The Space Merchants

The Space Merchants is a science fiction novel by American writers Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth in 1952. Originally published in Galaxy Science Fiction magazine as a serial entitled Gravy Planet, the novel was first published as a single volume in 1953, and has sold heavily since. It deals satirically with a hyper-developed consumerism, seen through the eyes of an advertising executive. In 1984, Pohl published a sequel, The Merchants' War. In 2012, it was included in the Library of America omnibus American Science Fiction: Four Classic Novels 1953-1956. Pohl revised the original novel in 2011 with added material and more contemporary references.

The Space Merchants
Cover of first edition hardcover
AuthorFrederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth
Cover artistRichard Powers[1]
SeriesSpace Merchants
GenreScience Fiction/Satire
PublisherBallantine Books
Publication date
May 18, 1953[2]
Media typePrint (hardback & paperback)
Followed byThe Merchants' War 
Galaxy 195206
The first installment of Gravy Planet was cover-featured on the June 1952 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction.

Plot summary

In a vastly overpopulated world, businesses have taken the place of governments and now hold all political power. States exist merely to ensure the survival of huge trans-national corporations. Advertising has become hugely aggressive and by far the best-paid profession. Through advertising, the public is constantly deluded into thinking that the quality of life is improved by all the products placed on the market. Some of the products contain addictive substances designed to make consumers dependent on them. However, the most basic elements of life are incredibly scarce, including water and fuel. Personal transport may be pedal powered, with rickshaw rides being considered a luxury. The planet Venus has just been visited and judged fit for human settlement, despite its inhospitable surface and climate; the colonists would have to endure a harsh climate for many generations until the planet could be terraformed.

The protagonist, Mitch Courtenay, is a star-class copywriter in the Fowler Schocken advertising agency who has been assigned the ad campaign which would attract colonists to Venus. But a lot more is happening than he knows about. It soon becomes a tale of mystery and intrigue, in which many of the characters are not what they seem, and Mitch's loyalties and opinions change drastically over the course of the narrative.

Mitch goes to a resort in Antarctica, only to become lost outside in a blizzard. He recovers to find that he has been shanghaied as an ordinary working stiff. His ID number tattooed on his arm has been altered so he cannot reclaim his old identity. However his skills remain intact. He becomes the propaganda specialist for a cadre of revolutionaries, in the process becoming a convert to the cause of those he once manipulated as mere consumers. In the end he confronts those who stole his life, who are not necessarily his enemies, and those from his old life, who are not necessarily his friends.

Publication and reception


Whilst serving in the US Army Air Force during the Second World War, Pohl had been posted to Stornara, in south-eastern Italy, as a weather forecaster. Shortly after learning of his mother's death in 1944, and feeling somewhat homesick, he decided to start writing a novel about New York. He chose to write about the advertising industry, thinking it to be the most interesting topic in the city, and patiently wrote "a long, complicated, and very bad novel" with the title of For Some We Loved.[3]

After the war ended, in early 1946, he re-read the manuscript, and decided that its major flaw was that he had written it despite knowing nothing about advertising. Before rewriting it, he applied for advertising jobs to gain some background, and on 1 April 1946 joined a small Madison Avenue agency as their chief copywriter. He later moved to Popular Science, finding that he enjoyed the work so much he lost track of why he originally took the job.[4]

Some years later, Pohl returned to For Some We Loved. In early 1950, he read through the original manuscript, but found the writing to be completely unsalvageable; he burned it, and decided to forget the idea. The following year, he began drafting a science fiction novel, loosely themed on advertising, under the name of Fall Campaign, and had reached twenty thousand words by the summer, working at weekends and in the evenings. At this point, Pohl's old friend Cyril Kornbluth arrived, having quit his job in Chicago to freelance as a science fiction writer, and offered to look over the manuscript. A short while later he returned, having incorporated some plot suggestions made by Philip Klass and written a new twenty-thousand word middle section; the two men collaborated on the final third, and after Pohl gave it a final revision, the novel was complete.[5]


