Serialized in 1952 and first published as a single volume in 1953, The Space Merchants is a remarkably prescient novel that envisions the runaway growth of consumer capitalism, leading to widespread social and environmental collapse. Indeed, the book’s environmentalist vision, coming a decade before Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring helped to found the American environmentalist movement, is probably its most forward-looking feature, reminding us of the way science fiction often anticipates developments in the real world. Of course, The Space Merchants is a work of satire that is not meant to be literally predictive so much as it is meant to provide warnings about the potential consequences of current social and technological trends. Unfortunately, the warnings contained in the novel do not seem to have been heeded in the real world, but the book has exercised a considerable influence on the genre of science fiction.
One thing that is surprising about The Space Merchants is that it was published at all in the Cold War context of the early 1950s, when novels and films that were critical of capitalism—and especially that were critical of the McCarthyite anticommunist purges then sweeping America. In point of fact, however, there were already many highly political works of science fiction in the 1950s. Indeed, Frederik Pohl, one of the authors of The Space Merchants, declared in a December 1956 letter to the novel’s other author, Cyril Kornbluth, that “the science-fiction novel, generally speaking is social criticism in a way that no other category of novel (except perhaps religious or proletlit) ever is” (qtd. in Seed 82). Indeed, Alan Wald has noted how left-leaning writers during the repressive years of the McCarthyite 1950s often diverted their critique of American capitalism into popular genres such as science fiction in order to avoid censorship. Or, as Pohl himself has put it, a science fiction writer can “say things in hint and metaphor that the writer dares not say in the clear” (10). As a result, Pohl notes, 1950s science fiction might well have been able to get away with political statements that other forms could not and may therefore have represented “the only truly free speech left in America” at the time (12).
Pohl, one of the major figures in the history of American science fiction, maintained particularly strong leftist sympathies throughout his unusually long and productive career. He is particularly well known for the science fiction satires he produced in the 1950s, including a number of short stories that have been surveyed by David Seed (82–93). Pohl also produced a number of book-length satires during this period, often co-authored with Cyril Kornbluth or others. For example, in 1955 Pohl and Lester Del Rey (writing together under the pseudonym Edson McCann) published a searing satire of the insurance industry in Preferred Risk. That same year, Pohl and Kornbluth published Gladiator-at-Law, a send-up of organized sport that serves as a commentary on the competition-based ethos of American society as a whole. But Pohl’s best-known satire from the 1950s, written with Kornbluth, is undoubtedly The Space Merchants, which is widely recognized as one of the all-time classics of the science-fiction genre. Pohl, who himself worked briefly as an advertising executive in the 1940s, also authored a sequel to The Space Merchants, entitled The Merchants’ War (1984).
The Space Merchants presents a vivid picture of a future world dominated by huge multinational corporations, the most powerful and influential of which are media and advertising firms. In this sense, the book is very much of work of its time, when numerous novels and films acknowledged the growing centrality of advertising to modern American culture. For example, Frederic Wakeman’s slightly earlier The Hucksters (1946) had already critiqued the ruthless and unethical tactics of the advertising industry, while Sloan Wilson’s slightly later The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, one of the top bestsellers of 1955, comes as close as anything we have to being the signature novel of the 1950s. Wilson’s title image, for example, became an emblem of the decade’s drive for conformism, a drive that threatened individual identity but that also offered a certain comfort level for those (mostly male WASPs) who were able to fit in. Indeed, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, despite some criticism of the era’s corporate culture (with its emphasis on the drive for success at the expense of all else), is ultimately an affirmative work that assures Americans that they can succeed and still be themselves. Works such as The Space Merchants are less certain of the ultimate redeeming value of capitalism, and a closer look shows that, as M. Keith Booker has detailed in Monsters, Mushroom Clouds, and the Cold War, some of the most trenchant social criticism of the 1950s can in fact be found in the era’s science fiction.
