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In a vastly overpopulated near-future world, businesses have taken the place of governments and now hold all political power. States exist merely to ensure the survival of huge transnational corporations. Advertising has become hugely aggressive and boasts some of the world’s most powerful executives.
Through advertising, the public is constantly deluded into thinking that all the products on the market improve the quality of life. However, the...
In a vastly overpopulated near-future world, businesses have taken the place of governments and now hold all political power. States exist merely to ensure the survival of huge transnational corporations. Advertising has become hugely aggressive and boasts some of the world’s most powerful executives.
Through advertising, the public is constantly deluded into thinking that all the products on the market improve the quality of life. However, the most basic elements are incredibly scarce, including water and fuel.
The planet Venus has just been visited and judged fit for human settlement, despite its inhospitable surface and climate; colonists would have to endure a harsh climate for many generations until the planet could be terraformed.
Mitch Courtenay is a star-class copywriter in the Fowler Schocken advertising agency and has been assigned the ad campaign that would attract colonists to Venus, but a lot more is happening than he knows about. Mitch is soon thrown into a world of danger, mystery, and intrigue, where the people in his life are never quite what they seem, and his loyalties and core beliefs will be put to the test.
“A novel of the future that the present must inevitably rank as a classic.”—The New York Times
As I dressed that morning I ran over in my mind the long list of statistics, evasions, and exaggerations that they would expect in my report. My section— Production—had been plagued with a long series of illnesses and resignations, and you can’t get work done without people to do it. But the Board wasn’t likely to take that as an excuse.
I rubbed the depilatory soap over my face and rinsed it with the trickle from the freshwater tap. Wasteful, of course, but I pay the water taxes, and saltwater always leaves my face itchy. Before the last of the greasy stubble was quite washed away the trickle stopped and didn’t start again. I swore a little and finished rinsing with salt. These interruptions had been happening lately; some people blamed Consie saboteurs. Loyalty raids were being held throughout the New York Water Supply Corporation; so far they hadn’t done any good.
The morning newscast above the shaving mirror caught me for a moment . . . the President’s speech of last night, always good for amusement, a brief glimpse of the Venus rocket squat and silvery on the Arizona sand, rioting in Panama . . . I switched it off when the quarter- hour get- moving time- signal chimed over the audio band.
It looked as though I was going to be late again. Which certainly would not help mollify the Board.
I saved five minutes by wearing yesterday’s shirt instead of studding a clean one and by leaving my breakfast juice to grow warm and sticky on the table. But I lost the five minutes again by trying to call Kathy. She didn’t answer the phone, and I was late getting into the office.
Fortunately—and unprecedentedly— Fowler Schocken was late, too.
In our office it is Fowler’s custom to hold the weekly Board conference fifteen minutes before the regular opening of the business day. It keeps the clerks and stenos on their toes, and it’s no hardship to Fowler. He spends every morning in the office anyway, and “morning” to him begins with the rising of the sun.
Today, though, I had time to get my secretary’s summary off my desk before the meeting. When Fowler Schocken walked in with a courteous apology for his tardiness I was sitting in my place at the foot of the table, reasonably relaxed and as sure of myself as a Fowler Schocken Associate is ever likely to be.
“Good morning,” Fowler said, and the eleven of us made the usual idiot murmur. He didn’t sit down; he stood gazing paternally at us for about a minute and a half. Then, with the air of a daytripper in Xanadu, he looked carefully and delightedly about the room.
“I’ve been thinking about our conference room,” he said, and we all looked around at it. The room isn’t big, it isn’t small— say ten by twelve— but it’s cool, well- lighted, and most imposingly furnished. The air recirculators are cleverly hidden behind animated friezes; the carpeting is thick and soft, if not actually wool; and every piece of furniture is constructed from top to bottom of authentic, expertized, genuine tree- grown wood.
Fowler Schocken said, “We have a nice conference room here, men. As we should have, since Fowler Schocken Associates is the largest advertising agency in the city. We bill a megabuck a year more than anybody else around. And”— he looked around at all of us—“I think you’ll agree that we all find it worthwhile. I don’t think there’s a person in this room who has less than a two- room apartment.” He twinkled at me. “Even the bachelors. Speaking for myself, I’ve done well. My summer place looks right over one of the largest parks on Long Island. I haven’t tasted any protein but new meat for years, and when I go out for a spin I pedal a Cadillac. The wolf is a long way from my door. And I think any one of you can say the same. Right?” The hand of our Director of Market Research shot up, and Fowler nodded at him. “Yes, Matthew?”
Matt Runstead knows which side his bread is oiled on. He glared belligerently around the table. “I just want to go on record as agreeing with Mr. Schocken— one hundred percent—all the way!” he snapped.
Fowler Schocken inclined his head. “Thank you, Matthew.” And he meant it. It took him a moment before he could go on. “We all know,” he said, “what put us where we are. We remember the Starrzelius Verily account, and how we put Indiastries on the map. The first spherical trust. Merging a whole subcontinent into a single manufacturing complex. Schocken Associates pioneered on both of them. Nobody can say we were floating with the tide. But that’s behind us.
“Men! I want to know something. You can tell me truthfully— are we getting soft?” He took time to look at each of our faces searchingly, ignoring the forest of hands in the air. God help me, mine was right up there, too. Then he waved to the man at his right. “You first, Ben,” he said.
Ben Winston stood up and baritone, “Speaking for Industrial Anthropology, no! Listen to today’s progress report— you’ll get it in the noon bulletin, but let me brief you now: According to the midnight indices, all primary schools east of the Mississippi are now using our packaging recommendation for the school lunch program. Soyaburgers and regenerated steak”— there wasn’t a man around the table who didn’t shudder at the thought of soyaburgers and regenerated steak—“are packed in containers the same shade of green as the Universal products. But the candy, ice cream, and Kiddiebutt cigarette ration are wrapped in colorful Starrzelius red. When those kids grow up—” He lifted his eyes exultantly from his notes. “According to our extrapolation, fifteen years from now Universal Products will be broke, bankrupt, and off the market entirely!”
He sat down in a wave of applause. Schocken clapped, too, and looked brightly at the rest of us. I leaned forward with Expression One— eagerness, intelligence, competence— all over my face. But I needn’t have bothered. Fowler pointed to the lean man next to Winston. Harvey Bruner.
“I don’t have to tell you men that Point-of-Sale has its special problems,” Harvey said, puffing his thin cheeks. “1 swear, the whole damned government must be infiltrated with Consies! You know what they’ve done. They outlawed compulsive subsonics in our aural advertising— but we’ve bounced back with a list of semantic cue words that tie in with every basic trauma and neurosis in American life today. They listened to the safety cranks and stopped us from projecting our messages on aircar windows— but we bounced back. Lab tells me”— he nodded to our Director of Research across the table—“that soon we’ll be testing a system that projects directly on the retina of the eye.
“And not only that, but we’re going forward. As an example I want to mention the Coffiest pro—” He broke off. “Excuse me, Mr. Schocken,” he whispered. “Has Security checked this room?”
Fowler Schocken nodded. “Absolutely clean. Nothing but the usual State Department and House of Representatives spymikes. And of course we’re feeding a canned playback into them.”
