Richard D. Erlich

English Department

Miami University

Oxford, OH 45056-3414



Odysseus in Grey Flannel: The Heroic Journey in Two Dystopias by Pohl and Kornbluth

[The Space Merchants and Gladiator-at-Law]

{Par Rapport, 1.2 (1978): 126-31}



              Once upon a time (the time is not important yet) a great Hero was sitting at table waiting for his wise old mentor to arrive. Of course, no one now knew that the hero was a Hero; this is just the beginning of his story, and he was still a fairly young man. At the next table a man died suddenly, poisoned, and this event helped send the Hero on a great adventure, starting with a long journey. At a critical point in his quest, the Hero was at a loss how to identify and capture the villains who threatened to destroy his world; and —or so, the Hero himself may not have known his motivations—he sought out an ancient race, thought by everyone to be entirely legendary or at most long dead. Carefully, he descended deep into "a forbidding dusky abyss," where "there was only black" and cold. After a long descent, he was totally unable to see and had to pause until the sun came directly overhead. "He waited, almost drowsily, hanging loosely over nothing, in darkness and silence." With the light of the sun to aid him, he saw a door blacker than the darkness. He went toward it, found a ledge to stand on, and was captured—by something. Mysterious bonds came about him, and the Hero was lifted and floated into a strange room where he meets the ancient race he has sought. They are creatures of great power, "who never die and are no longer born." They are beneficent, though, and give the Hero a new name and an object of power that will serve him well, if he has the wits to use it well.

           The Hero, of course, goes on to pass the test of the object of power (thereby saving his life), solve the mystery, expose the villains, and save his world—just as we'd expect of any folklore or mythological hero who has the good sense to follow the traditional pattern for his adventures.[1] The significant point about the story I've summarized is that it takes place a long while in the human future, the Hero's journey takes him to Mars, the "ancient race" is the Martians, he is "reborn" as the "Space Ranger," and the object of power is a mask that projects some sort of force field.[2]


           I tell this story by Isaac Asimov because Asimov's handling of the "initiation" of his hero so blatantly depends upon a standard pattern in the quest-romance. (Indeed, in David Starr: Space Ranger Asimov just rips off several motifs from old tales, even as he lifts a familiar plot formula of the detective novel and several elements of the Western.) More precisely, Asimov displaces elements from what Joseph Campbell calls "the monomyth" of the Hero: i.e., he takes them out of the world of myth and folklore, makes the necessary changes, and puts them into a different, and slightly more realistic world: the world of science fiction.

           In the two novels I wish to discuss in this essay, the process is far more subtle, but it is basically the same process of displacement. I shall look at Frederick Pohl’s and C. M. Kornbluth’s displacement of some mythic patterns, primarily the descent motif, into the relatively realistic world of social fiction (3) in their dystopian novels, The Space Merchants and Gladiator-at—Law. (4) I shall stress the descent motif in my discussion because it is stressed in the novels and because it seems to be of great importance in the archetypal story of the Hero.


           This importance should become obvious if we note that the “Apostles’ Creed” demands that Christians proclaim their belief that Christ not only “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried…on the third day rose again…ascended to the heavens [and] sits on the right hand of the God the Father” – but demands also that Christians believe Christ “descended to Hell”: a matter not covered by the New Testament. Within 300 years of Jesus’ death (in the “Apostles’ Creed,” The Acts of Pilate, and The Descent of Christ to the Underworld), Christian writers felt it necessary to complete Christ’s story as an archetypal Hero by adding the descent motif. (This was also a very elegant way to get out of Hell all those faithful people who lived before the time of Christ.)


           In Space Merchants and Gladiator-at—Law the pattern of the heroic quest is essentially the one familiar to us from romance and romantic comedy: the hero is going to overcome his adversaries, get the girl, and bring fertility. This pattern is worked out, however, in worlds far removed from those of Romance or Comedy. Not quite the horrors we find in Orwell’s 1984 or Kafka’s Penal Colony, still, the worlds presented in these books do approach what Northrop Frye has call the “demonic,” and they have portions of the geography which are explicitly likened to Hell. (5) These works are more optimistic than many satires only insofar as they assume that the world might be savable (G-a-L) or at least leaveable (Sp.Mer.).

