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The Space Merchants

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The Space Merchants

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Author: Frederik Pohl
C. M. Kornbluth
Publisher: Gollancz, 2003
St. Martin's Press, 1958
Ballantine Books, 1953
Series: Space Merchants: Book 1

0. Venus, Inc.
1. The Space Merchants
2. The Merchants' War

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Dystopia
Soft SF
Avg Member Rating:
(286 reads / 152 ratings)






























































It is the 20th Century, an advertisement-drenched world in which the big ad agencies dominate governments and everything else. Now Schoken Associates, one of the big players, has a new challenge for star copywriter Mitch Courtenay. Volunteers are needed to colonise Venus. It's a hellhole, and nobody who knew anything about it would dream of signing up. But by the time Mitch has finished, they will be queuing to get on board the spaceships.



As I dressed that morning I ran over in my mind the long list of statistics, evasions, and exaggerations that they would expect in my report. My section -- Production -- had been plagued with a long series of illnesses and resignations, and you can't get work done without people to do it. But the Board wasn't likely to take that as an excuse.

I rubbed the depilatory soap over my face and rinsed it with the trickle from the freshwater tap. Wasteful, of course, but I pay the water taxes, and saltwater always leaves my face itchy. Before the last of the greasy stubble was quite washed away the trickle stopped and didn't start again. I swore a little and finished rinsing with salt. These interruptions had been happening lately; some people blamed Consie saboteurs. Loyalty raids were being held throughout the New York Water Supply Corporation; so far they hadn't done any good.

The morning newscast above the shaving mirror caught me for a moment... the President's speech of last night, always good for amusement, a brief glimpse of the Venus rocket squat and silvery on the Arizona sand, rioting in Panama... I switched it off when the quarter- hour get- moving time- signal chimed over the audio band.

It looked as though I was going to be late again. Which certainly would not help mollify the Board.

I saved five minutes by wearing yesterday's shirt instead of studding a clean one and by leaving my breakfast juice to grow warm and sticky on the table. But I lost the five minutes again by trying to call Kathy. She didn't answer the phone, and I was late getting into the office.

Fortunately -- and unprecedentedly -- Fowler Schocken was late, too.

In our office it is Fowler's custom to hold the weekly Board conference fifteen minutes before the regular opening of the business day. It keeps the clerks and stenos on their toes, and it's no hardship to Fowler. He spends every morning in the office anyway, and "morning" to him begins with the rising of the sun.

Today, though, I had time to get my secretary's summary off my desk before the meeting. When Fowler Schocken walked in with a courteous apology for his tardiness I was sitting in my place at the foot of the table, reasonably relaxed and as sure of myself as a Fowler Schocken Associate is ever likely to be.

"Good morning," Fowler said, and the eleven of us made the usual idiot murmur. He didn't sit down; he stood gazing paternally at us for about a minute and a half. Then, with the air of a daytripper in Xanadu, he looked carefully and delightedly about the room.

"I've been thinking about our conference room," he said, and we all looked around at it. The room isn't big, it isn't small -- say ten by twelve -- but it's cool, well- lighted, and most imposingly furnished. The air recirculators are cleverly hidden behind animated friezes; the carpeting is thick and soft, if not actually wool; and every piece of furniture is constructed from top to bottom of authentic, expertized, genuine tree- grown wood.

Fowler Schocken said, "We have a nice conference room here, men. As we should have, since Fowler Schocken Associates is the largest advertising agency in the city. We bill a megabuck a year more than anybody else around. And" -- he looked around at all of us -- "I think you'll agree that we all find it worthwhile. I don't think there's a person in this room who has less than a two- room apartment." He twinkled at me. "Even the bachelors. Speaking for myself, I've done well. My summer place looks right over one of the largest parks on Long Island. I haven't tasted any protein but new meat for years, and when I go out for a spin I pedal a Cadillac. The wolf is a long way from my door. And I think any one of you can say the same. Right?" The hand of our Director of Market Research shot up, and Fowler nodded at him. "Yes, Matthew?"

Matt Runstead knows which side his bread is oiled on. He glared belligerently around the table. "I just want to go on record as agreeing with Mr. Schocken -- one hundred percent -- all the way!" he snapped.

Fowler Schocken inclined his head. "Thank you, Matthew." And he meant it. It took him a moment before he could go on. "We all know," he said, "what put us where we are. We remember the Starrzelius Verily account, and how we put Indiastries on the map. The first spherical trust. Merging a whole subcontinent into a single manufacturing complex. Schocken Associates pioneered on both of them. Nobody can say we were floating with the tide. But that's behind us.