Harvey relaxed again. “Well, about this Coffiest,” he said. “We’re sampling it in fifteen key cities. It’s the usual offer— a thirteen- week supply of Coffiest, one thousand dollars in cash, and a weekend vacation on the Ligurian Riviera to everybody who comes in. But— and here’s what makes this campaign truly great, in my estimation— each sample of Coffiest contains three milligrams of a simple alkaloid. Nothing harmful. But definitely habit- forming. After ten weeks the customer is hooked for life. It would cost him at least five thousand dollars for a cure, so it’s simpler for him to go right on drinking Coffiest— three cups with every meal and a pot beside his bed at night, just as it says on the jar.”
Fowler Schocken beamed, and I braced myself into Expression One again. Next to Harvey sat Tildy Mathis, Chief of Copy Services and handpicked by Schocken himself, But he didn’t ask women to speak at Board sessions, and next to Tildy sat me.
I was composing my opening remarks in my head as Fowler Schocken let me down with a smile. He said, “I won’t ask every section to report. We haven’t the time. But you’ve given me your answer, gentlemen. It’s the answer I like. You’ve met every challenge up to now. And so now— I want to give you a new challenge.”
He pressed a button on his monitor panel and swiveled his chair around. The lights went down in the room; the projected Picasso that hung behind Schocken’s chair faded and revealed the mottled surface of the screen. On it another picture began to form.
I had seen the subject of that picture once before that day, in my news screen over my shaving mirror.
It was the Venus rocket, a thousand- foot monster, the bloated child of the slim V-2s and stubby Moon rockets of the past. Around it was a scaffolding of steel and aluminum, acrawl with tiny figures that manipulated minute blue- white welding flames. The picture was obviously recorded; it showed the rocket as it had been weeks or months ago in an earlier stage of construction, not poised as if ready for takeoff, as I had seen it earlier.
A voice from the screen said triumphantly and inaccurately, “This is the ship that spans the stars!” I recognized the voice as belonging to one of the organ- toned commentators in Aural Effects and expertized the scripts without effort as emanating from one of Tildy’s English- major copywriters. The talented slovenliness that would confuse Venus with a star had to come from somebody on Tildy’s staff.
“This is the ship that a modern Columbus will drive through the void,” said the voice. “Six and a half million tons of trapped lightning and steel— an ark for eighteen hundred men and women, and everything they need to make a new world for their home. Who will man it? What fortunate pioneers will tear an empire from the rich, fresh soil of another world? Let me introduce you to them— a man and his wife, two of the intrepid . . .”
The voice kept on going. On the screen the picture dissolved to a spacious suburban roomette in early morning, the husband folding the bed into the wall and taking down the partition to the children’s nook, the wife dialing breakfast and erecting the table. Over the breakfast juices and the children’s pabulum (with a steaming mug of Coffiest for each, of course) they spoke persuasively to each other about how wise and brave they had been to apply for passage in the Venus rocket. The closing question of their youn gest babbler (“Mommy, when I grow up kin I take my littul boys and girls to a place as nice as Venus?”) cued the switch to a highly imaginative series of shots of Venus as it would be when the child grew up— verdant valleys, crystal lakes, brilliant mountain vistas.
The commentary did not exactly deny, and neither did it dwell on, the de cades of hydroponics and life in hermetically sealed cabins that the pioneers would have to endure while working in Venus’s unbreathable atmosphere and waterless chemistry.
Instinctively I had set the timer button on my watch when the picture started. When it was over I read the dial: nine minutes! Three times as long as any commercial could legally run. One full minute more than we were accustomed to get.
It was only after the lights were on again, the cigarettes lit, and Fowler Schocken well into his pep talk for the day that I began to see how that was possible.
He began in the dithering, circumlocutory way that has become a part of the flavor of our business. He called our attention to the history of advertising— from the simple handmaiden task of selling already manufactured goods to its present role of creating industries and redesigning a world’s folkways to meet the needs of commerce. He touched once more on what we ourselves, Fowler Schocken Associates, had done with our own expansive career. Then he said:
“There’s an old saying, men. ‘The world is our oyster.’ We’ve made it come true. But we’ve eaten that oyster.” He crushed out his cigarette carefully. “We’ve eaten it,” he repeated. “We’ve actually and literally conquered the world. Like Alexander, we weep for new worlds to conquer. And there”— he waved at the screen behind him—“there you have just seen the first of those worlds.”
I have never liked Matt Runstead, as you may have gathered. He is a Paul Pry whom I suspect of wiretapping even within the company. He must have spied out the Venus Project well in advance, because not even the most talented reflexes could have brought out his little speech. While the rest of us were still busy assimilating what Fowler Schocken had told us, Runstead was leaping to his feet.
“Gentlemen,” he said with passion, “this is truly the work of genius. Not just India. Not just a commodity. But a whole planet to sell! I salute you, Fowler Schocken— the Clive, the Bolívar, the John Jacob Astor of a new world!”
Matt was first, as I say, but every one of us got up and said in turn about the same thing. Including me. It was easy; I’d been doing it for years. Kathy had never understood it, and I’d tried to explain, with the light touch, that it was a religious ritual— like the champagne- bottle smash on the ship’s prow, or the sacrifice of the virgin to the corn crop. Even with the light touch I never pressed the analogy too far. I don’t think any of us, except maybe Matt Runstead, would feed opium derivatives to the world for money alone. But listening to Fowler Schocken speak, hypnotizing ourselves with our antiphonal responses, made all of us capable of any act that served our god of Sales.
I do not mean to say that we were criminals. The alkaloids in Cofflest were, as Harvey pointed out, not harmful.
When all of us had done, Fowler Schocken touched another button and showed us a chart. He explained it carefully, item by item; he showed us tables and graphs and diagrams of the entire new department of Fowler Schocken Associates that would be set up to handle development and exploitation of the planet Venus. He covered the tedious lobbying and friendmaking in Congress, which had given us the exclusive right to levy tribute and collect from the planet— and I began to see how he could expect to get away with a nine- minute commercial. He explained how the government (it’s odd how we still think and talk of that clearing house for pressures as though it were an entity with a will of its own) how the government wanted Venus to be an American planet and how— after Fowler himself had addressed a joint session of Congress— they had selected the peculiarly American talent of advertising to make it possible. As he spoke we all caught some of his fi re. I envied the man who would head the Venus Section; any one of us would have been proud to take the job. He spoke of trouble with the senator from DuPont Chemicals with his forty- five votes, and of an easy triumph over the senator from Disney with his six. He spoke proudly of a faked Consie demonstration against Fowler Schocken, which had lined up the fanatically anti- Consie Secretary of the Interior. Visual Aids had done a beautiful job of briefing the information, but we were there nearly an hour looking at the charts and listening to Fowler’s achievements and plans.
But finally he clicked off the projector and said, “There you have it. That’s our new campaign. And it starts right away— now. I have only one more announcement to make, and then we can all get to work.”
Fowler Schocken is a good showman. He took the time to find a slip of paper and read from it a sentence that the lowest of our copyboys could deliver off the cuff. “The chairman of the Venus Section,” he read, “will be Mitchell Courtenay.”
And that was the biggest surprise of all, because Mitchell Courtenay is me.
I lingered with Fowler for three or four minutes while the rest of the Board went back to their offices, and the elevator ride down from the Board room to my own office on the eighty-sixth floor took a few seconds. So Hester was already clearing out my desk when I arrived.