However, the satire of The Space Merchants (which Donald Hassler has compared to the work of Jonathan Swift) goes well beyond the book’s specific context of the early 1950s to anticipate the coming decades of American history, when advertising and the media would become increasingly powerful forces in American society. In addition, The Space Merchants envisions an American-dominated capitalist system that is global in nature, presenting a future world system much along the lines of that analyzed by Fredric Jameson and other contemporary Marxist theorists as “late capitalism.”
However, in The Space Merchants capitalist expansion around the globe has been completed, leaving capitalism poised for the next stage: expansion into space. Narrator-protagonist Mitch Courtenay, an executive who works for the huge Fowler Schocken advertising conglomerate, receives a major (and sudden) boost to his career when he is unexpectedly put in charge of the company’s project to colonize Venus, a planet to which they have been granted exclusive access through bribery and other political manipulations. Courtenay’s job is not only to oversee the development of the technologies that will make this colonization possible, but to develop an advertising campaign that will make colonists want to go to Venus, where the whole planet can then be turned into a new source of profit for Fowler Schocken, along the lines of a recent project in which they spearheaded an effort to convert all of India into a giant conglomerate known as Indiastries, thus becoming the modern successors to the historical British East India Company. Indeed, the references to India and other parts of the so-called Third World in this novel make it clear that the globalization of capitalism has been simply a new form of economic and ideological colonialism, though events of the novel ultimate thwart the efforts of Fowler Schocken to extend this colonization to Venus.
Courtenay’s assignment to head the Venus project should be the dream of any ad executive—or of any capitalist. It is, after all, the ultimate big account of the kind the ad men in the television series Mad Men (which traces the evolution of the American advertising industry from the end of the 1950s to the beginning of the 1970s) would have drooled over. As Courtenay notes, “Potentially this was worth as much as every dollar of value in existence put together! A whole new planet, the size of earth, in prospect as rich as Earth—and every micron, every milligram of it ours” (15). Courtenay’s job is complicated, however, by his difficult personal life, including the fact that his temporary wife, Dr. Kathy Nevin, wants to break off their trial marriage, a contractual arrangement that, like everything else in this society, is modeled on the principles of capitalism. Meanwhile, Courtenay’s professional life is complicated by the fact that rival Fowler Schocken executive Matt Runstead seems to be sabotaging all of his efforts in his new job as the head of the project to colonize Venus. In addition, Fowler Schocken itself has fierce corporate rivals, such as Taunton Associates, and corporate rivalries in this future world—anticipating the corporate violence of such later science fiction novels as Jack Womack’s Ambient (1987) or Richard K. Morgan’s Market Forces (2005)—tend to get bloody. We are told, for example, that the management of entire companies is sometimes virtually wiped out in corporate feuds and that the steps of the General Post Office in London are still bloodstained from an earlier battle for a mail contract between United Parcel and American Express (13).
Courtenay himself gets caught up in corporate violence in the course of his mission when he goes to Antarctica to confront Runstead with his apparent treachery but is knocked unconscious by a mysterious assailant (apparently Runstead himself) and awakes on a transport that is taking him as a contract laborer to a huge high-rise protein plantation in Costa Rica for the “Chlorella” company. There, the formerly wealthy and powerful Courtenay gets a taste of how the working class (collectively referred to in this consumer capitalist society as “consumers”) lives. Courtenay is also contacted by a secret organization of “Conservationists,” or “Consies,” who are working worldwide to try to prevent environmental destruction of the planet by industrial capitalism. While this environmentalist motif is secondary to the novel’s satire of capitalist greed and expansionism, it is nevertheless important and indicates the extent to which science fiction was on the forefront of the environmentalist movement.
Courtenay’s stay in Costa Rica begins to give him an idea of just how abusive the capitalist system really is as he begins to learn how thoroughly workers are exploited in this system. He, like most of his co-workers, is working under a “B labor contract,” though in his case he did not enter into this contract willingly. In his narration, he describes the erms of the contract: “You never got out of debt. Easy credit was part of the system, and so were irritants that forced you to exercise it. If I fell behind ten dollars a week I would owe one thousand one hundred dollars to Chlorella at the end of my contract, and would have to work until the debt was wiped out. And while I worked, a new debt would accumulate” (37).