           In both novels we start with worlds controlled by greedy capitalists, typified in Space Merchants by a pair of older men running fantastically powerful ad agencies, and, in Gladiator, by some old “Titans of Industry,” and by Green, Charlesworth: two downright ancient incarnations of money—power and pride. In Space Merchants the world is an ecological disaster area, with this population divided politically into (1) the very rich, (2) the executive and “staff” class, and (3) the wretched consumers. In Gladiator the world of the novel is a United States where contract workers serve their corporations for pay and the for the privilege of living in magnificent GML “bubble-houses” – and where those who lack contract status live in horrible suburban slums, represented mostly by Belly Rave (once, Belle Reve). In these brave new worlds the people in general are confined, spied upon, oppressed: most are slaves or only a little better than slaves. Both worlds are dystopian and sterile, in need of saviors. And it comes to pass (in the fullness of time, undoubtedly) that our heroes appear in the midst of these wastelands.

           Now heroes, of course, are often the highly unlikely sort: seventh sons of seventh sons, talented (if unsightly) frogs, babes founds abandoned or in mangers; but Pohl and Kornbluth go quite far in the direction of the Antihero. In Space Merchants, Mitch Courtenay is “an ill-tempered, contriving Machiavellian, selfish pig of a man” (ch. 3, p. 33)), so resistant to education that he flunks his first initiation and has to go through the entire Heroic cycle – including the Return and the Reconciliation with the Father – before he is ready to begin doing what can be done to save humanity. In Gladiator, Charles Mundin is a criminal lawyer who lusts after the remunerative glories of corporation law: he begins the novel as part of the problem more than part of the solution. Moreover, he shares the Hero’s journey with Norvel (usually called “Norvie”) Bligh: a lost soul who starts the story as a writer of “scripts” for gladiatorial spectacles; a man dominated and manipulated by his wife, daughter, boss, associates, and “friend”; a man who shuts out the world with psychosomatic deafness.

           Odd men, indeed, for the archetypal tasks of rejuvenating a wasteland or saving humankind! Saviors they are, though, and we would do well to examine the highly displaced methods their creators use to initiate them into their heroic roles.


           In Space Merchants, Mitch, the protagonist-narrator, starts off as a star-class copysmith for Fowler Schocken Associates. He is very “sound” by the standards of his world and unthinkingly accepts water shortages, protein shortages, oiled bread, minute apartments, loyalty raids, militant advertising, a corporation controlling all of India, hooking people on “a simple alkaloid” derived from opium, an American government controlled by corporations, and the worship of “the god of Sales.” He sees the only sensible group around, the World Conservation Association (“Consies”), as dangerous fanatics and glories in his appointment by Fowler Schocken, the old man himself, as the chairman of the Venus section – with the job of sending out colonists to do unto Venus what we have previously done unto Earth. In short, Courtenay has adjusted to his world (chs. 1 and 2). He likes the wasteland and intends to expand it.

           Mitch’s only “maladjustment” at the start of the novel, stems from the fact that his wife, Kathy Nevin, finds his attitudes disgusting (unknown to Mitch, she’s a high-ranking member of the Consie conspiracy) and refuses to live with him. (Since she hasn’t filed her certificate, their marriage will be terminated in about four months – which approximately equals the fictional time for this novel [ch.2, pp. 13-14]. He is also rendered fairly unhappy by the fact that, as soon as he becomes head of the Venus section, people start trying to kill him.

           To save his life, primarily, Dr. Nevin arranges to have Mitch decoyed to the South Pole (a resort area), knocked out there, and kidnapped. A body is left in his place, and Mitchell Courtenay, Social Security Number 16-156-187, is officially dead. Kathy has not let Mitch in on the plan, however, and he is not pleased to awake “in a throbbing, strumming inferno, complete with red fire and brutish-looking attendant devils’ – i.e., “in the Number Six Hold of the Labor Freighter Thomas R. Malthus … destination Costa Rica …” (ch. 7, pp.78-79). He is even less pleased to discover that he is now SSN 1304-9974-1416-156-187723, “Groby, William George; 26; bachelor; broken home…H-H balance, male…signed labor contract B,” and a peon of Chlorella Proteins. Least of all is he pleased when he actually arrives at the Chlorella plantation: “It was a spectacular, though not uncommon, sight from the air. On the ground it was plain hell” (ch.7, pp.83-86) Courtenay/Groby has begun his descent and education.

