Space Merchants
by Frederick Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth
St. Martin's Press, 1983 (out of print)

The Merchants' War
by Frederick Pohl
St. Martin's Press, 1984 (out of print)

Why do I write satire? Ask, instead, how can I help it?
-- Juvenal

Science fiction writers are often credited with predicting inventions, as when Arthur C. Clarke originated the idea of communication satellites. But most of science fiction is not about predicting technological developments, but social ones: the impact of science on human life, and the extrapolation of social trends themselves. And some of those predictions can be more amazingly accurate than Clarke's communication network.

In 1905, H.M. Forster wrote a short story called The Machine Stops, in which he described a society where everyone lived in isolated underground cubicles, totally dependent on a great machine for communication, entertainment, and delivery of all supplies including air. There is now a group in Seattle offering addiction treatment to people who have reached this stage of dependency on the Internet. Tim Harris recently sent me their address.

In 1983, Frederick Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth wrote a science fiction novel in which great multi-national advertising companies have replaced government and most other social institutions. Advertising is the media and the media is advertising: the songs people hum on the streets are ad jingles. "News reports" are straight propaganda and sales messages, and few people stop to analyze them. Corporations take over the personal loyalties that used to go to churches, clubs, clans, or sports teams: most people graduate from school into a corporate job and stay with the same corporation until death. Corporate wars are passionate and very physical -- there may be shootouts on the company steps.

In the first book, a bright young man named Mitchell Courtenay is rising promisingly in the company hierarchy when he stumbles -- and in learning the downside of his chrome-plated culture, he becomes involved with the subversive (activist) element seeking to overthrow the corporations.

In the second book, Tennison Tarb, another bright young man rising high in the heirarchy, stumbles when on returning from an assignment on Venus he enters a "Commercial Zone" saturated with intense stimuli that induce an instant, unbreakable addiction to the drink "Mokie-Koke" and he becomes a social pariah. He was supposed to know better. Didn't he read the warning sign?

Tennison becomes involved with both a group trying to take over the corporations and a group trying to overthrow them, and ultimately takes a third way out -- telling the people the truth.

Some of the extremes of this satire have been avoided. We don't have physical corporate shootouts yet. We still have some content between commercials. And we managed to derail tobacco marketing to children before we got to the point of issuing Kiddiebutt rations in school lunchpails.

But we have the WTO, corporations overriding government. We have news run as a marketing project and advertising presented as "news." Have you ever listened to a debate between the followers of Macintosh and the followers of IBM? Or heard a "blame the victim" argument that excuses not doing anything for alcohol or drug rehabilitation?

Maybe telling the people the truth only works to change things in science fiction novels. But we publish Real Change because we think otherwise.

And one way to keep your hopes up and be entertained in the process is to dig back through old science fiction novels. Find out how sharply the grand old writers observed our society -- and what they thought could be done about it.



by Joshua Ortega
Omega Point Productions, 1999

On the other hand ... Satire on negative social trends and positive visions of change are not sufficient unto themselves to make a good novel. Joshua Ortega has some very apt observations here: a Redmond-based company called Ordosoft pretty much runs the world; voters anxious for social order after a period of violence agreed to have themselves electronically monitored to such an extent that a special division of the FBI can even track whether your thoughts are in the socially acceptable frequency range (placid and accepting); when a riot is touched off by cops beating three children to death, the rioters and their entire neighborhood are wiped out but the cops are only reprimanded. However, many things mar the book, like too much description and not enough action; a nit-picking attention to irrelevant details like each step of lighting a cigarette; inconsistency (he has a nice little gimmick of putting ® and and © after brand names of things being consumed, but doesn't do it all the time); a general stiffness and heavy-handedness in writing. Ortega needs a much tougher editor before he publishes the sequels he has in mind. Or he needs a writing workshop. Or maybe to read a lot of Cyril Kornbluth.

Alien Child
by Mona Lee

Didactic fiction -- fiction written to teach something, usually a moral lesson -- has a bad rep. But the online bookseller Amazon has an entire category for it, which means there's a lot of it and it sells. And when I looked up their list of didactic fiction, I noticed that the customer reviews for each book usually gave top ratings.

The people who don't like didactic fiction are usually the ones who don't agree with the moral. If you do agree with the moral, you may like the fiction a lot.

There isn't much to disagree with here. Love your neighbor, take care of the environment, respect your creativity, enjoy music -- it gets rave reviews at Amazon. It helps that it is very well written, that the heroines have a bit of angst and don't come to earth straight off Cloud Nine.

The story is that a young woman from a better and kinder world comes to our planet to engender a child, which she leaves here to lead us to a better and kinder world ourselves. There are enough twists in the action to make this didactic storyline interesting, and enough skill in wordsmithing to make it a pleasant read. And if the vision of a future in which we begin to love each other, take care of the environment, open up our creativity -- and, oh yes, dance and enjoy the music -- appeals to you, you'll probably love it.

Active Books Review