Particularly horrifying is the nature of the work being down at Chlorella. Not only is the work difficult, dirty, and hot, but the product being made by this work is a giant pulsing “hundred-ton lump of gray-brown rubbery flesh (nicknamed “Chicken Little”) from which pieces are carved off to be sold as cheap meat. In this way, the novel makes clear that the policies that have encouraged population growth to create larger markets have also created a food crisis that drives people to desperation in the search for something to eat. Among other things, this motif also calls attention to the fact that meat is always a horrifying product when one considers its source, because Chicken Little is really just an extrapolated form of the exploitation of meat animals for food in our own world—part of the same ideology that has led capitalism to exploit and pollute the entire world of nature.
Courtenay eventually manages to return to New York with the help of a Consie cell in Coast Rica. Then, in an increasingly convoluted, thriller-like plot narrated in the style of detective fiction, he learns that both Nevin and Runstead are Consie agents, though Runstead’s real allegiance remains a bit questionable in Courtenay’s mind. He also discovers that they have shanghaied him to Costa Rica both to try to teach him something about the plight of the workers in such gruesome Third-World factories and to prevent him from being killed by agents of Taunton Associates, which hopes to wrest the Venus contract away from Fowler Schocken. In the end, the Consies manage to outmaneuver both capitalist firms by loading the only Venus rocket with their people in the hope that they will be able to colonize the planet. If successful, they hope to build there a new world free of the greed and corruption that capitalism has spread across the earth, while also terraforming the planet using environmentally responsible techniques, thus anticipating the terraforming of Mars in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy (1992–1996). For his own part, Courtenay, now working with the Consies, momentarily becomes acting head of Fowler Schocken (after the death of the company’s namesake and CEO) but has to give up the post after he is outed as a Consie sympathizer, fleeing to Venus with the Consies (and Nevin). Runstead, meanwhile, remains undercover and takes the helm at Fowler Schocken, presumably hoping to sabotage any effort to send further rockets to Venus to disrupt the Consie effort there.
Of course, the somewhat contrived plot of The Space Merchants is really beside the point, serving merely as a framework upon which to hang the book’s political satire, which comments quite effectively on both the political climate of the United States in the early 1950s and the overall direction of consumer capitalism as a system. In one particularly telling speech made before Congress before his own shift to the Consie side is revealed and he is forced to flee, Courtenay constructs a masterpiece of pious Americanism, designed to cover the Consie plot to hijack the Venus rocket:
I touched briefly on American enterprise and the home; I offered them a world to loot and whole plunderable universe beyond it, once Fowler Schocken’s brave pioneers had opened the way for it; I gave them a picture of assembly-line planets owned and operated by our very selves, the enterprising American businessmen who had made civilization great. (161)
This speech, of course, is very well received, because (experienced ad-man that he is) he tells the gathered Congressmen (who represent specific corporations, rather than groups of voters) precisely what they want to hear, parroting their own vision of a capitalist paradise in which all of space has been remade in the image of America.
Of course, the earth of The Space Merchants has already been remade in this way, but the novel makes it clear that, for all but a few of the richest and most powerful, the world of this capitalist future is not a dream but a nightmare. Pohl has acknowledged that the novel was heavily influenced by Aldous Huxley’s vision of a consumerist dystopia in Brave New World (1931), though in many ways the world of The Space Merchants is actually more like that of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Living conditions are in fact quite grim in the world of The Space Merchants, in which the ultimate triumph of consumer capitalism has created a future world of scarcity, rather than plenty. In particular, this future world is vastly overpopulated, in a motif that anticipates such later works as Harry Harrison’s Make Room, Make Room! (1966)—as when those too poor to afford other accommodations are forced to sleep on stairways at night (97). Moreover, this overpopulation has been intentionally engineered by the prevailing corporate culture: more people means more consumers for their products, and too many people merely creates shortages and a buyer’s market in which prices skyrocket.