           Most of this early education is (quite indirectly) of an ethical nature and can be summarized in the old formulas: “Greed is the root of all evils” and “Big fish eat little fish and are eaten in their turn by still bigger fish.” Hagar the Horrible drew the proper moral from the second maxim: “Don’t be a minnow.” And “crumb” Groby, on a “B’ contract, is a very small minnow indeed. He is not only enslaved by the locally all-powerful Chlorella Corporation (whose annual taxes to Costa Rica approximately equal the Costa Rican annual budget) but he is also ripped off by a whole line of petty bureaucrats and other assorted extortionists (ch.7, pp. 86-92).

           Mitchell Courtenay, however, is the type of man once described in a classic insult: he is profoundly shallow. His trip into consumer’s hell has only made him desperate to get out, to get home to Fowler Schocken Associates. To do this, imprisoned as he is, he must seek help, so he goes after the “friendship” of the most powerful person around: “The aristocrat of Dorm Ten was Herrera. After ten years with Chlorella he had worked his way up – typographically it was down – to Master Slicer. He worked in the great, cool vault underground, where Chicken Little [the great blob of living tissue that supplies part of the protein for Chlorella Proteins] grew and was cropped by him and other artisans” (ch.8, p. 96). But Herrera will have nothing to do with “Groby” at first – as is decorous, since “Groby” hasn’t hit bottom yet. But that was fast approaching:


If I didn’t get out soon I never would, I could feel my initiative, the thing that made me dying, cell by cell, within me. The minute dosages of alkaloid were sapping my will, but most of all it was 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 from hand to hand at varying quotations; the boys would be glad to wait for the money. *** I was becoming the kind of consumer we used to love. (ch. 8, pp.99-100)


           And then, hope, when Herrera slips him “Contact Sheet One of the World Conservation Association.”

           As part of his escape plan, Courtenay agrees to become a Consie, and Herrera leads him to the nadir of the abyss, the very heart of Leviathan Less metaphorically, he leads Courtenay through the body of Chicken Little (who grew from an initial lump of heart tissue) into a little room below her – the headquarters of the local Consie cell. (Fowler Schocken later comes up with a rather different symbolic reading of this episode.)

           Herrera is certainly a Virgil figure (at least he has the good taste to appreciate Moby Dick,) but Courtenay is no Dante. He is more like Jonah, going into Leviathan and descending to the depths, but still only able to repeat by rote his lessons. So Courtenay memorizes great gobs of Consie material and, eventually, the Chlorella manual. He even goes so far as to put his advertising skills surreptitiously to work helping the Consie cause (he has had some experience pushing products he didn’t particularly like).

           But all this activity by Mitch is just to get back “home,” and when the local Consie cell gets him transferred to New York (for work in central Consie operation), he heads straight to Schocken Tower. He is a little closer to thirty-one years old, but his thinking is still that of a selfish adolescent. He needs a harsher lesson. And he gets one.

           He is kidnapped by the agents of B.J. Taunton, head of the firm in direct competition with Schocken Associates. Totally restrained by a “plasticoon” (a containment motif), Courtenay meets the archenemy and learns of Taunton’s great discovery: in an over-populated world there are sufficient people, pressures, and pathology that anyone with enough desire and money can find someone to do anything. One of the people Taunton has found is Hedy: a “lady sadist” with a long needle and an excellent knowledge of anatomy (ch. 11). While getting in some authorized torture of Courtenay (Taunton had wanted to give him time to think after the first session), Hedy inadvertently punctures the plasticoon, which allows Courtenay to move an arm and kill her.

           Courtenay flees. As Groby he is now wanted for “femicide” (a comparatively minor crime) and contract breaking (a major crime). With the help of his loyal former secretary – who replaces the Grateful Dead and helpful animals of folktales (and gets about as much compassion from Courtenay as those creatures usually get) – Mitch goes off to the Moon to contact Fowler Schocken.