Horace Gold, the editor of Galaxy Science Fiction, had read the draft before Kornbluth had become involved, and offered to print it when it was complete, tentatively scheduled to follow Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man. In the event, it was serialised in the magazine from June to August 1952, as Gravy Planet.[6]

However, finding a publisher for the novel itself was not easy. Pohl offered it to every American publishing house which printed science fiction, without any success. Eventually, he met Ian Ballantine, an old colleague of his wife's, who had just founded Ballantine Books and was looking for new titles. Ballantine agreed to publish it—Pohl joked that "he was just too inexperienced to know that it was no good"—and it was released in May, 1953, in simultaneous paperback and hardcover editions.[7] The book edition dropped the previously published concluding chapters, reportedly added for the magazine version at the request of Galaxy editor H.L. Gold.[8][9]

Twenty-five years after first publication, writing in The Way The Future Was, Pohl estimated that it had sold perhaps ten million copies in twenty-five languages.[10] Pohl's 2011 light revision of the novel includes references to some commercial phenomena in the Reagan-Bush era, including Enron and AIG.

In 2012, it was included in the Library of America omnibus American Science Fiction: Four Classic Novels 1953-1956, edited by Gary K. Wolfe. The omnibus was part of a two-volume set of 1950s science fiction, the first LOA project to include an extensive online companion site.[11]

Critical reception

In his study of the pioneers of science fiction, New Maps of Hell (1960), the novelist Kingsley Amis states that The Space Merchants "has many claims to being the best science-fiction novel so far."[12] It is also ahead of its time in stressing the importance of limiting population growth and conserving natural resources. On its initial publication, Groff Conklin called the novel "perhaps the best science fiction satire since Brave New World."[9] Boucher and McComas praised it as "bitter, satiric, exciting [and] easily one of the major works of logical extrapolation in several years.. . . a sharp melodrama of power-conflict and revolt which manages. . . to explore all the implied developments of [its imagined] society."[13] Imagination reviewer Mark Reinsberg described it as "a marvellously entertaining story" and "A brilliant future satire."[14] P. Schuyler Miller compared the novel to Brave New World, finding it "not so brilliant, but more consistently worked out and suffering principally. . . from its concessions to melodrama."[15] At the 1976 MidAmeriCon convention in Kansas City, Alfred Bester referred to the novel as "one of the top two science fiction novels of all time."[16]

It was rated the 24th "all-time best novel" in a 1975 Locus poll, jointly with The Martian Chronicles and The War of the Worlds.[17] In 2012, the novel was included in the Library of America two-volume boxed set American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s, edited by Gary K. Wolfe.[18] The novel was also included in David Pringle's list of 100 best science fiction novels.[19]

As with many significant works of science fiction, it was lexically inventive. The novel is cited by the Oxford English Dictionary as the first recorded source for a number of new words, including "soyaburger", "moon suit", "tri-di" for "three-dimensional", "R and D" for "research and development", "sucker-trap" for a shop aimed at gullible tourists, and one of the first uses of "muzak" as a generic term. It is also cited as the first incidence of "survey" as a verb meaning to carry out a poll.[20]


The film rights were sold for $50,000, though an adaptation was never made. It was adapted for radio by the CBS Radio Workshop.[21]

The novel was followed some years later by a sequel, The Merchants' War; as Kornbluth had died in 1958, it was written solely by Pohl.