Citizens of this densely overpopulated world must confront an environment so polluted that they need special “soot-extractor” nostril plugs, or sometimes even helmets, just to be able to breathe the air. Clean water is incredibly rare (and expensive); it is also strictly rationed, and even an executive like Courtenay cannot afford fresh water in which to bathe but must use cheaper salt water instead. Indeed, one of the ironies of this novel is that Courtenay’s life seems so materially impoverished, yet he is actually one of the lucky ones. In another classic dystopian motif, the entire population is subjected to constant surveillance by both the government and private corporations. Most important, though bombarded by constant advertisements that urge them to consume, the citizens of this future world find that there is in fact very little that is available for consumption. A two-room apartment is considered a lavish accommodation, even for the relatively rich, and even a top corporate executive like old Fowler Schocken himself owns a Cadillac that has to be pedaled due to the shortage of fuel. The world’s phone system is so overtaxed by excessive traffic that it is virtually impossible to make a long-distance phone call—except, of course, on the priority lines of a mighty company like Fowler Schocken. Meanwhile, the whole reason that it is necessary to mount a PR campaign in support of the Venus project is that scarce resources that might otherwise have been used to produce consumer goods have to be diverted to develop and build the technology necessary for the trip to and colonization of Venus. Indeed, in the economy of scarcity that prevails in this nightmarish future world, the main job of advertising firms like Fowler Schocken is not so much to sell specific products as to sell the system itself, so that a thusly brainwashed population will quietly accept the poverty and oppression that are thrust upon them. As Courtenay puts it, advertising has moved from “the simple handmaiden task of selling already manufactured goods to its present role of creating industries and redesigning a world’s folkways to meet the needs of commerce” (6).
The “needs of commerce” here translates to the complete Americanization of global culture and the rampant commodification of every aspect of daily life. This future world has no poetry and no art. The language has been too debased to produce anything other than effective advertising slogans, and individuals such as Courtenay (who has, at least through most of the book, bought the corporate ideology hook, line, and sinker) are literally repelled by the literature of earlier periods. At one point Courtenay suddenly finds himself in a room filled with old books such as Moby Dick; he finds these books, which sell nothing, literally obscene and is made almost physically ill. He tells us: “I could not relax in the presence of so many books without a word of advertising in any of them. I am not a prude about solitary pleasures when they serve a useful purpose. But my tolerance has limits” (91). In another scene, Courtenay visits the Metropolitan Museum of Art and is comforted to find that it contains little except celebrations of corporate culture such as a bust of George Washington Hill (the president of the American tobacco Company, who had pioneered radio advertising of tobacco products in the 1920s) and displays from classic advertising campaigns (such as Maidenform bra ads) (100–101).
Meanwhile, this thoroughly commercialized, artless corporate culture plunges headlong toward disaster, confident that somehow the technological means of saving humanity from itself will materialize before it is too late. The colonization of Venus is seen as just such a measure. Earth, in this grim future vision, has essentially been destroyed by capitalist greed, but there is always Venus (and, eventually other planets) to provide expansion room for earth’s burgeoning population (and new markets for the products hawked by Fowler Schocken. The Consies, on the other hand, see in Venus a genuine utopian potential, rather than simply an opportunity for more of the same. In particular, Venus is seen as a fresh start (as the Americas had once been seen by Europe, we might ominously remember). Thus, Nevin explains to Courtenay late in the book the importance of Venus to Consies, because humanity is desperately in need of a second chance on a planet that is “unspoiled, unwrecked, unexploited, unlooted, unpirated, undevastated” (166).
