13 dystopias that will be studied in history books: The Space Merchants

Today we bring you the eighth proposal in this series of 13 dystopias to be studied in history books, a work initially published in installments in the early 1950s in the journal Galaxy Science Fiction. Within the framework of this series, it has two peculiarities that differentiate it from the previous recommendations, since it is the first work written by two hands, and the first in which criticism of the economic system stands out against criticism of the political system: The Space Merchants, by Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth.


The Space Merchants presents a futuristic society in which political power is absolutely subordinated to economic power; in which the interests of large corporations are law; and in which the great lords of commerce have the ability to monitor and subdue the rest of the population through consumption. It is an absolutely stratified and unequal system in which the possibilities of survival and well-being depend on the role that each one has in this hypercapitalist gear: consumer, producer, seller, executive… In a society ruled by the law of the market, the protagonist of these literary adventures could not be other than a famous publicist, at the top of the social social pyramid at the beginning of the story. But, after knowing a reality that is far from the placid comfort that he enjoys from his privileged position, he is degraded to the bottom of this chain, which forces him to undertake a vital journey that will confront him with the beliefs he held during all his life. During this process he will come into contact with a faction of society considered by the majority to be dangerous, violent and margina, consies (anti-consumerists), who will help him open his eyes to the reality of his society and to take action.


Cyril M. Kornbluth (1923-1958) and Frederik Pohl (1919-2013) were united from a very young age by their deep fondness for fantasy literature, pulp publishing and underground publishing. But also their critical vision of the growing consumer society of America in the 1940s brought these two authors together in the science fiction collective Futurians, which also included other great names of letters such as Isaac Asimov or Donald A. Wollheim. In fact, Pohl’s work, more extensive than Kornbluth’s (due to the latter’s premature death) was always deeply marked by his communist, anti-racist and anti-fascist thinking, by his union experience and by his brief membership in the Communist Youth.

There are many studies and articles that, even today, highlight the ability of Kornbluth and Pohl to predict, in the early 1950s, the power that the market would achieve in Western capitalist societies, and to what extent individual and collective life, vital projects, leisure or human relations would come conditioned by our role as producers or consumers within the system only a few years later, in a process that does not seem to come to an end. The elimination of political borders (for capitals) and cultural identities (for societies) described by the authors anticipates the galloping phenomenon of globalization born not long after the publication of the text, intensified at the end of the 20th century and still today in expansion process. The progressive privatization of basic services that should be guaranteed for all human beings lead us, little by little, to a horizon similar to that presented in the book. The ravages of the most atrocious capitalism in the environment (the degradation of ecosystems, the exploitation of resources) and in people (a social inequality that allows the most advanced technologies to coexist with the lack of basic goods; opulence with malnutrition; wastage with misery) have been perfectly perceptible, and indisputable, for many decades. And also in the world imagined by Kornbluth and Pohl, sensible, critical, and committed people are persecuted by the system. The consies, representatives in these pages of the ecological, anti-capitalist, decreasing, anti-globalization movements, etc., are branded as terrorists, seen as a public danger, persecuted and eliminated. But, both in fiction and in reality, resistance does not give way or cease.

📷 Image: Galaxy Science Fiction (1952).

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