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3.7 out of 5 stars
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on 31 July 2009
After appearing as a serial titled "Gravy Planet" in "Galaxy Science Fiction" from June through August in 1952, "The Space Merchants" by Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth was published in book form in 1953. Today the work is clearly regarded as a classic, and its satirical look at what society would look like in a future where consumerism becomes the major driving force is both humorous and a bit profound in terms of how close we have come to it.

There were few awards back in 1952 so it is not too surprising that "The Space Merchants" didn't win the first Hugo when measured against Bester's "The Demolished Man", but it is a little surprising that it wasn't considered for the International Fantasy award in 1952 when Kornbluth's much inferior "Takeoff" was one of the nominees, or in 1953 when "The Demolished Man" was considered and lost out to Sturgeon's "More Than Human". Perhaps it is the humorous premise on which the future society is based, and/or the light-hearted feel of the narrative which resulted in the work not gaining favor with those who select which works are worthy of consideration for awards. It was the fans who first recognized the book with the Astounding/Analog polls of 1956 where it tied for 22nd on the list of books, and in 1966 where ten years later it still finished 22nd on the list of books, and in 1975 when the Locus poll where it was tied for 24th for all-time novel. That is a pretty impressive feat to finish in roughly the same spot in polls taken over a twenty year period.

The story is told from the point of view of Mitch Courtenay, an employee in the Fowler Schocken advertising agency and a star-class copysmith. Mitch receives a promotion to take on the job of selling Venus to people, an account which Schocken has stolen from his rival Taunton. Mitch is in love with Dr. Kathy Nevin, but is having difficulty convincing her that they should stay together. There is also the illegal political group, the Consies (short for conservationists) who threaten the consumerism-based framework of the society.

Mitch's promotion and new project have him targeted by someone to be killed, and if that is not enough he is kidnapped and his identity stripped and he is placed in a position from which he might never escape. He is forced to create his own game to escape, gain his life back, and take on not only his own personal and professional enemies, but deal with the entire conflict between the Consies and society. The book is not all that long, and the pace is quite fast, but what a great ride it is from beginning to end.
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on 31 January 2006
The Space Merchants is a superb little novel that can be enjoyed relatively quickly by all ages. It is a fast-paced, lesser-known book that is rightly part of the SF Masterworks series and indeed is considered by some to be in the top 20 sci-fi books of all time.
Mitch Courtenay is a star-class copywriter in the Fowler Schocken advertising agency who has been tasked with turning Venus into an attractive proposition for potential colonists. This much is known if you read the blurb at the back of the book but I was surprised at how much it deviated away from this and went into the realms of class-differences, environmentalism and corporate back-stabbing. Some of the ideas in this book may seem dated but it does feature two of the most original and interesting characters in any story. Jack O’Shea is a dwarf who was the first man on Venus who is now taking revenge on women who spurned him all his life by sleeping with many as possible. Chicken Little is a 15 yard wide living piece of protein that is routinely sliced to feed workers. I guess having two authors means twice the imagination!
The story is told from Mitch’s point of view which for its short length is perfect and I disagree with a previous comment that it felt laboured. I found the writing style to be perfectly adequate; it was witty, smart and sometimes completely irreverent which in the sometimes overly-serious world of science fiction I found wonderfully refreshing. Perhaps the only weakness I can see is that the characterization sometimes suffers especially as there are quite few of them over the course of 190-odd pages.
The corporate world features quite extensively throughout the novel and can be compared to Alfred Bester’s classic The Demolished Man.
Highly recommended.
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on 12 December 2001
I first read this book twenty years ago and have just re-read it. It was written in the early fifties and describes what could arguably be described as the inevitable consequences for society of capitalism. Frederick Pohl, having been an advertising copywriter, writes in a simple style which suits his subject matter perfectly. Basically, the advertising agencies rule the world - 2 advertising agencies to be precise. In order to be a part of society, and there is enormous pressure to be so, you have to be a "good consumer" - buying and becoming addicted to whatever the agencies sell to you. The "baddies" are the consies - conservationists who endeavour to fight this most terrifying system where wood is the most valuable commodity as there is hardly any left. I have often thought what a good film this would make, but then having read the book again I realise that nobody in our 'system' would be brave enough! I can't recommend this book highly enough.
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on 7 February 2004
This book is amazing. It is a keen satire on the rise of advertising and rampant consumerism, writen nearly 50 years ago.
Fair enough, the ending is slightly limp but the whole story and the vivid characterisation, (lovely use of the unsympathetic protagonist), all add up to a really fantastic read. It isn't boring, I could have finished it the day I started if I hadn't been doing anything else.
If you like astute well writen intellegent and exciting fiction (science fiction or otherwise) you'll like this.
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on 13 September 2003
Like the title of this review says the book is excellent. It is a critic of modern society but it avoids politicizing the issue and just makes some thoughtful remarks. Don't be mistaken it is critical, but not in the traditional right or left sense. It is more humanist I believe. Anyhow, the book is great and there is a compelling story to keep you interested. It's not all critic. There is a good story in there. If you've read "1984", "Brave New World" or "Fahrenheit 451" this is a logical follow up.
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on 7 August 2011
The authors wrote a book in the 1950's whose main point on consumerism seems more true than even.
People who are not good consumers, are not good citizens and are shunned by society.
Being a conservationist is in fact a crime.
With all the talk these days about the need for economical growth and the way to get there is by consumers spending more this story feels very contemporary. This book made me think about our society and where we are heading and that makes it a brilliant book.
Being a citizen and a consumer are very different things and we rarely seem to talk about the former.
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on 16 September 2014
I fail to understand the plaudits afforded to this novel. "Has many claims to being the best science fiction novel so far" according to KIngsley Amis. I would have to ask why?