“Congratulations, Mr. Courtenay,” she said. “You’re moving to the eighty-ninth now. Isn’t it wonderful? And I’ll have a private office, too!”
I thanked her and picked up the phone over the desk. The first thing I had to do was to get my staff in and turn over the reins of Production; Tom Gillespie was next in line. But the first thing I did was to dial Kathy’s apartment again. There was still no answer, so I called in the boys.
They were properly sorry to see me go and properly delighted about everybody’s moving up a notch.
By then it was lunchtime, so I postponed the problem of the planet Venus until the afternoon.
I made a phone call, ate quickly in the company cafeteria, and took the elevator down to the shuttle, then the shuttle south for sixteen blocks. Coming out, I found myself in the open air for the first time that day and reached for my antisoot plugs but didn’t put them in. It was raining lightly, and the air had been a little cleared. It was summer, hot and sticky; the hordes of people crowding the sidewalks were as anxious as I to get back inside a building. I had to bulldoze my way across the street and into the lobby.
The elevator took me up fourteen floors. It was an old building with imperfect air- conditioning, and I felt a chill in my damp suit. It occurred to me to use that fact instead of the story I had prepared, but I decided against it.
A girl in a starched white uniform looked up as I walked into the office. I said, “My name is Silver. Walter P. Silver. I have an appointment.”
“Yes, Mr. Silver,” she remembered. “Your heart— you said it was an emergency.”
“That’s right. Of course,” I admitted apologetically, “it’s probably only some psychosomatic thing, but I felt—”
“Of course.” She waved me to a chair. “Dr. Nevin will see you in just a moment.”
It was ten minutes. A young woman came out of the doctor’s office, and a man who had been waiting in the reception room before me went in; then he came out, and the nurse said, “Will you go into Dr. Nevin’s office now?”
I went in. Kathy, very trim and handsome in her doctor’s smock, was putting a case chart in her desk. When she straightened up she said, “Oh, Mitch!” in a very annoyed tone.
“I told only one lie,” I said. “I lied about my name. But it is an emergency. And my heart is involved.”
There was a faint impulse toward a smile, but it didn’t quite reach the surface. “Not medically,” she said.
“I told your girl it was probably psychosomatic. She said to come in anyhow.”
“I’ll speak to her about that. Mitch, you know I can’t see you during working hours. Now please—”
I sat down next to her desk. “You won’t see me anytime, Kathy. What’s the trouble?”
“Nothing’s the trouble. Please go away, Mitch. I’m a doctor; I have work to do.”
“Nothing as important as this. Kathy, I tried to call you all last night and all morning.”
She lit a cigarette without looking at me. “I wasn’t home,” she said.
“No, you weren’t.” I leaned forward and took the cigarette from her and puffed on it. She hesitated, shrugged, and took out another. I said, “I don’t suppose I have the right to ask my wife where she spends her time?”
Kathy flared, “Damn it, Mitch, you know—” Her phone rang. She screwed her eyes shut for a moment. Then she picked up the phone, leaning back in her chair, looking across the room, relaxed, a doctor soothing a patient. It took only a few moments. But when it was all over she was entirely self- possessed.
“Please go away,” she said, stubbing out her cigarette.
“Not until you tell me when you’ll see me.”
“I . . . haven’t time to see you, Mitch. I’m not your wife. You have no right to bother me like this. I could have you enjoined or arrested.”
“My certificate’s on file,” I reminded her.
“Mine isn’t. It never will be. As soon as the year is up, we’re through, Mitch.”
“There was something I wanted to tell you.” Kathy had always been reachable through curiosity.
There was a long pause, and instead of saying again, “Please go away,” she said, “Well, what is it?”
I said, “It’s something big. It calls for a celebration. And I’m not above using it as an excuse to see you for just a little while to night. Please, Kathy— I love you very much, and I promise not to make a scene.”
She had hesitated, though. I said, “Please?”
“Well—” While she was thinking, her phone rang. “All right,” she said to me. “Call me at home. Seven o’clock. Now let me take care of the sick people.”
She picked up the phone. I let myself out of her office while she was talking, and she didn’t look after me.
Fowler Schocken was hunched over his desk as I walked in, staring at the latest issue of Taunton’s Weekly. The magazine was blinking in full color as the triggered molecules of its inks collected photons by driblets and released them in bursts. He waved the brilliant pages at me and asked, “What do you think of this, Mitch?”
“Sleazy advertising,” I said promptly. “If we had to stoop so low as to sponsor a magazine like Taunton Associates— well, I think I’d resign. It’s too cheap a trick.”
“Um.” He put the magazine facedown; the flashing inks gave one last burst and subsided as their light source was cut off. “Yes, it’s cheap,” he said thoughtfully. “But you have to give them credit for enterprise. Taunton gets sixteen and a half million readers for his ads every week. Nobody else’s— just Taunton clients. And I hope you didn’t mean that literally about resigning. I just gave Harvey the go- ahead on Shock. The first issue comes out in the fall, with a print order of twenty million. No—” He mercifully held up his hand to cut off my stammering try at an explanation. “I understood what you meant, Mitch. You were against cheap advertising. And so am I. Taunton is to me the epitome of everything that keeps advertising from finding its rightful place with the clergy, medicine, and the bar in our way of life. There isn’t a shoddy trick he wouldn’t pull, from bribing a judge to stealing an employee. And, Mitch, he’s a man you’ll have to watch.”
“Why? I mean, why particularly?”
Schocken chuckled. “Because we stole Venus from him, that’s why. I told you he was enterprising. He had the same idea I did. It wasn’t easy to persuade the government that it should be our baby.”
“I see,” I said. And I did. Our representative government now is perhaps more representative than it has ever been before in history. It is not necessarily representative per capita, but it most surely is ad valorem. If you like philosophical problems, here is one for you: Should each human being’s vote register alike, as the lawbooks pretend and as some say the founders of our nation desired? Or should a vote be weighed according to the wisdom, the power, and the influence— that is, the money— of the voter? That is a philosophical problem for you, you understand; not for me. I am a pragmatist, and a pragmatist, moreover, on the payroll of Fowler Schocken.
One thing was bothering me. “Won’t Taunton be likely to take— well, direct action?”
“Oh, he’ll try to steal it back,” Fowler said mildly.
“That’s not what I mean. You remember what happened with Antarctic Exploitation.”
“I was there. A hundred and forty casualties on our side. God knows what they lost.”
“And that was only one continent. Taunton takes these things pretty personally. If he started a feud for a lousy frozen continent, what will he do for a whole planet?”
Fowler said patiently, “No, Mitch. He wouldn’t dare. Feuds are expensive. Besides, we’re not giving him grounds— not grounds that would stand up in court. And, in the third place . . . we’d whip his tail off.”
“I guess so,” I said and felt reassured. Believe me, I am a loyal employee of Fowler Schocken Associates. Ever since cadet days I have tried to live my life “for Company and for Sales.” But industrial feuds, even in our profession, can be pretty messy. It was only a few decades ago that a small but effective agency in London fi led a feud against the English branch of BBDO and wiped it out to a man except for two Bartons and a single underage Osborn. And they say there are still bloodstains on the steps of the General Post Office where UnitedParcel and Federal Express fought it out for the mail contract.
Schocken was speaking again. “There’s one thing you’ll have to watch out for: the lunatic fringe. This is the kind of project that’s bound to bring them out. Every crackpot organization on the list, from the Consies to the GOP, is going to come out for or against it. Make sure they’re all for; they swing weight.”
