Posts tagged ‘The Space Merchants’

Frederik Pohl

 

 
By Elizabeth Anne Hull

Elizabeth Anne Hull

Elizabeth Anne Hull

Windycon 41 was a lot of fun for me this year, especially the session dedicated to Frederik Pohl and his impact on science fiction.

Some highlights: We opened with a solemn presentation to me of a polished brass plaque which appeared on a commemorative bench at Loncon this year by Helen Montgomery and Dave McCarty from the executive committee of Chicon 7 and ISFiC. I was truly touched.

Gene Wolfe, our friend who lived in nearby Barrington till just recently, joined the panel at the last minute, and set the tone for the panel and made the audience laugh when he talked about how upset he was when Fred and I got married, and I soon after stopped being one of the hosts of our local fan group, SFFNCS (a.k.a. Science Fiction Fans of the Northwest Chicago Suburbs, pronounced “Sphinx”). In my defense, being Fred’s wife took a lot more time than being his girlfriend! Not to mention that I was holding down a full-time job at Harper College and developing their Honors Program, as well as the fact that Fred and I did a lot of traveling together to some pretty interesting and exotic places around the world.

Fred’s long-time editor Jim Frenkel kept us focused on the description of the panel: Fred’s multifaceted contributions to the field. He revealed some of what it was like to work editorially with Fred, who could always recognize a good editorial suggestion when he received it. We all agreed that all of Fred’s experience as an editor both for magazines and for books had sharpened his fiction skills and the ability to self-edit, and his period of agenting had also made him very aware of how important marketability is to a writer’s career.

I admitted that Fred was already a Big Name Pro and had a lot of experiences that I knew about only second hand when I met him at the Worldcon in Kansas City in 1976. I had in fact, taught The Space Merchants in my SF class but changed to Gateway in the late ’70s.

Long-time Chicago-area fan Neil Rest talked about the sensation Fred made on local fans when he came with me to one of parties held every month at the apartment of George Price (of Advent:Publishers) —or perhaps it was at one of the weekly meetings on the North Side called “Thursday,” quite possibly at the home of Alice Bentley, who might have been still a teenager or at least wasn’t yet a bookstore owner. We did a lot better at remembering our feelings than actual details, as will happen over more than 30 years.

From his beginnings in the New York area in the ’30s, Fred never gave up fanac and his sense of being a fan when he became a pro. I told how thrilled Fred was at Foolscap in Seattle in 2000 where Fred and Ginjer Buchanan (then an editor at Ace) were co-fan guests of honor. They called the con the “Fred and Ginjer Show.” In the ’30s and ’40s, Fred told me many times, he was very fond of the beautiful and talented Ginger Rogers, who he said, had to do all the steps Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels.

Much more recently, Fred was also entirely thrilled in 2010 when he won a Hugo as Best Fan Writer at Aussiecon for his work in this blog. He was happy to give credit wherever due, and thanked his blogmeister, Leah A. Zeldes, who allowed him to concentrate on writing without having to worry about the technicalities of the Internet posting, as well as Dick Smith, who enabled Fred to use his obsolete word processor to write both fiction and non-fiction.

Continue reading ‘Windycon Honors Frederik Pohl’s Contributions to SF’ »

The Space Merchants, 21st Century Edition

 

In 2011, Fred revised The Space Merchants, his classic collaboration with Cyril Kornbluth. The most notable changes in the 21st Century Edition were the replacement of defunct brand names with more contemporary ones, and a few tweaks to make the science more accurate.

Not everybody was pleased with the update, but since earlier editions had been out of print for some time, the availability of new copies is a boon. Alas, this classic has not been released in an electronic edition, and we hope those of you who’d like to have it in your e-reader libraries will importune the publishers to make it so.

We thought Fred’s fans might like to see a few of the reviews of the latest edition:

  • “The novel is full of fantastic plot twists and adopts an irreverent attitude to everything from the things we eat to the power of the president. Its wry take on the role of media in shaping popular culture makes it a dazzling proto-Pop novel.” —Doug Cube, Cubic Muse.

