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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 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.
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FREDERIK POHL’s writing career spans over seventy years. He won the National Book Award in 1980 for his novel Jem. From about 1959 until 1969, Pohl edited Galaxy magazine and its sister magazine, If, winning the Hugo Award for it three years in a row. His writing also won him four Hugos and multiple Nebula Awards. He became a Nebula Grand Master in 1993. Pohl won the 2010 Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer, based on his writing on his blog, “The Way the Future Blogs.”
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 copyw...
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