“Even the Consies?” I squeaked.
“Well, no. I didn’t mean that; they’d be more of a liability.” His white hair glinted as he nodded thoughtfully. “Mm. Maybe you could spread the word that spaceflight and Conservationism are diametrically opposed. It uses up too many raw materials, hurts the living standard— you know. Bring in the fact that the fuel uses organic material that the Consies think should be made into fertilizer . . .”
I like to watch an expert at work. Fowler Schocken laid down a whole subcampaign for me right there; all I had to do was fill in the details. The Conservationists were fair game, those wild- eyed zealots who pretended modern civilization was in some way “plundering” our planet. Preposterous stuff. Science is always a step ahead of the failure of natural resources. After all, when real meat got scarce, we had soyaburgers ready. When oil for civilian purposes ran low, technology developed the pedicab.
I had been exposed to Consie sentiment in my time, and the arguments had all come down to one thing: Nature’s way of living was the right way of living. Silly. If “Nature” had intended us to eat fresh vegetables, it wouldn’t have given us the can.
I sat still for twenty minutes more of Fowler Schocken’s inspirational talk, and came away with the discovery I had often made before; briefly and effectively, he had given me every fact and instruction I needed.
The details he left to me, but I knew my job:
We wanted Venus colonized by Americans. To accomplish this, three things were needed: colonists; a way of getting them to Venus; and something for them to do when they got there.
The first was easy to handle through direct advertising. Schocken’s TV commercial was the perfect model on which we could base the rest of that facet of our appeal. It is always easy to persuade a consumer that the grass is greener far away. I had already penciled in a tentative campaign with the bud get well under a megabuck. More would have been extravagant.
The second was only partly our problem. The ships had been designed— by Walmart’s Kitchen Appliance Division, I believe, under Defense Department contract. Our job wasn’t to make the transportation to Venus possible— that was already done for us— but to make it palatable. When your wife found her burned- out toaster impossible to replace because its nichrome element was part of a Venus rocket’s main drive jet, or when the inevitable disgruntled congressman for a small and frozen- out firm waved an appropriations sheet around his head and talked about government waste on wildcat schemes, our job began: We had to convince your wife that rockets are more important than toasters; we had to convince the congressman’s constituent’s publicity firm that its tactics were unpopular and would cost it profits.
I thought briefly of an austerity campaign and vetoed it. Our other accounts would suffer. A religious movement, perhaps— something that would offer vicarious dedication to the eight hundred million who would not ride the rockets themselves. I tabled that; Bruner could help me there.
I went on to point three. There had to be something to keep the colonists busy on Venus.
This, I knew, was what Fowler Schocken had his eye on. The government money that would pay for the basic campaign was a nice addition to our year’s billing, but Fowler Schocken was too big for one- shot accounts. What we wanted was the year-after-year reliability of a major industrial complex; what we wanted was the colonists, and their children, added to our complex of accounts. Fowler, of course, hoped to repeat on an enormously magnified scale our smashing success with Indiastries. His Boards and he had organized all of India into a single giant cartel, with every last woven basket and iridium ingot and caddy of opium and Bollywood film it produced sold through Fowler Schocken advertising. Now he could do the same with Venus. Potentially this was worth as much as every dollar of value in existence put together! A whole new planet, the size of Earth, in prospect as rich as Earth— and every micron, every milligram of it ours.
I looked at my watch. About four; my date with Kathy was for seven. I just barely had time. I dialed Hester and had her get me space on the Washington jet while I put through a call to the name Fowler had given me. The name was Jack O’Shea; he was the only human being who had been to Venus— so far. His voice was young and cocky as he made a date to see me.
We were five extra minutes in the landing pattern over Washington, and then there was a hassle at the ramp. Brink’s Express guards were swarming around our plane, and their lieutenant demanded identification from each emerging passenger. When it was my turn I asked what was going on. He looked at my lownumber Social Security tattoo thoughtfully and then saluted. “Sorry to bother you, Mr. Courtenay,” he apologized. “It’s the Consie bombing near Topeka. We got a tip that the man might be aboard the 4:05 New York jet. Seems to have been a lemon.”
“What Consie bombing was this?”
“DuPont Raw Materials Division— we’re under contract for their plant protection, you know— was opening up a new coal vein under some cornland they own out there. They made a nice little ceremony of it, and just as the hydraulic mining machine started ramming through the topsoil somebody tossed a bomb from the crowd. Killed the machine operator, his helper, and a vice president. Man slipped away in the crowd, but he was identified. We’ll get him one of these days.”
“Good luck, Lieutenant,” I said and hurried on to the jetport’s main refreshment lounge. O’Shea was waiting in a window seat, visibly annoyed, but he grinned when I apologized.
“It could happen to anybody,” he said and, swinging his short legs, shrilled at a waiter. When we had placed our orders he leaned back and said, “Well?”
I looked down at him across the table and looked away through the window. Off to the south the gigantic pylon of the Reagan Memorial blinked its marker signal; behind it lay the tiny, dulled dome of the old Capitol. I, a glib ad man, hardly knew where to start. And O’Shea was enjoying it. “Well?” he asked again, amusedly, and I knew he meant “Now all of you have to come to me, and how do you like it for a change?”
I took the plunge. “What’s on Venus?” I asked.
“Sand and smoke,” he said promptly. “Didn’t you read my report?”
“Certainly. I want to know more.”
“Everything’s in the report. Good Lord, they kept me in the interrogation room for three solid days when I got back. If I left anything out, it’s gone permanently.”
I said, “That’s not what I mean, Jack. Who wants to spend his life reading reports? I have fifteen men in Research doing nothing but digesting reports for me so I don’t have to read them. I want to know something more. I want to get the feel of the planet. There’s only one place I can get it because only one man’s been there.”
“And sometimes I wish I hadn’t,” O’Shea said wearily. “Well, where do I start? You know how they picked me— the only midget in the world with a pi lot’s license. And you know all about the ship. And you saw the assay reports on the samples I brought back. Not that they mean much. I only touched down once, and five miles away the geology might be entirely different.”
“I know all that. Look, Jack, put it this way. Suppose you wanted a lot of people to go to Venus. What would you tell them about it?”
He laughed. “I’d tell them a lot of damn big lies. Start from scratch, won’t you? What’s the deal?”
I gave him a fill-in on what Schocken Associates was up to, while his round little eyes stared at me from his round little face. There is an opaque quality, like porcelain, to the features of midgets: as though the destiny that had made them small at the same time made them more perfect and polished than ordinary men, to show that their lack of size did not mean lack of completion. He sipped his drink, and I gulped mine between paragraphs.
When my pitch was finished I still didn’t know whether he was on my side or not, and with him it mattered. Jack O’Shea was no civil service puppet dancing to the strings that Fowler Schocken knew ways of pulling. Neither was he a civilian who could be bought with a tiny decimal of our appropriation. Fowler had helped him a little to capitalize on his fame via testimonials, books, and lectures, so he owed us a little gratitude . . . and no more.
He said, “I wish I could help,” and that made things easier.
“You can,” I told him. “That’s what I’m here for. Tell me what Venus has to offer.”