  1. ^ "Publication Listing". Retrieved 13 April 2015.
  2. ^ "Books Published Today". The New York Times: 19. May 18, 1953.
  3. ^ Pohl, p. 152
  4. ^ Pohl, pp. 170-176
  5. ^ Pohl, pp. 199-201
  6. ^ Internet Science Fiction Database; Pohl, p. 201
  7. ^ Internet Science Fiction Database; Pohl, pp. 202-205
  8. ^ Rich, M. (2009). C.M. Kornbluth: The Life and Works of a Science Fiction Visionary. McFarland, Incorporated Publishers. p. 196. ISBN 9780786457113. Retrieved 13 April 2015.
  9. ^ a b "Galaxy's 5 Star Shelf", Galaxy Science Fiction, June 1953, p.114
  10. ^ Pohl, pp. 201-202
  11. ^ Itzkoff, Dave (July 13, 2012). "Classic Sci-Fi Novels Get Futuristic Enhancements From Library of America".
  12. ^ Kingsley Amis: New Maps of Hell, p. 124.
  13. ^ "Recommended Reading," F&SF, July 1953, p. 85.
  14. ^ "Imagination Science Fiction Library", Imagination, December 1953, p.145
  15. ^ "The Reference Library", Astounding Science Fiction, November 1953, pp.148-49
  16. ^ FANAC Fan History (26 August 2016). "MidAmeriCon (1976) Worldcon - Alfred Bester interview" – via YouTube.
  17. ^ Internet Science Fiction Database
  18. ^ Dave Itzkoff (July 13, 2012). "Classic Sci-Fi Novels Get Futuristic Enhancements from Library of America". Arts Beat: The Culture at Large. The New York Times. Retrieved 9 January 2013.
  19. ^ "David Pringle's Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels". Retrieved 20 June 2015.
  20. ^ Entries for relevant terms in the Oxford English Dictionary Online, accessed 26 November 2009.
  21. ^ Pohl, p. 201. A copy of the broadcast is available at


  • Pohl, Frederik (1982). The Way The Future Was : a memoir. Granada. ISBN 0-586-05211-9.
  • Amis, Kingsley (1960). New Maps of Hell : a survey of science fiction. Harcourt, Brace.

External links

Ballantine Books

Ballantine Books is a major book publisher located in the United States, founded in 1952 by Ian Ballantine with his wife, Betty Ballantine. It was acquired by Random House in 1973, which in turn was acquired by Bertelsmann in 1998 and remains part of that company today. Ballantine's logo is a pair of mirrored letter Bs back to back. The firm's early editors were Stanley Kauffmann and Bernard Shir-Cliff.

Confidence tricks in literature

This is a list of notable literary works involving confidence tricks.

Cyril M. Kornbluth

Cyril M. Kornbluth (July 2, 1923 – March 21, 1958) was an American science fiction author and a member of the Futurians. He used a variety of pen-names, including Cecil Corwin, S. D. Gottesman, Edward J. Bellin, Kenneth Falconer, Walter C. Davies, Simon Eisner, Jordan Park, Arthur Cooke, Paul Dennis Lavond, and Scott Mariner. The "M" in Kornbluth's name may have been in tribute to his wife, Mary Byers; Kornbluth's colleague and collaborator Frederik Pohl confirmed Kornbluth's lack of any actual middle name in at least one interview.

Gary K. Wolfe

Gary K. Wolfe (born Gary Kent Wolfe in 1946) is an American science fiction editor, critic and biographer. He is an emeritus Professor of Humanities in Roosevelt University's Evelyn T. Stone College of Professional Studies.

List of works by Frederik Pohl

This is a complete list of works by American space opera and science fiction author Frederik Pohl.

McDonald's urban legends

Urban legends about the fast-food chain McDonald's abound. These legends include claims about the food and allegations of discrimination by the company.


Pohl is a German surname. Notable people with the surname include:

Anna Neethling-Pohl (1906 -1992), South African actress, performer and film producer

Carsten Pohl (born 1965), German professional basketball coach

Dieter Pohl (born 1938), German / Swiss physicist

Ernest Pohl (1932–1995), Polish football (soccer) player

Ernest Pohl Stadium, also called Górnik Zabrze Stadium, a multi-purpose stadium in Zabrze, Poland, named for Ernest Pohl

Franz Pohl (1864–1920), artist

Frederik Pohl (1919–2013), American science fiction writer

Frederick J. Pohl (1889–1991), American playwright, literary critic, editor, and author

Gerhard Pohl (1937-2012), German politician

Hans-Peter Pohl (born 1965), German former winter sports athlete and Olympic skier in the Nordic combined discipline