  • “At the end of the day, the book can’t help but retain its quality as a cautionary glimpse into the future from a little over a half-century ago. . . . Science-fiction fans who somehow missed reading THE SPACE MERCHANTS should definitely get this new edition. The rest of us can retire our dogged-ear paperback copies and enjoy reading it again in this sturdier, comfortable format.” —Alan Cranis, Bookgasm.

  • “In 1953, Pohl and Kornbluth (1923–1958) published this wry tale of a future run by corporations, a groundbreaking narrative in its time.” — Publishers Weekly.

  • “The best science fiction novel about Madison Ave you’ll ever read. . . . Now out in a ‘Revised 21st Century Edition,’ The Space Merchants is quite literally Mad Men in space. It’s also a reminder that this book should take its place among the great literary satires of the twentieth century.” —Annalee Newitz, io9.

Have you read both versions? What did you think?

The blog team

 
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The Space Merchants, 21st Century Edition

 

See, the liberating thought that came to me one night was, “Hey, Fred! All those people you and Cyril had so much pleasure making fun of, they’re still around — only worse than ever — and they still need to have somebody point out how contemptible their aspirations are and how wretched they would make our lives if they could.”

Time for a new edition! Some of the brand names had lost their relevance — how many people own a Kelvinator or drive a Nash these days? — but it was an easy chore to replace those names with more contemporary ones.

The one thing that would have made the whole job easier, and a lot more fun, was no longer with us. That was the presence of Cyril Kornbluth himself, eternally graceful in the use of words and even more reliably sardonic in his understanding of the world we live in.

* * *

So, after all this long and eventful half-century since the day I diffidently handed the unfinished manuscript of The Space Merchants over to Horace Gold, what do I think of the book itself?

I think it isn’t exactly a conventional novel, which may be why so many editors declined the chance to publish it. Certainly it wasn’t a conventional science-fiction novel, as the term was understood in those early days, it lacking radar-eyed and multilimbed alien characters, as well as their squadrons of faster-than-light battlewagons. What it was, and is, is what Kingsley Amis felicitously termed a “comic inferno” or a “new map of hell.” As such, readers who shared my and Cyril’s apprehensions about the world of the future heard a voice that shared their concerns, and liked what they heard.

And I would make no stronger claim for the book now.

 
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Ian Ballantine

Ian Ballantine

One by one, I showed the tearsheets of Gravy Planet, to every publisher in America who had ever published a science-fiction book or given any sign that some day he might. One by one, they turned it down cold. These publishers, remember, were firms to whom I had been regularly selling scores of science-fiction books, more than any other agency — indeed, to the most important markets frequently more than all other sources combined. With many of the editors, they and I had come to look on each other as personal friends.

That didn’t mean they would buy our book. As one of the better-paying editors said, “Since we’re friends, Fred, I can be candid with you.. This manuscript is simply not of professional caliber. What you need is to find a professional writer to pull it all together.”

What I have sometimes said about that since is that we couldn’t find a professional writer to help us, we found an amateur publisher, Ian Ballantine, who had just started his own company of Ballantine Books and didn’t know that our book wasn’t publishable. So he went ahead and published it, and made a good profit doing so.

That joke is unfair to Ian. He had had a good many years of experience running other book publishing companies before starting his own. But it’s true that he knew nothing about science fiction.

He did, however, know me, and had for some time.. He decided to trust my judgment, and that turned out generally well for him, not just on The Space Merchants (as two of his editors retitled the book), but in the many years thereafter that I served as an unofficial advisor and trouble-shooter for the firm. (Over those years, Ian himself lost control of his publishing company, but not because of taking on the sf program.)

The Space Merchants began showing off its legs in other ways, not just in the sales at Ballantine Books but in unexpected other income. We began to get requests for foreign editions and translations, first England and France and then, over the years, in more than twenty other languages, perhaps double that. And we very quickly sold the film rights for what seemed like all the money in the world: fifty thousand 1950s dollars, equal to perhaps half a million in today’s limp currency. And it became a steady seller on Ballantine’s backlist for many years after that, with a sizeable check coming our way every royalty period, right up to the time when Judy-Lynn del Rey agreed to revert it to me so I could accept a multi-book offer involving it.