“Damn little,” he said, with a small frown chiseling across his lacquered forehead. “Where shall I start? Do I have to tell you about the atmosphere? There’s free formaldehyde, you know— embalming fluid. Or the heat? It averages above the boiling point of water— if there were any water on Venus, which there isn’t. Not accessible, anyhow. Or the winds? I clocked five hundred miles an hour.”
“No, not exactly that,” I said. “I know about that. And honestly, Jack, there are answers for all those things. I want to get the feel of the place, what you thought when you were there, how you reacted. Just start talking. I’ll tell you when I’ve had what I wanted.”
He dented his rose- marble lip with his lower teeth. “Well,” he said, “let’s start at the beginning. Get us another drink, won’t you?”
The waiter came, took our order, and came back with the liquor. Jack drummed on the table, sipped his Rhine wine and seltzer, and began to talk.
He started way back, which was good. I wanted to know the soul of the fact, the elusive, subjective mood that underlay his technical reports on the planet Venus, the basic feeling that would put compulsion and conviction into the project.
He told me about his father, the six- foot chemical engineer, and his mother, the plump, billowy house wife. He made me feel their dismay and their ungrudging love for their thirty-five-inch son. He had been eleven years old when the subject of his adult life and work first came up. He remembered the unhappinesss on their faces at his first, inevitable, offhand suggestion about the circus. It was no minor tribute to them that the subject never came up again. It was a major tribute that Jack’s settled desire to learn enough engineering and rocketry to be a test pilot had been granted, paid for, and carried out in the face of every obstacle of ridicule and refusal from the schools.
Of course, Venus had made it all pay off.
The Venus rocket designers had run into one major complication. It had been easy enough to get a rocket to the moon a quarter- million miles away; theoretically it was not much harder to blast one across space to the nearest other world. Venus. The question was one of orbits and time, of controlling the ship and bringing it back again. So there was a dilemma. They could blast the ship to Venus in a few days— at so squandersome a fuel expenditure that ten ships couldn’t carry it. Or they could ease it to Venus along its natural orbits as you might float a barge down a gentle river— which saved the fuel but lengthened the trip to months. A man in eighty days eats twice his own weight in food, breathes nine times his weight of air, and drinks water enough to float a yawl. Did somebody say: distill water from the waste products and recirculate it; do the same with food; do the same with air? Sorry. The necessary equipment for such cycling weighs more than the food, air, and water. So the human pilot was out, obviously.
A team of designers went to work on an automatic pi lot. When it was done it worked pretty well. And weighed four and one half tons in spite of printed circuits and relays constructed under a microscope.
The project stopped right there until somebody thought of that most perfect servo- mechanism: a sixty- pound midget. A third of a man in weight, Jack O’Shea ate a third of the food, breathed a third of the oxygen. With minimum- weight, low efficiency water and air purifiers, Jack came in just under the limit and thereby won himself undying fame.
He said broodingly, a little drunk from the impact of two weak drinks on his small frame, “They put me into the rocket like a finger into a glove. I guess you know what the ship looked like. But did you know they zipped me into the pi lot’s seat? It wasn’t a chair, you know. It was more like a diver’s suit; the only air on the ship was in that suit; the only water came in through a tube to my lips. Saved weight . . .”
The next eighty days were in that suit. It fed him, gave him water, sopped his perspiration out of its air, removed his body wastes. If necessary it would have shot novocaine into a broken arm, tourniqueted a cut femoral artery, or pumped air for a torn lung. It was a placenta, and a hideously uncomfortable one.
In the suit thirty-three days going, forty- one coming back. The six days in between were the justification for the trip.
Jack had fought his ship down through absolute blindness, clouds of gas that closed his own eyes and confused the radar, down to the skin of an unknown world. He had been within a thousand feet of the ground before he could see anything but swirling yellow. And then he landed and cut the rockets.
“Well, I couldn’t get out, of course,” he said. “Somebody else will have to be the first man to set foot on Venus. Somebody who doesn’t care much about breathing, I guess. Anyway, there I was, looking at it.” He shrugged his shoulders, looked baffled, and said a dirty word softly. “I’ve told it a dozen times at lectures, but I’ve never got it over. I tell ’em the closest thing to it on Earth is the Painted Desert. Maybe it is; I haven’t been there.
“The wind blows hard on Venus, and it tears up the rocks. Soft rocks blow away and make the dust storms. The hard parts— well, they stick out in funny shapes and colors. Great big monument things, some of them. And the most jagged hills and crevasses you can imagine. It’s something like the inside of a cave, sort of— only not dark. But the light is— funny. Nobody ever saw light like that on Earth. Orangey- brownish light, brilliant, very brilliant, but sort of threatening. Like the way the sky is threatening in the summer around sunset just before a smasher of a thunderstorm. Only there never is any thunderstorm because there isn’t a drop of water around.” He hesitated. “There is lightning. Plenty of it, but never any rain . . . I don’t know, Mitch,” he said abruptly. “Am I being any help to you at all?”
I took my time answering. I looked at my watch and saw that the return jet was about to leave, so I bent down and turned off the recorder in my briefcase. “You’re being lots of help, Jack,” I said, “but I’ll need more. And I have to go now. Look, can you come up to New York and work with me for a while? I’ve got everything you said on tape, but I want visual stuff, too. Our artists can work from the pix you brought back, but there must be more. Besides, you’re a lot more use than the photographs for what we need.” I didn’t mention that the artists would be drawing impressions of what Venus would look like if it were different from what it was. “How about it?”
Jack leaned back and looked cherubic, but, though he made me sweat through a brief recap of the extensive plans his lecture agent had made for the next few weeks, he finally agreed. The Shriners’ talk could be canceled, he decided, and the appointments with his ghostwriters could be kept as well in New York as in Washington. We made a date for the following day just as the PA system announced that my flight was ready.
“I’ll walk you to the plane,” Jack offered. He slipped down from the chair and threw a bill on the table for the waiter. We walked together through the narrow aisles of the bar out into the field. Jack grinned and strutted a little at some ohs and ahs that went up as he was recognized. The field was almost dark, and the glow of Washington backlighted the silhouettes of hovering aircraft. Drifting toward us from the freight terminal was a huge cargo copter, a fifty- tonner, its cargo nacelle gleaming in colors as it reflected the lights below. It was no more than fifty feet in the air, and I had to clutch my hat against the downdraft from its whirling vanes.
“Damn-fool bus drivers,” Jack grunted, staring up at the copter. “They ought to put those things on GCA. Just because they’re maneuverable those fan- jockeys think they can take them anywhere. If I handled a jet the way they— Run! Run!” Suddenly he was yelling at me and pushing at my middle with both his small hands. I goggled at him; it was too sudden and disconnected to make any kind of sense. He lurched at me in a miniature body block and sent me staggering a few steps.
“What the hell—?” I started to complain, but I didn’t hear my own words. They were drowned out by a mechanical snapping sound and a flutter in the beat of the rotors and then the loudest crash I had ever heard as the cargo pod of the copter hit the concrete a yard from where we stood. It ruptured and spilled cartons of Starrzelius Verily rolled oats. One of the crimson cylinders rolled to my toes, and I stupidly picked it up and looked at it.
Overhead the lightened copter fluttered up and away, but I didn’t see it go.
