Science fiction is about ideas, I sometimes read. I resist the usage. Kant and Nietzsche work with ideas. Fiction writers, fantasy writers most prominently, work with conceits. They imagine something new and interesting which I then admire using words like cool and neato and awesome. The new cool thing is like a new toy. I do not develop a toy, or take it to its logical conclusion. I play with it.* Or, in literature, I follow along while the writer shows me the cool, neato, etc. ways he thought to play with his new toy.
I take this as the greatest pleasure of fantasy literature and its branches, including science fiction: imagination in isolation. Thus enthusiastic readers overlook or forgive or indulge lapses in story, characters, writing, and taste. Just keep the cool stuff coming, please!
The Space Merchants (1952) by Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth is one of the earliest American science fiction classics. I revisited the novel after twenty years in part because it has just been reissued as part of a Library of America collection (the accompanying website is itself pretty neato), and in part because I wanted to play with its best toy again. The Space Merchants was originally published under the title Gravy Planet – that’s one of those lapses of taste, although I am not sure that I do not prefer it, given the part of the book I like best.
The novel is a satire of consumerism and advertising. Michael Dirda runs through that side of the book, the parts that have dated and those that have not. Many of the jokes would work well today in a situation comedy set in an ad agency. Timeless or shallow? A little of both. One solid idea, or running joke, is that although this future society is completely captured by consumerism and advertising the standard of living, despite all sorts of magical technological advances, is lower than in 1952. Wealthy people in New York City can afford cabs, but the cabs are bicycle-powered. Meat is plentiful, but meat comes from Chicken Little.
That’s the one great invention, I think: Chicken Little, the giant pulsing living blobs of meat that feed the planet. Pohl and Kornbluth understand the value of their own idea well enough to know that just talking about Chicken Little is not enough. They have to rig the plot so we meet it. Sensitive eaters, avert your gaze:
He swung open her door. “This is her nest,” he said proudly. I looked and gulped.
It was a great concrete dome, concrete-floored. Chicken Little filled most of it. She was a gray-brown, rubbery hemisphere some fifteen yards in diameter. Dozens of pipes ran into her pulsating flesh. You could see that she was alive.
Herrera said to me: “All day I walk around her. I see a part growing fast, it looks good and tender, I slice.” His two-handed blade screamed again. This time it shaved off an inch-thick Chicken Little steak. (Ch. 9)
Almost the exact midpoint of the novel, right at Syd Field’s Plot Point 2. Maybe this does not look like much. No, as prose, as a description, it is not. I wonder why “fifteen yards” is not “fifty” – reach for the sublime! The authors build to the moment well, dropping the name without quite saying what it is, and they cleverly use Chicken Little in the plot, so that is part of the scene’s effectiveness. Even better, though, is the carver and his blade. I have to imagine him bouncing around on this enormous blob of gum, slicing away with his oversized sword, all of which is completely ridiculous but vivid, a fun use of the new toy. Perhaps I have to play with the imaginary toy myself, too. Perhaps that is what it is for.
* I play with ideas, too, but with toys I only play.