The Consies (although somewhat reminiscent of the modern Greenpeace organization and other environmental activists) are rather transparent stand-ins for communists, and their role in the book serves as part of an effective satire of the anticommunist oppression of the McCarthy era in which the book was written. The fact that they were named “Conservationists” is nevertheless highly significant, indicating the centrality of abuse of the environment to the operations of the novel’s runaway consumer capitalism. Meanwhile, extensive campaigns have been carried out to discredit the Consies, depicting them as evil enemies of the American way of life (which is fairly ironic given that the American way of life in this novel is not working well at all). The campaign to demonize the Consies obviously parallels the campaign to demonize communists during the Cold War, but also suggests the extent to which the capitalist lords of this future world seek to divert attention from their destruction of the environment by making any attempt to protect the environment seem evil and unAmerican—and attitude toward the environmentalist movement that still prevails in some right-wing circles in the America of the 2020s.
The descriptions of air and water pollution are a key part of The Space Merchants, though Pohl and Kornbluth do not anticipate developments such as climate change and rising sea levels (as did virtually no one in 1952). Meanwhile, a greater emphasis is placed on the depictions of the negative consequences of the growing power of consumer capitalism and the growing dominance of media and advertising in the lives of people around the world. These depictions are effective in the best tradition of literary satire—seemingly exaggerated in sometimes comical ways, they turn out on reflection to be much closer to reality than one might first have imagined. For example, Fowler Schocken’s marketing tactics seem extreme until one compares them with tactics already in use today. One of their favorite techniques is to employ subtle forms of subliminal suggestion so that consumers will associate their products with sexual attractiveness and success and the products of their rivals with sexual frustration or deviance. Meanwhile, one of their most lucratic accounts involves the marketing of a drink called “Coffiest,” which is laced with an addictive chemical to ensure that consumers will be hooked for life—which seems extreme only until one considers recent research on the addictive effects of the caffeine in ordinary coffee or the nicotine in cigarettes, effects about which coffee and tobacco companies have seemed remarkably unconcerned (and, in the case of tobacco companies, have even sought to deny and cover up, long after they were well aware of them).
John Pierce’s description of The Space Merchants as an effective combination of “satirical exaggeration and logical extrapolation” is thus entirely appropriate (192). The book shows a profound understanding of the direction in which consumer capitalism was already headed in 1952 and also suggests thte damage that the growth of capitalism might do to the environment. Particularly relevant to its early 1950s context, of course, is the novel’s suggestion of interesting forms of complicity between the corporate manipulation of consumers for profit and the official promotion of anticommunist hysteria in the Cold War. Through the Consies, the book also suggests a potential utopian alternative to industrial capitalism, though the program of the Consies does not always accord well with the ideology of communism or socialism. The book maintains an essentially comic tone throughout, but it also includes some horrifying scenes to suggest the underlying seriousness of its message. At times the humor may become so glib that this seriousness is obscured, but as a whole the book is an effective satire that serves as an important counter to all those science-fiction allegorizations—such as Robert A. Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters (1951)—of the communist menace for which the 1950s are notorious.
Booker, M. Keith. Monsters, Mushroom Clouds, and the Cold War: American Science Fiction and the Roots of Postmodernism, 1946–1964. Greenwood Press , 2001.
Hassler, Donald M. “Swift, Pohl, and Kornbluth: Publicists Anatomize Newness.” Political Science Fiction. Edited by Donald M. Hassler and Clyde Wilcox, University of South Carolina Press, 1997, pp. 18–25.
Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Duke University Press, 1991.
Pierce, John J. Foundations of Science Fiction: A Study in Imagination and Evolution. Greenwood Press, 1987.
Pohl, Frederik. “The Politics of Prophecy.” Political Science Fiction. Edited by Donald M. Hassler and Clyde Wilcox, University of South Carolina Press, 1997, pp. 7–17.
Pohl, Frederik, and C. M. Kornbluth. The Space Merchants. First published 1952, St. Martin’s, 1987.
Seed, David. American Science Fiction and the Cold War: Literature and Film. Edinburgh University Press, 1999.
Wald, Alan. Writing from the Left: New Essays on Radical Culture and Politics. Verso, 1994.
 Pohl has described Silent Spring as being essentially a science fiction novel in its own right (10).
 Harrison’s novel, of course, was the basis for the classic science fiction film Soylent Green (1973).