           Before his reunion with this father-figure, however, Mitch has one more descent to make: this time into a cell under the observatory of Warren Astron, Moon-based astrologer and Consie agent (ch. 12). While Mitch waits in darkness, Astron summons a member of the Consie Central Committee: Kathy, as it turns out, leading to Mitch’s recognition of his part in the plot of the novel – a pawn – but no recognition beyond that. Kathy asks for “one more try’ to get through to him and explains her motivations.


There were two reasons why I begged Runstead to shanghai you. I wanted you out of the way of Taunton’s killers. And I wanted you to get a taste of the consumer’s life…I thought you’d see how fouled-up things have become. It’s hard to see when you’re star class. From the bottom it’s easier to see. I thought I’d be able to talk sense to you after we brought you back to life, and we’d be able to work together on the only job worth doing. So it didn’t work… Same old Mitch. (ch. 13, p. 158)


           She has certainly done everything one could expect to bring Mitch to consciousness. Our “Hero” has been humiliated, suffered, “died,” and gone to the underworld (three times), and has even “ascended to the heavens” – but he just isn’t about to play Savior yet. So Pohl and Kornbluth put him through the rest of the archetypal pattern.

           After demonstrating a bit of macho – something Courtenay has learned as Groby – he makes his Return and is Reconciled with the Father: i.e., he finally gets to Fowler and is welcomed back. As Odysseus might have said when he reached Ithaca, “I was home again” (ch. 13. p. 166).

           Odysseus might have warned him that “home” may be quite a shock when you get back. Courtenay doesn’t find an office full of parasitic suitors, but he does discover that Fowler Schocken doesn’t believe a word of his story. Instead, Schocken comes up with a psychoanalytic theory that explains the story away.


Poor old Fowler. Who could blame him? His own dream-world was under attack by every word I had to say. My story was blasphemy against the god of Sales. He couldn’t believe that I – the real I – believed it. How could Mitchell Courtenay, a copysmith, be sitting there and telling him such frightful things as:

                             The interests of producers and consumers are not identical;

                             Most of the world is unhappy;

                             Workmen don’t automatically find the job they do best;

                             Entrepreneurs don’t play a hard, fair game by the rules;

                             The Consies are sane, intelligent, and well organized…


There was an explanation foe everything and Sales could do no wrong. Therefore, Mitchell Courtenay, copysmith, was not sitting there telling him these things. It was Mitchell Courtenay’s wicked, untamed id or the diabolic “George Groby” or somebody – anybody but Courtenay.


           And so, finally, Mitch has his Recognition:


In a dissociated fashion that would have delighted Fowler Schocken and his analyst I said to myself: “You know, Mitch, you’re talking like a Consie.

I answered: “Why, so I am, That’s terrible.”

“Well,” I replied, “I don’t know about that. Maybe…”

“Yeah,” I said thoughtfully. “Maybe….”

It is an axiom of my trade that things are invisible except against a contrasting background. Like, for instance, the opinions and attitudes of Fowler Schocken. (ch. 14, pp.172-173, unspaced “ellipsis” marks in original)


Mitch is now ready to begin his job as an adult Hero. With the death of Schocken, he becomes head of the ad agency, a job he wants only because it gives him the resources to find Kathy and rescue her before she is captured and “brainburned” as a Consie. (Schocken had not believed Mitch’s story, but the authorities would still check it out.) He eventually succeeds in this Quest for the Anima (in the Jungian description), and he and Kathy and a group of Consie colonists fly off to Venus.

           This is not a very hopeful ending. For an analysis of mythic themes we might do best to see it as a displacement of the story of Astraea. Early in the novel, Courtenay calls our attention to the inaccurate reference to the Venus rocket as “the ship that spans the stars” (ch. 1, pp.6-7), and we can note that “When the wickedness of mankind increased, and the gods abandoned the habitations of morals, Astraea was the last to leave, and took up her abode among the stars”(“Astraea” entry in Putnam’s Concise Mythological Dictionary). In a similar manner, after humankind have lain waste the Earth, a remnant of the responsible fly off to Venus—the planet of a goddess appropriate to the fertility symbolized by the reuniting of a reformed Mitch and his wife Kathy (ch. 19, pp. 213-215).

           With the background of Space Merchants, the rather slighter Gladiator may be handled fairly quickly.