“For God’s sake, get it off them!” Jack was yelling, tugging at me. We had not been alone on the field. From under the buckled aluminum reached an arm holding a briefcase, and through the compound noises in my ears I could hear a bubbling sound of human pain. That was what he meant. Get it off them. I let him pull me to the tangled metal, and we tried to heave it. I got a scratched hand and tore my jacket, and then the airport people got there and brusquely ordered us away.
I don’t remember walking there, but by and by I found that I was sitting on someone’s suitcase, back against the wall of the terminal, with Jack O’Shea talking excitedly to me. He was cursing the class of cargo copter pi lots and blackguarding me for standing there like a fool when he’d seen the nacelle clamps opening, and a great deal more that I didn’t get. I remember his knocking the red box of breakfast food from my hand impatiently. The psychologists say I am not unusually sensitive or timorous, but I was in a state of shock that lasted until Jack was loading me into my plane.
Later on, the hostess told me five people had been caught under the nacelle, and the whole affair seemed to come into focus. But not until we were halfway back to New York. At the time all I remembered, all that seemed important, was Jack’s saying over and over, bitterness and anger written on his porcelain face, “Too damn many people, Mitch. Too damn much crowding. I’m with you every inch of the way. We need Venus, Mitch, we need the space . . .”
Kathy’s apartment, way downtown in Bensonhurst, was not large, but it was comfortable. In a homey, sensible way it was beautifully furnished. As who should know better than I? I pressed the button over the label DR. NEVIN and smiled at her as she opened the door.
She did not smile back. She said two things: “You’re late, Mitch” and “I thought you were going to call first.”
I walked in and sat down. “I was late because I almost got killed, and I didn’t call because I was late. Does that square us?” She then asked all the questions I wanted her to ask, and so I told her how close I had come to death that evening.
Kathy is a beautiful woman with a warm, friendly face, her hair always immaculately done in two tones of blond, her eyes usually smiling. I have spent a great deal of time looking at her, but I never watched more attentively than when I told her about the cargo nacelle near miss. It was, on the whole, disappointing. She was really concerned for me, beyond doubt. But Kathy’s heart opens to a hundred people, and I saw nothing in her face to make me feel that she cared more for me than for anyone else she had known for years.
So I told her my other big news, the Venus account and my stewardship of it. It was more successful; she was startled and excited and happy, and kissed me in a flurry of good feeling. But when I kissed her, as I’d been wanting to do for months, she drew away and went to sit on the other side of the room, ostensibly to dial a drink.
She smiled. “You rate a toast, Mitch. Champagne at the least. Dear Mitch, it’s wonderful news!”
I seized the chance. “Will you help me celebrate? Really celebrate?”
Her brown eyes were wary. “Um,” she said. Then, “Sure I will, Mitch. We’ll do the town together— my treat, and no arguments about it. The only thing is, I’ll have to leave you punctually at 2400. I’m spending the night in the hospital. I have a hysterectomy to do in the morning and I mustn’t get to sleep too late. Or too drunk, either.”
But she smiled.
Once again I decided not to push my luck too far. “Great,” I said, and I wasn’t faking. Kathy is a wonderful girl to do the town with. “Let me use your phone?”
By the time we had our drinks I had arranged for tickets to a show, a dinner table, and a reservation for a nightcap afterward. Kathy looked a little dubious. “It’s a pretty crowded program for five hours, Mitch,” she said. “My hysterectomy isn’t going to like it if my hand shakes.” But I talked her out of it. Kathy is more resilient than that. Once she did a complete trepan the morning after we’d spent the entire night screaming out our tempers at each other, and it had gone perfectly.
The dinner, for me, was a failure. I don’t pretend to be an epicure who can’t stand anything but new protein. I definitely am, however, a guy who gets sore when he pays new-protein prices and gets regenerated- protein merchandise. The texture of the shashlik we both ordered was all right, but you can’t hide the taste. I scratched the restaurant off my list then and there, and apologized to Kathy for it. But she laughed it off, and the show was fine. Hypnotics often give me a headache, but I slipped right into the trance state this time as soon as the film began and was none the worse for it afterward.
The nightclub was packed, and the headwaiter had made a mistake in the time for our reservations. We had to wait five minutes in the anteroom, and Kathy shook her head very decisively when I pleaded for an extension on the curfew. But when the headwaiter, with the fanciest apologies and bows, showed us to our places at the bar and our drinks came, she leaned over and kissed me again. I felt just fine.
“Thanks,” she said. “That was a wonderful evening, Mitch. Get promoted often, please. I like it.”
I lit a cigarette for her and one for myself, and opened my mouth to say something. I stopped.
Kathy said, “Go ahead, say it.”
“Well,” I said, “I was thinking of that time on the Martyrs’ Walk.”
She looked puzzled for a moment, and then it clicked. “Oh, the one in Washington. That one.”
I didn’t remind her that there was only one Walk of Martyrs. I just said, “Do you remember the time I’m talking about?”
“Of course I do. What kind of a person do you think I am? You’re embarrassing me.”
“I mean after. When I put my hand on the Enron plinth and promised to love you forever . . . and then I asked you to marry me.” She didn’t respond to that, and I ventured, “And you promised you would.”
She sighed. For a moment I thought the dam was breaking, but what she said was, “Well, Mitch, you’re going a little beyond the facts, aren’t you? All I promised was to sign the interlocutory. Nothing about permanent. And I wouldn’t have done that if you hadn’t been so damn good-looking in the neon lights. That hand on the monument! So corny! And the way that company was talked about in the recorded commentary! All right, a kind of a tragedy, I guess, but there are better times to talk about history.”
That was a long speech for Kathy, but the only part I really listened to was how good I’d looked in the light of the downtown advertising signs. I tried a different tack. “Is it wrong for me to say we always have a lot of fun together?”
“No. But I know what you were leading up to and the answer still is no.”
“I know it is,” I said glumly. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”
She paid the tab and we left, inserting our antisoot plugs as we hit the street. “Cab, sir?” asked the doorman.
“Yes, please,” Kathy answered. “A tandem.”
He whistled up a two-man pedicab, and Kathy gave the lead boy the hospital’s address. “You can come if you like, Mitch,” she said, and I climbed in beside her. The doorman gave us a starting push, and the cabbies grunted getting up momentum.
Unasked, I put down the top. For a moment it was like our courtship again: the friendly dark, the slight musty smell of the canvas top, the squeak of the springs. But for a moment only. “Watch that, Mitch,” she said warningly.
But I couldn’t stop myself. “Please, Kathy,” I said carefully. “Let me say it anyhow. It won’t take long.” She didn’t say no. “Eight months ago we took the interlocutory vows. Do you remember why we did that?”
She said patiently, “We were in love.”
“That’s right,” I said. “I loved you and you loved me. And we both had our work to think about, and we knew that sometimes it made us a little hard to get along with. So we made it interim. It had a year to run before we had to decide whether to make it permanent.” I touched her hand and she didn’t move it away. “Kathy dear, don’t you think we knew what we were doing then? Can’t we— at least— give it the year’s trial? There are still four months to go. Let’s try it. If the year ends and you don’t want to file your certificate— well, at least I won’t be able to say you didn’t give me a chance. As for me, I don’t have to wait. My certificate’s on file now, and I won’t change.”
