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Philip Jenkins

Back to the Future

Rediscovering "The Space Merchants."

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.

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?

Obviously, I believe Space Merchants deserves to be vastly better known, as does The Demolished Man, but just in the science fiction genre alone, there are plenty of other novels and stories that cry out for rediscovery. Together, they make nonsense of many widely accepted assumptions about what ordinary readers thought or believed in bygone years, and when particular ideas gained currency. So much of what at the time might have seemed like sensationalistic pulp fiction was in fact discussing genuinely important ideas at a remarkable level of sophistication. A re-evaluation is long overdue.

On a related theme, I offer a request to the teacher who confiscated the worthless SF novel with the ridiculous cover illustration that I was admittedly reading in school time in 1966. Can I have it back, please? It was by J. G. Ballard, and that edition is worth quite a lot now. Not that I am bitter.

Philip Jenkins is Distinguished Senior Fellow at Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion. He is the author most recently of Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can't Ignore the Bible's Violent Verses (HarperOne).

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