That was a mistake After a few brief weeks of sales, the novel rapidly disappeared from sight into the dungeons of the backlist of St. Martin’s Press. Although from time to time I pleaded with them to revert it so we could let one of the other publishers bring it back to life, all I ever got from Tom Dunne, the editor in charge, was a polite little note saying no, and so the book stayed there, invisibly, and unprofitably, until a couple years ago, when the 21st Century edition. came out.

And sold out almost immediately.

 
To be continued. . . .

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Galaxy, June 1952, with Gravy Planet by Pohl & Kornbluth

 

Cyril Kornbluth and I had collaborated on a few not very good (but sold and published anyway) stories before the war changed everything. He wasn’t doing a lot of writing now, because he had determined to go straight with his life, by which he meant get a college education. Accordingly, he had moved to Chicago with his new wife, Mary, and signed up at the University of Illinois with the financial help of the GI Bill of Rights. He had time to write very little, but what he had written (and I instantly sold for him through the Dirk Wylie agency) was getting better and better.

I thought he could be tempted. As he had just turned up at our house for a visit, it was easy to put that to the test, so I showed him the partial manuscript, and he was hooked. When Cyril went home, he took the fragment with him. He did some tidying up on that first third of the book, then wrote a draft of the next third on his own and came back to show it to me.

I was happy with his draft. We then wrote the final section turn and about, a four-page segment by Cyril followed by four pages by me und so weiter. Then I went over the manuscript myself for one last time. Then I delivered it to Horace and he started it on schedule, after changing the title to Gravy Planet, right after Alfie Bester’s serial ended.

Gravy Planet attracted a lot of interest in the sf community. For a while, it was held responsible for inspiring a whole new species of science fiction called the “when the garbage men take over the world” stories. And when it was finished in the magazine, I made a neat package of the tearsheets in order to sell a hard-cover edition to one book publisher or another. As an agent, I had been selling a ton of sf novels to the newborn and voracious book market for sf. I didn’t anticipate having any trouble getting a book contract.

I could not have been more wrong.

 
To be continued. . . .

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Horace L. Gold

Horace L. Gold

Over the next few years I gave most of my thinking time to other matters. I finally could not make myself stay on at a 9-to-5 job in advertising, so in spite of pleas to stay and the offers of still more money, I left my good friends in advertising and took over the management of my dying friend Dirk Wylie’s literary agency. I did occasionally have a spasm of writing the novel, putting together a few pages of one false start or another, and then ash-canning them when I read them over.

But then I had an idea — slow in coming but full of promise. What I had become reasonably good at, and seemed to be getting slowly better, was science fiction. So why not write a science-fiction novel about advertising?

I experimentally wrote a few pages, on something to which I gave the title Fall Campaign. Then, as time permitted I wrote a few more, and then a few more than that, and after quite a few such episodes I had about a 20,000-word chunk of what was a recognizable science-fiction novel about advertising.

Although I had {through the Wylie agency agency), been selling a reasonable number of short stories, all under pseudonyms, novels were terra incognita to me. I felt the need of an outside opinion. So I took my 20,000 words over to show to Horace Gold, the brilliant, if sometimes maddening, editor of the new magazine Galaxy. My agency did a lot of business with his magazine and we had become friends. He read it over and said, “Fine. I’m running an Alfie Bester serial now. As soon as that finishes I’ll start this one.”

That caught me unawares. I said, “Horace, did you happen to notice that it isn’t finished?”

He said, “Sure. So what do you do about that? You go home and finish it.”

The trouble with that very appealing idea was that running the literary agency did not leave me enough time to do what Horace wanted, at least single-handed. But I quickly saw that I had a possible solution to the problem right up in the third floor guest room of my recently acquired house in Red Bank, New Jersey. The name of the solution was Cyril Kornbluth.

 
To be continued. . . .

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  • The Story of The Space Merchants, Part 1