We passed a streetlight, and I saw her lips twisted into an expression I couldn’t quite read. “Oh, damn it all, Mitch,” she said unhappily, “I know you won’t change. That’s what makes it all so terrible. Must I sit here and call you names to convince you that it’s hopeless? Do I have to tell you that you’re an ill-tempered, contriving, Machiavellian, selfish pig of a man to live with? I used to think you were a sweet guy, Mitch. An idealist who cared for principles and ethics instead of money. I had every reason to think so. You told me so yourself, very convincingly. You were very plausible about my work, too. You boned up on medicine, you came to watch me operate three times a week, you told all our friends while I was sitting right in the room listening to you how proud you were to be married to a surgeon. It took me three months to fi nd out what you meant by that. Anybody could marry a girl who’d be a house wife. But it took a Mitchell Courtenay to marry a first- class– rated surgeon and make her a house wife.” Her voice was tremulous. “I couldn’t take it, Mitch. I never will be able to. Not the arguments, not the sulkiness, and not the ever- and- ever fighting. I’m a doctor. Sometimes a life depends on me. If I’m all torn up inside from battling with my husband, that life isn’t safe, Mitch. Can’t you see that?”
Something that sounded like a sob blurted out of her.
I asked quietly, “Kathy, don’t you still love me?”
She was absolutely silent for a long moment. Then she laughed wildly and very briefly. “Here’s the hospital, Mitch,” she said.
I threw back the top, and we climbed out. “Wait,” I said to the lead boy, and walked with her to the door. She wouldn’t kiss me good night and she wouldn’t make a date to see me again. I stood in the lobby for twenty minutes to make sure she was really staying there that night, and then got into the cab to go to the nearest shuttle station. I was in a vile mood. It wasn’t helped any when the lead boy asked innocently after I had paid him off, “Say, mister, what does Mac— Machiavellian mean?”
“Spanish for ‘mind your own goddamned business,’ ” I told him evenly. On the shuttle I wondered sourly how rich I’d have to be before I could buy privacy.
My temper was no better when I arrived at the office next morning. It took all Hester’s tact to keep me from biting her head off in the first few minutes, and it was by the grace of God that there was not a Board meeting. After I’d got my mail and the overnight accumulation of interoffice memos, Hester intelligently disappeared for a while. When she came back she brought me a cup of coffee— authentic, plantation grown coffee. “The matron in the ladies’ room brews it on the sly,” she explained. “Usually she won’t let us take it out because she’s afraid of the Coffiest team. But now that you’re star class—”
I thanked her and gave her Jack O’Shea’s tape to put through channels. Then I went to work.
First came the matter of the sampling area, and a headache with Matt Runstead. He’s Market Research, and I had to work with and through him. But he didn’t show any inclination to work with me. I put a map of southern California in the projector while Matt and two of his faceless helpers boredly sprinkled cigarette ashes on my floor.
With the pointer I outlined the test areas and controls. “San Diego through Tijuana; half the communities around L.A. and the lower tip of Monterey. Those will be controls. The rest of Cal- Mexico from L.A. down we’ll use for tests. You’ll have to be on the scene, I guess, Matt; I’d recommend our Diego offices as headquarters. Turner’s in charge there, and he’s a good man.”
Runstead grunted. “Not a flake of snow from year’s end to year’s end. Couldn’t sell an overcoat there if you threw in a slave girl as a premium. For God’s sake, man, why don’t you leave market research to somebody who knows something about it? Don’t you see how climate nulls your sigma?”
The younger of his stamped- out- of- tin assistants started to back the boss up, but I cut him off. Runstead had to be consulted on test areas— it was his job— Venus was my project and I was going to run it. I said, sounding just a little nasty, “Regional and world income, age, density of population, health, psyche- friction, age- group distribution, and mortality causes and rates are seven- place sigmas, Matt. Cal- Mex was designed personally by God Himself as a perfect testing area. In a tiny universe of less than a hundred million, it duplicates every important segment of North America. I will not change my project, and we are going to stick to the area I indicated.” I bore down on the word “my.”
Matt said, “It won’t work. The temperature is the major factor. Anybody should be able to see that.”
“I’m not just anybody, Matt. I’m the guy in charge.”
Matt Runstead stubbed out his cigarette and got up. “Let’s go talk to Fowler,” he said and walked out. There wasn’t anything for me to do except follow him. As I left I heard the older of his helpers picking up the phone to notify Fowler Schocken’s secretary that we were coming. He had a team all right, that Runstead. I spent a little time wondering how I could build a team like that myself before I got down to the business of planning how to put it to Fowler.
But Fowler Schocken has a surefire technique of handling interstaff hassles. He worked it on us. When we came in he said exuberantly, “There you are! The two men I want to see! Matt, can you put out a fire for me? It’s the ObGyny people. They claim our handling of the PregNot account is hurting their trade. They’re talking about going over to Taunton unless we drop PregNot. Their billing isn’t much, but a birdie told me that Taunton put the idea into their heads.” He went on to explain the intricacies of our relationship with the American Institute of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. I listened only halfheartedly; our “Babies Without Maybes” campaign on their sex- determination project had given them at least a 20 percent plus on the normal birthrate. They should be solidly ours after that. Runstead thought so, too.
He said, “They don’t have a case, Fowler. We sell liquor and hangover remedies both. They’ve got no business bitching about any other account. Besides, what the hell does this have to do with Market Research?”
Fowler chuckled happily. “That’s it!” he crowed. “We throw them a switch. They’ll expect the account executives to give them the usual line— but instead we’ll let you handle them yourself. Snow them under with a whole line of charts and statistics to prove that PregNot never prevents a couple from having a baby; it just permits them to postpone it until they can afford to do the job right. In other words, their unit of sale goes up and their volume stays the same. And— it’ll be one in the eye for Taunton. And— lawyers get disbarred for representing conflicting interests. It costs a lot of them a lot of money. We’ve got to make sure that any attempt to foist the same principle on our profession is nipped in the bud. Think you can handle it for the old man, Matt?”
“Oh, hell, sure,” Runstead grumbled. “What about Venus?”
Fowler twinkled at me. “What about it? Can you spare Matt for a while?”
“Forever,” I said. “In fact, that’s what I came to see you about. Matt’s scared of southern California.”
Runstead dropped his cigarette and let it lie, crisping the plastic pile of Fowler’s rug. “What the hell—” he started belligerently.
“Easy,” said Fowler. “Let’s hear the story, Matt.”
Runstead glowered at me. “All I said was that southern California isn’t the right test area. What’s the big difference between Venus and here? Heat! We need a test area with continental-average climate. A New Englander might be attracted by the heat on Venus; a Tijuana man, never. It’s too damn hot in Cal-Mex already.”
“Um,” said Fowler Schocken. “Tell you what, Matt. This needs going into, and you’ll want to get busy on the ObGyny thing. Pick out a good man to vice you on the Venus Section while you’re out, and we’ll have it hashed over at the section meeting tomorrow afternoon. Meanwhile”— he glanced at his desk clock—“Senator Danton has been waiting for seven minutes. All right?”
It was clearly not all right with Matt, and I felt cheered for the rest of the day.
Things went well enough. Development came in with a report on what they’d gleaned from O’Shea’s tape and all the other available material. The prospects for manufacture were there. Quick, temporary items like little souvenir globes of Venus manufactured from the organics floating around in what we laughingly call the planet’s “air.” Long- term ones, too; an assay had indicated pure iron: not nine nines pure and not ninety-nine nines pure, but absolute iron that nobody would ever find or make on an oxygen planet like Earth. The labs would pay well for it. And Development had not developed but found a remarkable little thing called a high- speed Hilsch tube. Requiring no power, it could refrigerate the pioneers’ homes by using the hot tornadoes of Venus. It was a simple thing that had been lying around since 1943. Nobody until us had any use for it because nobody until us had that kind of wind to play with.