"Men! I want to know something. You can tell me truthfully -- are we getting soft?" He took time to look at each of our faces searchingly, ignoring the forest of hands in the air. God help me, mine was right up there, too. Then he waved to the man at his right. "You first, Ben," he said.

Ben Winston stood up and baritone, "Speaking for Industrial Anthropology, no! Listen to today's progress report -- you'll get it in the noon bulletin, but let me brief you now: According to the midnight indices, all primary schools east of the Mississippi are now using our packaging recommendation for the school lunch program. Soyaburgers and regenerated steak" -- there wasn't a man around the table who didn't shudder at the thought of soyaburgers and regenerated steak -- "are packed in containers the same shade of green as the Universal products. But the candy, ice cream, and Kiddiebutt cigarette ration are wrapped in colorful Starrzelius red. When those kids grow up -- " He lifted his eyes exultantly from his notes. "According to our extrapolation, fifteen years from now Universal Products will be broke, bankrupt, and off the market entirely!"

He sat down in a wave of applause. Schocken clapped, too, and looked brightly at the rest of us. I leaned forward with Expression One -- eagerness, intelligence, competence -- all over my face. But I needn't have bothered. Fowler pointed to the lean man next to Winston. Harvey Bruner.

"I don't have to tell you men that Point-of-Sale has its special problems," Harvey said, puffing his thin cheeks. "1 swear, the whole damned government must be infiltrated with Consies! You know what they've done. They outlawed compulsive subsonics in our aural advertising -- but we've bounced back with a list of semantic cue words that tie in with every basic trauma and neurosis in American life today. They listened to the safety cranks and stopped us from projecting our messages on aircar windows -- but we bounced back. Lab tells me" -- he nodded to our Director of Research across the table -- "that soon we'll be testing a system that projects directly on the retina of the eye.

"And not only that, but we're going forward. As an example I want to mention the Coffiest pro -- " He broke off. "Excuse me, Mr. Schocken," he whispered. "Has Security checked this room?"

Fowler Schocken nodded. "Absolutely clean. Nothing but the usual State Department and House of Representatives spymikes. And of course we're feeding a canned playback into them."

Harvey relaxed again. "Well, about this Coffiest," he said. "We're sampling it in fifteen key cities. It's the usual offer -- a thirteen- week supply of Coffiest, one thousand dollars in cash, and a weekend vacation on the Ligurian Riviera to everybody who comes in. But -- and here's what makes this campaign truly great, in my estimation -- each sample of Coffiest contains three milligrams of a simple alkaloid. Nothing harmful. But definitely habit- forming. After ten weeks the customer is hooked for life. It would cost him at least five thousand dollars for a cure, so it's simpler for him to go right on drinking Coffiest -- three cups with every meal and a pot beside his bed at night, just as it says on the jar."

Fowler Schocken beamed, and I braced myself into Expression One again. Next to Harvey sat Tildy Mathis, Chief of Copy Services and handpicked by Schocken himself, But he didn't ask women to speak at Board sessions, and next to Tildy sat me.

I was composing my opening remarks in my head as Fowler Schocken let me down with a smile. He said, "I won't ask every section to report. We haven't the time. But you've given me your answer, gentlemen. It's the answer I like. You've met every challenge up to now. And so now -- I want to give you a new challenge."

He pressed a button on his monitor panel and swiveled his chair around. The lights went down in the room; the projected Picasso that hung behind Schocken's chair faded and revealed the mottled surface of the screen. On it another picture began to form.

I had seen the subject of that picture once before that day, in my news screen over my shaving mirror.

It was the Venus rocket, a thousand- foot monster, the bloated child of the slim V-2s and stubby Moon rockets of the past. Around it was a scaffolding of steel and aluminum, acrawl with tiny figures that manipulated minute blue- white welding flames. The picture was obviously recorded; it showed the rocket as it had been weeks or months ago in an earlier stage of construction, not poised as if ready for takeoff, as I had seen it earlier.

A voice from the screen said triumphantly and inaccurately, "This is the ship that spans the stars!" I recognized the voice as belonging to one of the organ- toned commentators in Aural Effects and expertized the scripts without effort as emanating from one of Tildy's English- major copywriters. The talented slovenliness that would confuse Venus with a star had to come from somebody on Tildy's staff.

"This is the ship that a modern Columbus will drive through the void," said the voice. "Six and a half million tons of trapped lightning and steel -- an ark for eighteen hundred men and women, and everything they need to make a new world for their home. Who will man it? What fortunate pioneers will tear an empire from the rich, fresh soil of another world? Let me introduce you to them -- a man and his wife, two of the intrepid..."

