Philip Jenkins

Back to the Future

Rediscovering "The Space Merchants."

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In this dystopian world, advertising agencies are enormously powerful, vying with each other to sell goods by any and all means, including the use of potent subliminal ads ("compulsive subsonics"). The ad men are already planning to project commercials directly on the retinas of unwary passersby. Food and drink are routinely dosed with addictive chemicals. Eating the snack food Crunchies leaves you with withdrawal symptoms that can be resolved only by drinking Popsie soda, which in turn creates an insatiable demand for Starr cigarettes—sending you back to a physical need for Crunchies. (Young smokers are targeted with Kiddiebutts.) And the respectable admen of Fowler Schocken gaze with horror on the still more intrusive and salacious commercials produced by rival companies, which they see as lying quite beyond the ethical pale.

The agencies play an essential role in keeping consumers in a constant state of mass delusion on an ecologically devastated and wildly overcrowded planet, where basic notions of privacy are extinct. Ordinary people suffer painful shortages of basic resources, including water and fuel. Soya protein has replaced meat; all food is processed, tasteless, and generally disgusting; and cars have given way to pedicabs. (More prosperous consumers pedal Cadillacs.) Yet consumers must never stop believing that their world is constantly improving. The book's main crisis arises when corporations wish to organize human settlement on Venus, a hellhole lacking even breathable air. Just how can gullible consumers be tricked into finding it attractive?

Meanwhile, all right-thinking people despise and fear the vicious Consies, the Conservationists, a group of wild-eyed fanatics who hold the ludicrous idea that corporate civilization and unrestrained consumption are somehow "plundering" the planet. Despite constant vigilance by the loyalty police, the proto-hippyish Consies spread their vicious advocacy of population control, reforestation, topsoil restoration, and deurbanization. Through protest and sabotage, they seek to end "the wasteful production of gadgets and proprietary foods for which there is no natural demand." Consie fanatics even reuse and recycle goods, rather than fulfilling their civic duty always to buy new.

Beyond its radical central theme, Space Merchants overflows with ideas, especially through its linguistic inventiveness. It's scarcely surprising today to encounter a book using a term like R and D (for research and development), or to find characters eating soyaburgers or listening to muzak: but those words, and many other neologisms, find very early usage in Space Merchants.

But here again, so much of Space Merchants today seems familiar, even clichéd, that it is difficult to recall how startlingly new it was in its time. To put the book's chronology in context, a modern-day historian interested in the emerging critique of corporate America and its abuses might cite several landmark publications of the mid-1950s. These works would include Sloan Wilson's novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955) and William H. Whyte's sociological study of The Organization Man (1956). C. Wright Mills' The Power Elite (1956) gave currency to the idea that a military/corporate/industrial complex was supplanting democracy, the threat later signaled by Eisenhower. Vance Packard's The Hidden Persuaders (1957) exposed the advertising industry, while his The Waste Makers (1960) denounced planned obsolescence. All, therefore, postdated Space Merchants by several years. Popular environmental awareness would have to wait for Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962) and the developing national movement that swelled mightily after 1970's Earth Day. By 1975, Ed Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang was imagining ecology-minded radicals turning to sabotage and violence. The real-life Consies known as Earth First! mobilized in 1979. Our hypothetical historian, however, certainly would not know or refer to the much earlier Space Merchants, which is not even a blip on the canonical radar. Respectable historians would be embarrassed to read trashy science fiction, still less cite it. After all, who ever read this stuff?

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