From the cover and the blurb I expected some high end Bladerunner sci-fi noir - discussing in detail the problems of a massively overcrowded planet Earth struggling with dwindling resources and space, ruled ruthlessly by domineering sociopathic corporations. And whilst there is some vague inferences to that, these themes are not played out as fully as they could be, the world is only sketchily drawn for us as often seems to be the case with these older sci-fi novels. For a better discussion of these types of topics read Stand on Zanzibar or Make Room! Make Room! (filmed as Soylent Green) Instead it is a weak, flimsy and disjointed story of an unsympathetic advertising executive who entrusted with selling the thought of colonising Venus to the masses finds himself caught up in a web of double dealing, intrigue and industrial espionage. There are some interesting social observations but the quality of the writing, the weak and unbelievable characterisations and the silly plot simply do not make for a classic. Even Pohl himself joked that he though the story was rubbish which is why he had problems getting anyone to publish it. Having picked this up with high expectations it was a chore to read from about half way through - not surprising since it was apparently conceived in three parts.

Hard to believe this is from the same writer as the spectacular sci-fi classic Gateway which ranks among my favourite reads and the slightly lesser Manplus. I would definitely recommend either over this confusing mess.

Other brilliant works in the S.F. Masterworks include The Forever War, Book of Skulls, the touching Flowers For Algernon, Rendevous With Rama and the chillingly creepy Bodysnatchers.

Some of the disappointments are More Than Human, and A Case For Conscience.
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I am not usually a reader of science fiction, but I was persuaded to read this book because it was described as one of the best of its kind. The story is set in the far future where large advertising agencies dominate society, including governments, and the rest of the population (the `consumers') have their needs `invented' and then catered for by a elite group who work for the agencies. Mitch Courtney is a copywriter and member of the Board of one of the two biggest agencies. He is given the task of heading a new project to colonise Venus, with the aim of turning it into a gigantic consumer-driven economy, and at the same time to provide raw materials for Earth. Along the way, a rival executive, Runstead, who also wanted to head the project, kidnaps him. Mitch is shipped off to South America as an indentured labourer. There he meets consies; members of an environmental resistance group, and sees how actual consumers live. He manages to get posted back to New York and makes contact with Kathy, a doctor he had hoped to marry, although she has dropped him. There follow a series of adventures (including attempts to kill him by a rival agency who want to take over the Venus project) involving various characters, some of whom, including Kathy, and even Runstead, turn out to be dedicated consies. Gradually he `sees the light' and realizes the harm the agencies have done. It ends with him fleeing from arrest, and re-united with Kathy, they board a space ship to start a new colony on Venus with a couple of hundred other concies, whose places on the ship have been organised by Runstead.

Readers of SF obviously have to take a lot of things on trust. For example, we are not told how Mitch got from the glacier where he was mugged to a ship en route for South America. Neither are we told how the idealistic consies are expected to survive on Venus and re-create their Garden of Eden. Leaving that aside, the story (remarkably relevant today, given that it was written fifty years ago) is not bad, although with a predictable ending, and the writing is acceptable. But if this is really the best of SF novels, I am rather disappointed. It is not something to stretch your imagination, but something to read on a long journey.
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on 8 December 2015
Rightly suggested by Amis to be among the best Sci-fi books ever
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on 30 June 2013
Imagine a future where people are so addicted to certain products that they work mainly to buy them. Some of you might argue that's not really sci-fi or futuristic (and who am I to disagree) but Pohl and Kornbluth account is far from being that insightful. Basically they draw a world run by mega-corporation where you play dirty and only care about profit (again, not really sci-fi but that's not the point). You follow corporate yes-man Mitch Courtenay among a roller coaster of events that introduce the reader to the main themes of this world. And this is where the book fails, its concepts are pretty poor and not that well explored. All in all it seemed a pretty shallow story without being a plainly bad one.
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