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Philip Jenkins

Back to the Future

Rediscovering "The Space Merchants."

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A significant portion of modern Anglo-American literature is missing in action. Some decades ago, critics decided that the process of canon formation was arbitrary and elitist, and that we must pay proper attention to genre fiction—fantasy, romance, detective stories and thrillers, comic books—besides so-called literary works, and to some extent, academic departments reflect that shift. From time to time, genre and pulp authors like Philip K. Dick and H. P. Lovecraft are retroactively promoted to the canon, which usually means that their works are reprinted in much pricier new editions. Yet for all this canonical reshuffling, an astonishing number of older works remain unknown outside their particular genre. They are cited neither by modern literary scholars nor—still more damaging—by social and cultural historians, for whom they would provide a goldmine of information about the evolution of ideas. In the case of science fiction, the neglect of older works means that historians radically misdate the emergence of ideas and cultural themes that were quite familiar to a mass popular audience in the mid-20th century, although they only gradually penetrated high culture much later.

It amazes me that a 1953 novel like Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man does not enjoy classic status. This extraordinarily rich work is at least equal to anything by Philip Dick in its deconstruction of consciousness and personal identity, although any modern reader will be taken aback by some elements that seem wildly anachronistic. We seem to be dealing with a pioneering hypertext novel, where radically innovative typography is used to represent telepathic conversations at a cocktail party, an assemblage of floating phrases that uncannily resemble modern electronic chat exchanges. Other contemporary themes abound. Imagine, asks Bester, a society where everyone is telepathic. How could you keep a secret, like planning a murder? The answer, of course, is designing repetitive catch-phrases or jingles, earworms that take over and confuse the consciousness of inquisitive minds. We use the same concept today electronically, and we call them viruses and trojans. These futuristic ideas were quite familiar to readers of mass market paperbacks in a year when Winston Churchill was still prime minister of Great Britain.

You might legitimately wonder what influence such science fiction books might have had, outside the world of dreamers and nerds. Actually, their sales figures could be astonishing, particularly so in the case of one piece of prophecy originally published in magazine form in 1952, namely The Space Merchants by Frederick Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth, which is now celebrating its sixtieth birthday. (First appearing under the title Gravy Planet, the full-length novel appeared the following year. A lightly updated edition of the novel has just been published; readers should be aware that, while the story is the same, the text of this version differs in some respects from the original.) Translated into 25 languages, the book has reputedly sold ten million copies worldwide, so we can reasonably claim a sizable global impact—actually, far beyond that of most acclaimed mainstream "literary" novels.

Both Pohl and Kornbluth were major talents in their own right, and Pohl himself continues to publish at the age of 92. (Kornbluth, a sardonic and brilliantly creative writer, died in 1958 at the absurdly young age of 35.) Space Merchants may be the best of their several collaborations, but reading it today, the main problem is deciding what the fuss is about. At first sight, the book presents a tried and true post-1960s message that is anti-corporate, anti-consumerist, and environmentalist, stiffened with a heavy dose of 1980s cyberpunk sensibility. And then you remember that this extraordinary satire on consumerism and advertising appeared in 1952, at the height of the Korean War, when Harry Truman was still in the White House. This is even before the world in which Mad Men is set.

According to our prevailing historical mythology, The Space Merchants dates from a time when the threat of Stalin and the Red Menace had cowed most Americans into uncritical conformity. Again according to this vision, crude consumerism reigned unchecked and uncriticized, while environmental concerns lay in the far future. At a time when many baby boomers were first seeing the light of day, The Space Merchants was cataloguing what would become their adult concerns and fears.

Like many a modern bestseller or popular film, Space Merchants concerns the sinister mis-deeds of overmighty transnational corporations. The hero, Mitch Courtenay, is an ad executive in a world dominated by rival corporations. His primary loyalty is not to a nation but to his agency, Fowler Schocken, and his sole ideology is "For Company, and for Sales." Governments as we know them have virtually ceased to exist except as clearing houses for pressure groups and lobbyists: major corporations like Du Pont and Nash-Kelvinator have their own U.S. Senators. The corporations operate in a semi-feudal order, settling their disputes by literal warfare, vendetta, and assassination. Ordinary people exist not as citizens but as consumers.

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