Tracy Collier, the Development liaison man with Venus Section, tried also to tell me about nitrogen- fixing catalysts. I nodded from time to time and gathered that sponge platinum “sown” on Venus would, in conjunction with the continuous, terrific lightning, cause it to “snow” nitrates and “rain” hydrocarbons, purging the atmosphere of formaldehyde and ammonia.
“Kind of expensive?” I asked cautiously.
“Just as expensive as you want it to be,” he said. “The platinum doesn’t get used up, you know. Use one kilogram and take a few million years or more. Use more platinum and take less time.”
I didn’t really understand, but obviously it was good news. I patted him and sent him on his way.
Industrial Anthropology gave me a setback. Ben Winston complained, “You can’t make people want to live in a steam-heated sardine can. All our folkways are against it. Who’s going to travel sixty million miles for a chance to spend the rest of his life cooped up in a tin shack— when he can stay right here on Earth and have corridors, elevators, streets, roofs, all the wide-open space a man could want? It’s against human nature, Mitch!”
I reasoned with him. It didn’t do much good. He went on telling me about the American way of life— walked to the window with me and pointed out at the hundreds of acres of rooftops where men and women could walk around in the open air, wearing simple soot- extractor nostril plugs instead of a bulky oxygen helmet.
Finally I got mad. I said, “Somebody must want to go to Venus. Otherwise why would they buy Jack O’Shea’s book the way they do? Why would the voters stand still for a billion-and-up appropriation to build the rocket? God knows I shouldn’t have to lead you by the nose this way, but here’s what you are going to do: Survey the book buyers, the repeat viewers of O’Shea’s TV shows, the ones who come early to his lectures and stand around talking in the lobby afterward. O’Shea is on the payroll— pump him for everything you can get. Find out about the Moon colony— find out what types they have there. Then we’ll know whom to aim our ads at. Any arguments, for God’s sake?” There weren’t.
Hester had done wonders of scheduling that fi rst day, and I made progress with every section head involved. Unfortunately, she couldn’t read my paperwork for me, and by quitting time I had six inches of it stacked by my right arm. Hester volunteered to stay with me, but there wasn’t really anything for her to do. I let her bring me sandwiches and another cup of real coffee and chased her home.
It was after eleven by the time I was done. I stopped off in an all- night diner on the fifteenth floor before heading home, a windowless box of a place where the milk smelled of the yeast it was made from and the ham in my sandwich bore the taint of soy. But it was only a minor annoyance and quickly went out of my mind. For as I opened the door to my apartment there was a snick and an explosion, and something slammed into the door frame by my head. I ducked and yelled. Outside the window a figure dangling from a rope ladder drifted away, a gun in its hand.
I was stupid enough to run over to the window and gawk out at the helicopter-borne figure. I would have been a perfect target if it had been steady enough to shoot at me again, but it wasn’t.
Surprised at my calm, I called the Metropolitan Protection Corporation.
“Are you a subscriber, sir?” their operator asked.
“Yes, dammit. For six years. Get a man over here! Get a squad over here.”
“One moment, Mr. Courtenay . . . Mr. Mitchell Courtenay? Copysmith, star class?”
“No,” I said bitterly. “Target is my profession. Will you kindly get a man over here before the character who just took a shot at me comes back?”
“Excuse me, Mr. Courtenay,” said the sweet, unruffled voice. “Did you say you were not a copysmith, star class?”
I ground my teeth. “I’m star class,” I admitted.
“Thank you, sir. I have your record before me, sir. I am sorry, sir, but your account is in arrears. We do not accept starclass accounts at the general rate because of the risk of industrial feuds, sir.” She named a figure that made each separate hair on my head stand on end.
I didn’t blow my top; she was just a tool. “Thanks,” I said heavily and rang off. I put the Program- Printing to Quarry Machinery reel of the Red Book into the reader and spun it to Protective Agencies. I got turndowns from three or four, but finally one sleepy- sounding private detective agreed to come on over for a stiff fee.
He showed up in half an hour, and I paid him, and all he did was annoy me with unanswerable questions and look for nonexistent fingerprints. After a while he went away saying he’d work on it.
I went to bed and eventually to sleep with one of the unanswered questions chasing itself around and around in my head. Who would want to shoot a simple, harmless advertising man like me?
Posted August 20, 2007
Written over 50 years ago, The Space Merchants is a dystopian vision of a future world obsessed by consumerism, where corporations have seats in congress and executives live the lives of rock stars. Advertising bigwig Mitch Courtenay has bagged his biggest challenge -- selling consumers on moving to the nigh-uninhabitable world of Venus for the purpose of exploiting its resources. Mitch soon learns that powerful forces oppose him -- his identity is stolen and replaced with that of a lowly laborer, forced to spend his days in the hot sun, skimming scum and incurring debt. His only chance to find his way back to his old life might be to turn to the underground Conservationist 'or 'Consie'' movement, whose ideals are directly opposed to Mitch's own. The Space Merchants is that rare sci-fi work that creates a future world solely to allow us to better examine the morals and values of our own world. Pohl's distaste for rampant capitalism was obviously influenced by his brief stint in the Communist Party 'and it's obvious what 'Consie' would have sounded like to any American in the early 1950s when this book was first published'. Although The Space Merchants is recognized as a classic in the science-fiction genre, after reading it I believe it belongs in classic literature, firmly between its spiritual brethren Brave New World and 1984.
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Posted October 29, 2002
This book was recommended to me by my English Literature tutor at Glasgow University when I told him I was returning to the U.S.It turned out to be a remarkably accurate depiction of the world that we wake up to every day.
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Posted October 14, 2011
International corporations run the world as they own the governments. CEOs rule society with their advertising gurus the keys by not just twisting the truth but selling lies persuading the downtrodden that "God has created the world and that, therefore, the world must be perfect" (Voltaire). These experts live lifestyles of wasteful abundance while the commoners lack fuel, water and food; and share one room dumps.
Fowler Shocken Associates executive Mitchell Courtenay is assigned spinning Venus the planet from hell as an idyll place to live. Though he knows this will anger his beloved ethical Kathy, he looks forward to the folk tale he will sell. However, someone steals Mitchell's social security identifier by tattooing additional numbers onto his arm that makes him a laborer with a large debt. He knows he has no hope of returning to his affluence lifestyle as the government bureaucracy demands bribes and a corporate buddy sold his downward spiraling spin. His only chance for salvation resides with those ridiculed by the brainwashed commoners, the Consie opposition.
Frederik Pohl states in the Preface to this powerful timely satire that he revised aspects of the plot to eliminate "minor scientific or logical errors". Although mostly undetectable except for names, some of the changes lead to disconnect with predominate acceptable social mores of the early 1950s. Still this remains a classic dystopian thriller that condemns a world driven by corporate spin masters as the authors mock Madison Ave. for the corporate takeover of government. The Space Merchants revision retains its keen lampooning of a world falling in disarray while people on need are sold on "What A Wonderful World" (by George David Weiss and George Douglas).
Posted April 19, 2010
No text was provided for this review.