Space Merchants
by Frederick Pohl &
C. M. Kornbluth

Skum-skimming wasn't hard to learn. You got up at dawn. You gulped a breakfast sliced not long ago from Chicken Little and washed it down with Coffiest. You put on your coveralls and took the cargo net up to your tier. In blazing noon from sunrise to sunset you walked your acres of shallow tanks crusted with algae. If you walked slowly, every thirty seconds or so you spotted a patch at maturity, bursting with yummy carbohydrates. You skimmed the patch with your skimmer and slung it down the well, where it would be baled, or processed into glucose to feed Chicken Little, who would be sliced and packed to feed people from Baffinland to Little America. Every hour you could drink from your canteen and take a salt tablet. Every two hours you could take five minutes. At sunset you turned in your coveralls and went to dinner --- more slices from Chicken Little --- and then you were on your own. You could talk, you could read, you could go into trance before the dayroom hypnoteleset, you could shop, you could pick fights, you could drive yourself crazy thinking of what might have been, you could go to sleep.

Mostly you went to sleep.

I wrote a lot of letters and tried to sleep a lot. Payday came as a surprise. I didn't know two weeks had slipped by. It left me owing Chlorella Proteins only eighty-odd dollars and a few cents. Besides the various assignments I had made, there were the Employees Welfare Fund (as closely as I could figure that one out, it meant that I was paying Chlorella's taxes); union dues and installment on the initiation fee; witholding tax (this time my own taxes); hospitalization (but try and get it, the older men said) and old age insurance.

One of the things I faintheartedly consoled myself with was the thought that when --- when, I always said firmly --- I got out, I'd be closer to the consumers than any ad man in the profession. Of course, at Fowler Schocken we'd had our boys up from the ranks: scholarship kids. I knew now that they had been too snobbish to give me the straight facts on consumers' lives and thoughts.

I think I learned that ads work more strongly on the unconscious than even we in the profession had thought. I was shocked repeatedly to hear advertising referred to as "that crap". I was at first puzzled, and then gratified to see it sink in and take effect anyway.

The pattern of the B labor contract had become quite clear. You never got out of debt. Easy credit was part of the system, and so were irritants that forced you to exercize it. If I fell behind ten dollars a week I would owe on thousand one hundred dollars to Chlorella at the end of my contract, and would have to work until the debt was wiped out. And while I worked, a new debt would accumulate.

And so I went through another day, up at dawn, breakfast, coveralls and goggles, cargo net, skimming and slinging for blazing hour after hour, dinner and the dayroom and, if I could manage it, a chat with Herrera. "Fine edge on that slicer, Gus. There's only two kinds of people in the world: the one's who don't take care of their tools and the smart ones."

Suspicious look from under his Aztec brows. "Pays to do things right. You're the crumb, aint you?"

"Yeah. First time here. Think I ought to stay?"

He didn't get it. "You gotta stay. Contract." And he went to the magazine rack.

Tomorrow's another day.

"Hello Gus. Tired?"

"Hi George. Yeah, a little. Ten hours swinging the slicer. It gets you in the arms."

"I can imagine. Skimming's easy, but you don't need brains for it."

"Well, maybe someday you get upgraded. I think I'll trance.

And another day. "Hi George, how's it going?"

"Can't complain, Gus. At least I'm getting a sun-tan."

"You sure are. Soon you be dark like me. Haw-haw! How you like that?"

"¿Porqué no, amigo?"

"Hey, tú hablas español! ¿Cuando aprendiste la lengua?"

...And another day --- an astonishing day.

I'd been paid again, and my debt had increased by eight dollars. I tormented myself by wondering where the money went, but I knew. I came off shift dehydrated, as they wanted me to be. I got a squirt of Popsie from the fountain by punching my combination --- twenty five cents checked off my payroll. The squirt wasn't quite enough so I had another --- fifty cents. Dinner was drab as usual; I couldn't face more than a bite or two of Chicken Little. Later I was hungry and there was the canteen where I got Crunchies on easy credit. The Crunchies kicked off withdrawal symptoms that could be quelled only by another two squirts of Popsie from the fountain. And Popsie kicked off withdrawal symptoms that could only be quelled by smoking Starr Cigarettes, which made you hungry for Crunchies. Had Fowler Schocken thought of it in these terms when he organized Starrzelius Verily, the first spherical trust? Popsie to Crunchies to Starrs to Popsie?

And you paid 6 per cent interest on the money advanced you.

It had to be soon. If I didn't get out soon I never would. I could feel my initiative, the thing that made me me dying, cell by cell, within me. The minute dosages of alkaloid were sapping my will, but most of all it was a hopeless, trapped feeling that things were this way, that they always would be this way, that it wasn't too bad, that you could always go into trance or get really lit on Popsie or maybe try one of the green capsules that floated around from hand to hand at varying quotations; the boys would be glad to wait for the money.

It had to be soon.

"¿Cómo 'sta, Gustavo?"

He sat down and gave me his Aztec grin. "¿Como 'sta, amigo Jorge? ¿Se fuma?" He extended a pack of cigarettes.

They were Greentips. I said automatically: "No thanks. I smoke Starrs; they're tastier." And automatically I lit one, of course. I was becoming the kind of consumer we used to love. Think about smoking, think about Starrs, light a Starr. Light a Starr, think about Popsie, get a squirt. Get a squirt, think about Crunchies, buy a box. Buy a box, think about smoking, light a Starr. And at every step roll out the words of praise that had been dinned into you through your eyes and ears and pores. "I smoke Starrs; they're tastier. I drink Popsie; it's zippy. I eat Crunchies; they tang your tongue. I smoke --- "

Gus said to me: "You don't look so happy, Jorge."

"I don't feel so happy, amigo." This was it. "I'm in a very strange situation." Wait for him now.

"I figured there was something wrong. An intelligent fellow like you, a fellow who's been around. Maybe you can use some help?"

© 1952, Ballantine Books

Go Home     Subscribe to RALPH     Go Up