The voice kept on going. On the screen the picture dissolved to a spacious suburban roomette in early morning, the husband folding the bed into the wall and taking down the partition to the children's nook, the wife dialing breakfast and erecting the table. Over the breakfast juices and the children's pabulum (with a steaming mug of Coffiest for each, of course) they spoke persuasively to each other about how wise and brave they had been to apply for passage in the Venus rocket. The closing question of their youn gest babbler ("Mommy, when I grow up kin I take my littul boys and girls to a place as nice as Venus?") cued the switch to a highly imaginative series of shots of Venus as it would be when the child grew up -- verdant valleys, crystal lakes, brilliant mountain vistas.

The commentary did not exactly deny, and neither did it dwell on, the de cades of hydroponics and life in hermetically sealed cabins that the pioneers would have to endure while working in Venus's unbreathable atmosphere and waterless chemistry.

Instinctively I had set the timer button on my watch when the picture started. When it was over I read the dial: nine minutes! Three times as long as any commercial could legally run. One full minute more than we were accustomed to get.

It was only after the lights were on again, the cigarettes lit, and Fowler Schocken well into his pep talk for the day that I began to see how that was possible.

He began in the dithering, circumlocutory way that has become a part of the flavor of our business. He called our attention to the history of advertising -- 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. He touched once more on what we ourselves, Fowler Schocken Associates, had done with our own expansive career. Then he said:

"There's an old saying, men. 'The world is our oyster.' We've made it come true. But we've eaten that oyster." He crushed out his cigarette carefully. "We've eaten it," he repeated. "We've actually and literally conquered the world. Like Alexander, we weep for new worlds to conquer. And there" -- he waved at the screen behind him -- "there you have just seen the first of those worlds."

I have never liked Matt Runstead, as you may have gathered. He is a Paul Pry whom I suspect of wiretapping even within the company. He must have spied out the Venus Project well in advance, because not even the most talented reflexes could have brought out his little speech. While the rest of us were still busy assimilating what Fowler Schocken had told us, Runstead was leaping to his feet.

"Gentlemen," he said with passion, "this is truly the work of genius. Not just India. Not just a commodity. But a whole planet to sell! I salute you, Fowler Schocken -- the Clive, the Bolívar, the John Jacob Astor of a new world!"

Matt was first, as I say, but every one of us got up and said in turn about the same thing. Including me. It was easy; I'd been doing it for years. Kathy had never understood it, and I'd tried to explain, with the light touch, that it was a religious ritual -- like the champagne- bottle smash on the ship's prow, or the sacrifice of the virgin to the corn crop. Even with the light touch I never pressed the analogy too far. I don't think any of us, except maybe Matt Runstead, would feed opium derivatives to the world for money alone. But listening to Fowler Schocken speak, hypnotizing ourselves with our antiphonal responses, made all of us capable of any act that served our god of Sales.

I do not mean to say that we were criminals. The alkaloids in Cofflest were, as Harvey pointed out, not harmful.

When all of us had done, Fowler Schocken touched another button and showed us a chart. He explained it carefully, item by item; he showed us tables and graphs and diagrams of the entire new department of Fowler Schocken Associates that would be set up to handle development and exploitation of the planet Venus. He covered the tedious lobbying and friendmaking in Congress, which had given us the exclusive right to levy tribute and collect from the planet -- and I began to see how he could expect to get away with a nine- minute commercial. He explained how the government (it's odd how we still think and talk of that clearing house for pressures as though it were an entity with a will of its own) how the government wanted Venus to be an American planet and how -- after Fowler himself had addressed a joint session of Congress -- they had selected the peculiarly American talent of advertising to make it possible. As he spoke we all caught some of his fi re. I envied the man who would head the Venus Section; any one of us would have been proud to take the job. He spoke of trouble with the senator from DuPont Chemicals with his forty- five votes, and of an easy triumph over the senator from Disney with his six. He spoke proudly of a faked Consie demonstration against Fowler Schocken, which had lined up the fanatically anti- Consie Secretary of the Interior. Visual Aids had done a beautiful job of briefing the information, but we were there nearly an hour looking at the charts and listening to Fowler's achievements and plans.

But finally he clicked off the projector and said, "There you have it. That's our new campaign. And it starts right away -- now. I have only one more announcement to make, and then we can all get to work."

Fowler Schocken is a good showman. He took the time to find a slip of paper and read from it a sentence that the lowest of our copyboys could deliver off the cuff. "The chairman of the Venus Section," he read, "will be Mitchell Courtenay."

And that was the biggest surprise of all, because Mitchell Courtenay is me.

Copyright © 1953 by Frederik Pohl

Copyright © 1953 by C. M. Kornbluth



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