Book Review: American Science Fiction: Four Classic Novels 1953-1956

Posted: January 14, 2014 in Book Reviews, Science Fiction
Tags: , , , , ,

 

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(Gary K. Wolfe editor, Library of America, 2012)

reviewed by Chris Edwards

What novel best captures the ethos of the 1950s? Someone fresh from an American Lit survey course would likely reply, On the Road. But did Kerouac write anything which is still relevant to the structure of society today, anything that is now of more than literary interest? This is not to deride Kerouac, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti and the other Beat writers, but it is worth asking why they still tower over the 1950s in academia and literary circles.

To find a book which captures the spirit and environment of the ’50s, and is still relevant today, one can look to (or, in literary circles, look down on) The Space Merchants by Frederic Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth, arguably the best science fiction novel of the 1950s. This is the first novel in the Library of America’s two-volume anthology, . Michael Dirda expounds on the book at the anthology’s web site, but his comments are off the mark.

The web site proclaims the book to be “Mad Men meets Phillip K. Dick,” which is not quite right. In regard to Dick, The Space Merchants is much lighter and much funnier than anything Dick ever wrote, and it deals with an external social reality (advertising and its influence) rather than the largely internal questions that obsessed Dick, such as the nature of self and the nature of perceived reality. In regard to Mad Men, The Space Merchants is about advertising, to be sure, but unlike Mad Men it doesn’t celebrate the 1950s as a lost paradise for white men. Instead, the novel freeze frames a crucial period in America where one’s identity came to be defined by what one consumes, and where people consumed garbage. The protagonist, Mitchell Courtenay, stands atop a powerful advertising agency, whose “creative types” and clients consider themselves to be both the pinnacle of evolutionary capitalism and the heirs to the poets of the Renaissance. (The old Marxist line about people associating wealth with intelligence or talent applies well here.)

The hierarchy is clear, and the advertisers pitch garbage to the lower classes. As the plot unfolds, Courtenay finds himself stripped of his identity and forced to maneuver amongst the slobs he spent his life manipulating. His subsequent rise, based purely on his talent, could have been penned by Ayn Rand if the authors did not slice so deftly at capitalism, and if they didn’t laud the “Consies,” an underground group of conservationists/communists organized in line with anarchist principles.

On the anthology’s web site, Dirda indicates that a major character, the astronaut and “little person” Jack O’Shea, becomes a sex symbol through the power of advertising. Not quite. This is science fiction and we should expect some science. The book has Jack O’Shea becoming famous because of physics; following the book’s premises, only someone a third of the size of a normal human could get to Venus on the small amount of resources allocated. Jack O’Shea is a clever construct, designed to solve a rather complicated problem the book posits about space travel. He just happens to get laid a lot because that’s how things are when a man gets famous, no matter how unattractive he is. (See Simmons, Gene.)

Unlike On the Road, The Space Merchants is still relevant. America is now largely populated by people who define themselves through their consumption. Grown men in leather chaps who ride Harleys, techies wearing and clutching gadgets, and Prius drivers who drink $4-a-cup free-trade coffee and chai tea all fit into the all-enveloping culture of consumerism. Kerouac missed it, but Pohl and Kornbluth got it. The futuristic world they created both reflected the 1950’s and foreshadowed the present.

The Space Merchants should stand as a major novel, not just a major science fiction novel.

(More on the other novels in American Science Fiction, Four Classic Novels: 1953-1956 in a future post.)

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Chris Edwards is the author of Spiritual Snake Oil. He is currently working on a science fiction novel concerning Holocaust denial.

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  1. […] Book Review: American Science Fiction: Four Classic Novels 1953-1956 […]

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