advertising executives, very similar to the venal jackals of our own times…

  10. Such a great book. If you find the advertising biz as utterly fascinating as I do (or even if you don’t), this is an absolute must-read. Better than “Gladiator At Law” IMO, and chock-full of memorable moments. (I think everyone I’ve spoken to about this book has carried the image of Chicken Little with them ever since they read the book).

    Cory, I’m eager to check out the tribute collection, especially your Chicken Little piece.

  11. Cool, I’ll have to check this out. Kornbluth’s “The Marching Morons” is one of my all-time favorites. Idiocracy was a near-verbatim copy of it, and they gave no credit at all to the original. Some of the flavor or Robocop was lifted from that one too– the rest was a ripoff of a Harlan Ellison story. Eh, what are ya gonna do. We ought to be grateful when Hollywood plunders from something decent for a change.

  12. Every time I read about Congress and the lobbies I think about “the Senator from Yummy-Cola”.

  13. I first read The Space Merchants after reading Jennifer Government (by Max Barry, I think), in which one of the main characters reads it. I don’t remember the exact details, but that character’s reaction to the book made me go out and hunt down a copy. I don’t remember much in particular about either book, but I do remember that it was really interesting to read both the inspiration and the modern result back-to-back.

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