Modern advances in manufacturing, space travel, and science perpetuate immense corporate appetites of global companies that continue to abuse the planet’s natural resources for short-term financial benefit. The dystopian society is what many modern thinkers predict to come at some point in the future. The Space Merchants by Cyril Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl is one of many science-fiction books that attempt to predict what will happen if the current trends of abusing nature persist. While this novel presents readers with a captivating sci-fi adventure, it can become prophetic in a way it describes the growing disrespect towards nature, the tension of social hierarchy, and lack of existential purpose. As opposed to Pohl and Kornbluth’s action-based and descriptive novel, Nature by Ralph Waldo Emerson explores the theoretical foundations of transcendentalism, the role of nature as a spiritual being, and its impact on humanity. Some of the foundational theories of Emerson can be directly related to the fictional novel. This essay will argue that the disregard towards nature and consumerism is the central conflict in The Space Merchants by applying and examining Emerson’s concepts of naturalism, transcendentalism, and social anxiety.
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Naturalism is one of the most primary reasons for the world of The Space Merchant to be dystopian and unwelcoming for any human resident. According to Emerson and his foundational philosophical work, nature is supposed to be regarded as a spiritual being. Through the lens of his teachings, for a person to enjoy a meaningful and fulfilling life, one should be surrounded and guided by nature and its presence. Emerson wrote, “But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars; the rays that come from those heavenly worlds will separate between him and vulgar things” (15). This quote showcases that for a person to be content and have a symbolic morality compass in life, they have to appreciate nature and have direct contact with it.
As opposed to Emerson’s perception of nature as a higher, metaphysical being, people in The Space Merchants view it as a simple tool for achieving financial freedom. The resources are exploited for the good of the companies. People casually abolish the gifts of nature and regard others who worship it with disgrace. The protagonist comments, “I had been exposed to Consie sentiment, and the arguments had all come down to one thing: nature’s way of living was the right way of living” (Kornbluth and Pohl 15). He also regards nature-worshipping attitude as unnecessary and unscientific, “If “Nature” had intended us to eat fresh vegetables, it wouldn’t have given us niacin or ascorbic acid” (Kornbluth and Pohl 15). His opinion of the human-made and natural nutrition shows that people in this reality view what the universe provides them from a purely consumeristic perspective. This attitude makes people lose a sense of ethics and live in an overpopulated and flawed world.
Another crucially important concept to consider when examining The Space Merchant‘s dystopia’s central conflict is the philosophy of transcendentalism. Emerson was a pioneer in the field and formulated the phenomena of transcendentalism, which entails the person’s understanding of individuality, self-reliance, and morality. Emerson argued that for every person to reach their highest potential, they have to know and trust themselves and be non-conformant to the general trends. The fact that the name of the movement means “rising” implies that those who follow the teachings of transcendentalism rise above other people and reach the highest point of their potential. Emerson also states that one should “not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail” (66). This ultimate goal of the philosophy, according to him, can be reached through exercising personal morality, non-conformity, and uniting with nature.
In a world of The Space Merchants, the individuality and connection with nature is eliminated, repressed, and judged. Instead of a divine and spiritual relationship with the natural forces that Emerson argues for, people in this fictional reality are conditioned and forced into the cycle of harmful habits of drug-induced products. Kornbluth and Pohl write, “After ten weeks, the customer is hooked for life” (5). This alludes both to the particular product and the herd instinct that the majority of the population adopts by feeding into the consumeristic nature of the corporate world that abuses nature. As a result of the loss of the spiritual connection with nature and one’s inner world that Emerson described, people lack ethicality and logic. For instance, the protagonist says that he “can’t trust reason, [he] threw it out of the ad profession long ago and have never missed it” (Kornbluth and Pohl 83). This showcases the detrimental effect of lack of transcendentalism in people’s lives since they exist with no understanding of moral anchors and follow the consumeristic group for decision-making.
The last point of analysis that is essential to consider in addressing the conflict is social pressure and debt. Emerson focuses on the concepts of debt and property and their relation to the nature. The author argues that nature can serve as an inspiration for tackling social and economic problems that people face in everyday urban lives. For instance, he gives the example of how people who suffer the most from debts are the ones who should invest the most time in the understanding of the concept. Emerson adds that “debt, which consumes so much time, which so cripples and disheartens a great spirit with cares that seem so base, is a preceptor whose lessons cannot be forgone” (26). According to his philosophy, social struggles related to finances teach people a valuable lesson of discipline that can be fostered by the forces of nature.
The effect of debt is prominent in the social tension that characters experience in the novel. Once the protagonist becomes a regular worker, he enters the vicious cycle of credits that does not allow him to escape and makes him work hard to repay the debt and accumulate more. The protagonist notices that “you never got out of debt, easy credit was part of the system, and so were irritants that forced you to exercise it” (Kornbluth and Pohl 83). Instead of natural causes being the teachers and guides in a problematic situation, debt and property become burdens for people, not allowing them to exercise freedom and non-conformity necessary for transcendentalism. Emerson’s value of financial struggles is eliminated since the person enters the never-ending process of repaying the debt instead of learning from the situation. This accumulates into social tension and anxiety that workers experience: ultimately, the novel’s corporate world makes it impossible for people to escape and forces them into consumerism slavery.
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In conclusion, it is safe to say that the science-fiction novel The Space Merchants is a realistic depiction of humanity’s future unless a change is done regarding reuniting with nature. A comparison of novels’ significant issues with Emerson’s concepts of naturalism, transcendentalism, and social anxiety has shown that nature and lack of connection with it can lead to detrimental consequences for individuality. Losing a perception of nature as a spiritual being and eliminating a need in non-conformity make people prone to propaganda, influence, and exploitation.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Essays and Lectures. Penguin Books, 1983.
Pohl, Frederik, and Cyril Kornbluth. The Space Merchants. Thomas Dunne Books, 2011.