Hermann Pohl, the founder of the Germanenorden, ariosophic lodge organisation in Germany c. 1910 – 1930

Hugo von Pohl (1855–1916), German admiral

Johann Baptist Emanuel Pohl (1782–1834), Austrian botanist

Johann Ehrenfried Pohl (1746–1800), German botanist and physician

John Pohl (born 1979), American professional ice hockey player

Kalle Pohl (born 1951), German comedian and actor

Karl Otto Pohl (1929-2015), German economist and Bundesbank head

Leonhard Pohl (born 1929), German athlete

Louis Pohl (1915–1999), American artist

Lucie Pohl (born 1983), German-American actress and stand-up comedian

Manfred Pohl (born 1944), German business historian

Markus Pohl, German musician and member of the German power metal band Mystic Prophecy

Maximilian Ritter von Pohl (1893–1951), German army and air force (Luftwaffe) officer

Oswald Pohl (1892–1951), German SS officer executed for war crimes

Peter Pohl (born 1940), Swedish writer and mathematician

Richard Pohl (1826–1896), German composer and music author

Robert Pohl (1884–1976), German physicist

Sabine Bergmann-Pohl (born 1946), German politician

Shannon Pohl (b. ?), American badminton player

Stephanie Pohl (born 1978), German beach volleyball player

Tomasz Pohl (born 1968), Polish poet

Walter Pohl (born 1953), Austrian historian and author

William Francis Pohl (1937–1988), American mathematician

Witta Pohl (1937–2011), German actress

Political ideas in science fiction

The exploration of politics in science fiction is arguably older than the identification of the genre. One of the earliest works of modern science fiction, H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, is an extrapolation of the class structure of the United Kingdom of his time, an extreme form of Social Darwinism; during tens of thousands of years, human beings have evolved into two different species based on their social class.

Science fiction

Science fiction (often shortened to Sci-Fi or SF) is a genre of speculative fiction, typically dealing with imaginative concepts such as advanced science and technology, spaceflight, time travel, and extraterrestrial life. Science fiction often explores the potential consequences of scientific and other innovations, and has been called a "literature of ideas".

Search the Sky

Search the Sky is a satirical science fiction novel by American writers Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth, first published in 1954 by Ballantine Books.

Slave Ship (Pohl novel)

Slave Ship is a 1956 short science fiction novel by American writer Frederik Pohl, originally serialized in Galaxy. The scene is a world in the throes of a low-intensity global war, which appears to be an amplified representation of the Vietnam War, in which the U.S. was just beginning to be involved. The plot involves telepathy, speaking to animals, and, in the last few pages, an invasion by extraterrestrials.

The nominal adversaries in the novel are known as "cow-dyes", a corruption of Caodai, a religion of Vietnamese origin. On the American side, telepaths, who are used in espionage and other covert activities, are falling victim to "the glotch", a fatal affliction which is believed to be a Caodai bio-weapon, transmitted telepathically.

The Merchants' War (Pohl novel)

The Merchants' War is a 1984 satirical science fiction novel by American writer Frederik Pohl. Set in a near future commercial dystopian interplanetary society, the novel was a sequel to The Space Merchants, and was originally co-published with it as Venus, Inc. Pohl's collaborator in the first novel, C.M. Kornbluth, died in 1958, and so did not contribute to this sequel.

In the story, the colony on Venus has managed to stabilize itself to a point. However, agents from the trans-national corporations on Earth attempt to undermine the stability of the colony. The story follows the trail of two advertisement company employees from the colony back to Earth, as one of them, Tennison Tarb, struggles with addiction and its effect on his advertising career. Eventually, he uncovers a 'Veenie' plot to take over Earth and has to choose sides. As with the preceding book, the characters are not what they seem, and the main character's loyalty changes drastically.


In science fiction and ufology, a Venusian () or Venerian is a native inhabitant of the planet Venus. Many science fiction writers have imagined what extraterrestrial life on Venus might be like.

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