Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Space Merchants - Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth

Although the most successful period in Pohl's career is probably the late 1970s when he won a number of Nebula and Hugo awards for novels like Gateway and Man Plus, he had already written a lot of other work before then. More than a few of these books were collaborations with other writers and fellow Futurian Cyril M. Kornbluth was one of his regular partners in crime. Kornbluth's career was unfortunately a short one, he died in 1958 at the age of 34. He left behind 10 novels, most of them collaborations with other authors and a bunch of short fiction. For such a short career his output was impressive. Most of it is not that easy to come by though, but The Space Merchants is still available as part of Gollancz' SF Masterwoks series. I've read a number of science fiction novels form the genre's golden age recently and this one is the best by a fair margin.

The Space Merchants is set sometime in the 21st century. An exact date isn't mentioned but an event that took place in 2010 is firmly in the past so I'd place it a few decades from now. The word is vastly overpopulated with unbelievable numbers of people stacked into tiny spaces in the world's big cities. Although resources like oil have practically run out and real meat is a delicacy only availably to the wealthy, science has managed to keep one step ahead of a major food crisis and the world seems to be confident that even in the face of a rapid growth of the population this will remain so. Consuming seems to be the highest possible achievement and large companies throw every trick in the book at their customers to keep them buying their products. Tricky advertising, easy credit, addictive additions to foodstuffs, assassinations of rival company's personal and plain old lying and bribing all seem to be permissible.

But growth has to come from somewhere and it is clear possibilities on earth are limited so one of the leading US companies, Fowler Schocken Associates, as cast its eye to the heavens. Venus is within reach of modern space faring technology and offers a completely unexploited planet ready for the taking. The minor difficulty of the place being a hell hole unable to support a human population without years of terraforming is not going to stop the company from attracting colonists. The man who is going to lead the project, Mitch Courtenay, has got his work cut out for him.

Although some aspects of the book are undeniably dated, knowledge of the true conditions on Venus was scarce in the early 1950s for instance, it is still a highly relevant piece of fiction. I suppose you could say it is a satirical piece, many of Pohl's novels have a slightly satirical tone to them, but it deals with a number of serious environmental problems related to unbridled consumerism and perpetual economic and population growth that still haven't been tackled. In 1950 the world population was about two and half billion people. Right now, and we're not even at the date of the novel yet, we're approaching seven billion. The consequences of this enormous growth are being felt in ways that could very well lead to conditions described in the book. And all this twenty years before the Limits to Growth (1972) report caused a stir with its dire predictions of resource scarcity.

Another shockingly accurate prediction seems to be on the consumption of meat. Already many environmental groups are pointing out that the production of meat is wasteful, taking up food and land that could be used to produce for human consumption as well as being a driving force for large scale deforestation. Soya meat replacements can be found in every supermarket and research into possibilities to "grow" meat more efficiently is being researched. It certainly makes the reader wonder if the scene in which the authors describe Chicken Little (interesting name by the way) is where we are heading with our food production.
It was a great concrete dome, concrete floored. Chicken Little filled most of it. She was a grey-brown, rubbery hemisphere of some fifteen yards in diameter. Dozens of pipes ran into her pulsating flesh. You could see than she was alive.
Herrera said to me: 'All day I walk around her. I see a part growing fast, it looks good and tender, I slice.' His two-handed blade screamed again. This time it shaved off an inch thick Chicken Little steak.

Chapter 9
Sounds appetizing, doesn't it?

Environmental issues are my personal bias however, they are important to the novel but the plot is mostly concerned with Courtney and the ideological change he goes through. The novel opens with a chapter detailing a board meeting of Fowler Schocken Associates, a great introduction of what to expect from the 21st century advertising business. In a slightly over the top scene we are confronted with a group of people seemingly completely oblivious to the consequences of their greed and able to justify just about anything with growing profits. The contrast between how the reader would see this and the absolute faith in the reversal of our values the characters display is comical as well as disturbing. Not everybody agrees with this view though. As Mitch descends on the social ladder and meets the people who are exposed to the products his company tries to sell, his view change drastically. An interesting conversion.

By the standards of its time it was not particularly short but at 186 pages it doesn't waste time making its point. It's quire a fast read.The Space Merchants is one of the few books I have read from the golden age era, where the writing and themes are still relevant and powerful. Although it is clearly over the top at some points, several of the predictions don't seem so unlikely upon closer inspection. A novel that is both entertaining and thought-provoking and one that aged very well. This novel is without a doubt worthy of the term classic. I think I even prefer this book over Pohl's most successful work; Gateway.

Book Details
Title: The Space Mercants
Author: Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 186
Year: 2003
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-07528-3
First published: 1953

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