Glenn Hough (gallyangel) is, among other things, a nonpracticing futurist, an anime and manga otaku, a gourmet, a writer of science fiction novels which don’t get published to world wide acclaim, and is almost obsessive about finishing several of the lists tracked on WWEnd. This is Glenn’s third featured review for the GMRC.
Let’s just get this out of the way right now. (And if you don’t know, this was the novel which was the basis for the 70s era classic SF movie Soylent Green.)
It’s not people! Soylent is not people in the novel. The novel doesn’t even hint at that. Frankly, it would’ve made the thing more interesting.
Harry Harrison presents us with a novel of squaller. New York has 35 million people in it. Most are poor, underfed, on the welfare; everything is falling apart since there are no supplies left to fix anything. Electricity is spotty. When the main character gets called to his police job early because of pending water or food riots, they have to send someone physically to his apartment to get him. Technology is in retrograde. People are either overworked or unemployed. The black-market deals in the rarest of commodities: beef. Occasionally, someone captures a rat. What a feast that will be for them.
The U.S. is a third world shithole.
Make Room! Make Room! is message fiction. It takes the Malthusian theory and runs it forward to a hard and nasty place, giving us fiction which we then want to Prevent in the real world. This is very clear when one of the main characters lays the blame for everything on population. And how social, political, and religious institutions around the world refuse to address the issue. This book predates Ehrlich’s seminal work, The Population Bomb by two years. The Club of Rome, a Futures thinktank, started in ’68 as well and their first big splash was in population projections. This issue was on the minds of many social thinkers and futurists.
The biggest down fall of message fiction is that if the underlying situation goes away, then the book becomes irrelevant. Or, if the problem remains and later generations know more about underlying conditions and it’s remediation, then the fiction can come off as flat, uninformed, or even naive.
I feel that to get to this nasty place in Make Room!, Harrison sacrificed suspension of disbelief. The disbelief of the reader and the life blood of the novel itself, slowly drains away due to a thousand papercuts. We know too much for this novel to work.
When Harrison talks about a heat wave in New York, with little water, unwashed masses, AC for the rich only, and trash in the streets, the most obvious question I have for him is: why doesn’t he talk about the flies? Why doesn’t he talk about bed bugs, ticks, fleas, parasite infections? They’re absent from the narrative and yet that’s the logical outcome from what he’s set in motion. A papercut.
New York is 35 million, with the overall census of the U.S. at 344 million. That’s a tick under 10%. That much of the population in one city? Dallas, Chicago, Miami, L.A. – what happened to them? Papercut.
A character comes to New York when a more obvious choice would’ve been the fruit fields along the west coast, or Florida, or Georgia. Papercut.
And what’s with that murder rate? In a hot, underfed, hopeless, situation like that, wouldn’t a zero or two more on those numbers make sense? Papercut.
What happened to the guns? Two cops fire off about two rounds. That’s it. If Harrison had told me what happened to those laws, I could try to go with it, but he didn’t even mention it. It’s just hanging there, an unanswered question about an unarmed populous. Papercut.
The main theme is overpopulation, but abortion is never mentioned. Legal, illegal, it’s absent from the narrative. Papercut. This one might be closer to a slash from a stiletto.
Access to birth control is mentioned haphazardly. They’re still fighting about it in Congress. Some women have access, most do not. From what Harrison sets in motion, I could easily see the rise of black-market birth-control, but that’s nowhere to be found. Black-market birth-control could’ve mirrored back-alley abortion concerns, driving home the emotional and human toll certain policies have. But that kind of writing is way out of the league this novel is in.
We know so much more about how population/overpopulation works, so the arguments presented in the book seem naive if not ludicrous. When one character starts talking about natural law she sounds positively clueless.
We know that one has to talk about class when dealing with population. Rich women have fewer kids than poor women 99% of the time. Harrison does give us the squatter wife with the seven kids, but the other side of the equation, the wife of the wealthy New Yorker only having one child, was absent. So that was opportunity wasted.
The economic shift, from agrarian to industrial, starts to limit children. The demographic shift from women staying home (and having babies) to working outside the home and/or having a life outside of the home, limits the number of children. Those discussions were absent from the book. (And what I mean by discussion is a narrative which illuminates this point, so one can discuss the issues using the characters and their experiences as reference points.)
A discussion of how male dominated patriarchal systems contribute to higher birth rates vs. the emancipation of women to decide such issues themselves in a system which values freedom and individual choice was only touched upon through the birth-control debate. That’s a tip-of-the-iceburg approach.
With most everybody on welfare, that creates opportunity to not limit families. When women on welfare have more babies, they get more money/food stamps/housing. That’s something which still goes on. Harrison missed that opportunity in the book; that the socialism in the book was contributing to the problem.
One character blames politicians for not leading on the birth control issue. Wrong. Slavery, suffrage movement, civil rights, feminism, they all started with the people before being taken up by politicians. The people led; the politicians adopt issues so they remain popular and electable. And yet the protests Harrison presents to us were a joke. If this issue had indeed been simmering for 35 years without politicians doing anything, then I would’ve thought something a bit more organized and powerful would be there to oppose policy. But there wasn’t.
We know more than Harrison did at the time, so what he does know/imagine with overpopulation falls flat.
Basically, if you’re looking to study SF books which have been turned into movies, then you should read Make Room! Make Room! But if you’re just looking for solid 60s era SF which has stood the test of time there are far better candidates out there.