           One of the most interesting things about this book is that the Hero’s role is divided between the two major characters: Charles Mundin, LL.B. and the protagonist, and Norvell Bligh, the protagonist’s eventual sidekick. Such a division is appropriate, since the point of view of the novel is also divided between them. It is Mundin who rescues his anima figure from the forces of ancient evil (blackmailing the Chairman of GML Homes at the annual stockholders’ meeting and bloodless battle in the wilds of Morristown); but it is Bligh who falls from the false Eden of contract status and a bubble house to descend into the Hell of Belly Rave (ch. 19, p. 122; ch. 20, p. 132; note though, ch.22, p. 136). It is Bligh, also, who comes to full consciousness.

           At the turning point of the story, the heroes and their friends go to rescue Don Lavin, who has responded to an implanted order (he has conditioned and only partially cured) and has entered the “High Wire” event in the gladiatorial “Field Day.” The event consists of walking a wire while paid hecklers toss gravel and rocks at him; the wire is over a tank full of hungry piranha. Bligh has designed such events and knows better than any of them how small don’s changes are; he decides that if bad goes to terrible, he will through himself into the tank to give his friends time to rescue Don. This conscious, moral decision is the climax of Bligh’s psychological journey:

           The earpiece of his hearing aid had slipped a bit. He looked around, still shyly, and prepared to readjust it. Then he didn’t readjust it.

           He didn’t need it.

           The shrieking crowd, the gloating, smacking voice of the M.C., the faint creak in the wind of the tower guys, even—it all, all through.

           He could hear.

For a moment he was almost terrified. It was the decision, he told himself, not quite knowing what he meant. He hadn’t wanted to hear any of it. He hadn’t dared hear any of it. He punished himself by not letting himself hear any of it—as long as he was a part of the horror.

But his resignation had been turned in.

(ch. 24, p. 160)

As it turns out, another man (Shep) jumps into the tank—taking the obnoxious M.C. with him—and Bligh doesn’t have to become sacrificial victim. Still, he “wanted to do it” and “was willing to do it” (ch. 25, p. 162), and in a basically comic story such desire can be as good as the deed.

           With the death of Shep (a former suitor for Mrs. Bligh) and the old corporate lawyer Harry Ryan, the novel can move to the standard comic victory of Youth over Age and the dead hand of the past. (Of the Titans who aid Mundin et al., only the youngest remains loyal.) The good guys go to the Stock Exchange (a pari-mutuel operation) and proceed to bring down GML and cause a crash that allows them to pick up enough stock to become rules of their world. Green, Charlesworth—the Struldbrugian villains who symbolize Mammon and its worship—commit suicide by blowing themselves up with an atomic bomb (ch. 22, p. 45; ch. 26, p. 170).

           In Gladiator-at-Law, then, we have a more optimistic ending than in The Space Merchants. At the beginning of the novel, the “world is in jail,” and Belly Rave is only the most sterile portion of the wasteland, the worst section of Hell (ch.22, p. 148; ch. 13, p. 76). At the end of the novel, the world is at least potentially free: young people have taken it over and can try to do a better job. In Space Merchants the happiest ending probable is leaving Earth to start a new life elsewhere. In Gladiator the pattern can be closed more traditionally and more happily; the good people return to Bligh’s repaired home in Belly Rave, there to count their stock, hear the explosion, and see the mushroom cloud symbolizing the death of the old order. They are back where they belong, and their world has been cleansed by blood and fire. Their odyssey is complete, and a new order can emerge.


[1] Most conveniently summarized in Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 2nd ed. (Princiption: Princon U Press, 1968), pp. 245-46 in the 1972 paperback printing. For additional background and extensive discussion of the relationship of the archetypes to literature, see Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, Third Essay, "Archetypal Criticism: Theory of Myths" (1957; rpt. New York: Antheneum, 1966): most relevant for my essay would be the section, "The Mythos of Summer: Romance," esp. pp. 189-90.


              [2] I've used for my tale part of the plot of David Starr: Space Ranger, by Isaac Asimov, writing as Paul French (1952; rpt. New York, Signet, 1971, esp. chs. 9 and 10); this is the first book of Asimov's highly successful "lucky Starr" series of children's books.