Fiction Reviews


Make Room! Make Room!

(1966/2009) Harry Harrison, Penguin, pbk, 9.99, 224pp, ISBN 978-0-141-19023-5

 

This is Harry Harrison's eighth book and though short it is a powerful work. It is the year 1999 and an over-crowded world sees the masses thrown together in cities: the population bomb has exploded!   Outside, the countryside is heavily protected and geared to food production but, even with the technology of the future, there is not enough to go around.   It is a world of starving billions, where the most many can hope for is a diet of lentils and soya with the occasional rat if lucky.

In this world there are still criminals and those who strive to uphold the law. In the city of New York, population 35 million, there is a cop who will not simply walk away from what is just another routine unsolved murder. And so when there is a murder our cop gets stuck in...

It is worth remembering that earlier, just after the mid-20th century, when this was being written, the World's population really was growing at a super-exponential rate (not at the subsequently -- a third of a century on from the book's publication -- lower rate as it was in the real 1999).   Harry Harrison properly researched this book's background and it even contains an academic bibliography at the end; a rarity for SF novels. It is the proverbial Malthusian SF novel and Harrison's wake-up call for mankind.

Now you may think that this sounds a tad serious for an SF book, but SF is a genre that can sound wake-up calls and get people to think: War of the Worlds, 1984, The Telepathist... you take your pick. This is Harrison's environmental book and you do need to remember that back in the early 1970s there was genuine science concern from population demographers, human ecologists and what would soon be called environmental scientists, as to how the global population was growing.

Make Room! Make Room! was also the basis for a film, Soylent Green (1973, coincidentally the year of the oil crisis) which though different still captures the gritty, if not grubby, existence this book's citizens endure.

As many will probably have seen the film it is worthwhile reminding ourselves a few facts and noting some of its key differences with the book.   Soylent Green is a US film that was made in 1973 directed by Richard (20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, Fantastic Voyage) Fleischer. It is set in 2022 (not 1999 as in the book) some 40 million (not 35 as in the book) people are crammed into the city of New York. In a world barely - despite extreme measures - able to support its huge population, a rich executive of the Soylent (food) Corporation is murdered. Detective Frank Thorne (Charlton Heston) finds himself unable to walk away from the case and discovers that the killing was instigated by the powerful Soylent Corporation itself. Sol (Edward G Robinson in his last film), Thorne's elderly researcher (or 'book') side kick, uncovers the motive, but its up to Thorne to reveal the truth to the world... Soylent Green was voted into the top 30 Concatenation all-time film poll. However while both the film Soylent Green and the book Make Room! Make Room! are excellent in their own ways, their respective stories are markedly different. In Soylent Green the murder victim is a senior director of the Soylent Company who, shocked at what the world has come to and his company's role, has to be silenced by the other members of the Soylent board. Finding this out is integral to the film's climax.

Conversely, in the book the murder was not pre-motivated as the reader learns early on and the book's ending is completely different: the shock-reveal at the end of the film is in no way in the book.   For my money (and I know that Harry has some sympathy with this) the film's opening credit sequence is absolutely brilliant as, through a sequence of stills, it recounts human development from the Victorian age through to the turn of the millennium (as perceived back in the 1970s). Principal cast: Charlton (Planet of the Apes) Heston, Edward G. Robinson (his last film), Leigh Taylor-Young, Chuck Connors, Joseph Cotton, and Brock Peters.

Make Room! Make Room! has a sound environmental basis (given the fears of the 1960s and '70s) and is one of the few SF books that has (as aforementioned) a decent introductory academic reading list at the back. This reading list exists in most editions published into the 1970s but sadly is missing from this new Penguin edition. This is a shame as the list is an interesting snapshot of academic as well as popular science concerns as to population and development that existed in the 1960s. However what we do get is a new afterward by Harrison which notes that though the dystopic nightmare vision of mega-overpopulation did not come to pass, the world does face considerable environmental problems that do stem from the human population being so large in the early 21st century.

The book's depiction of a hugely overpopulated world may seem over-the-top but back when the book was written the World population growth was in a super-exponential mode: its rate of growth was itself growing! Since then the rate of World population growth has slowed, but in the 21st century it is still growing and all our principal planetary ills -- resource depletion, climate change and biodiversity loss -- stem from this. Yet population control seems to be a taboo subject and is barely on the political agenda outside of China. Indeed some western countries have in recent decades had policies to actively encourage population growth!

Make Room! Make Room! was first published by Doubleday in North America in 1966. The following year Penguin published it over here (in the British Isles). Obviously Penguin have held onto the rights all this time and they did do a reprint with a new cover in 1973 to tie in with the film. Now (after far too long in my opinion) they have republished it as a 'Modern Penguin Classic'. Hopefully in the future they will do a new edition with both Harry's new afterward but also restoring the original edition's further reading list.   Like 1984 et al, this is one of those books that should never be allowed to go out of print. It is certainly one of the top ten environmental SF novels. Do get it. (And - seriously - buy a couple of extras as Christmas stocking fillers for friends.)

Jonathan Cowie

This review was updated following Harry's demise.

 

Jonathan Cowie is himself an environmental scientist. The second edition of his own book (a cross-disciplinary introductory undergraduate textbook), Climate Change: Biological and Human Aspects (2nd ed' 2013) is itself dedicated to Harry Harrison. While this book is really targeted at geology, geography, biological science, developmental studies and social policy students, it does cover energy resource use, food security and World population growth as part of its climate change analysis, and has many (worrying) graphs. In short it covers the science fact underpinning the science fiction of Make Room! Make Room. Non-students with a science background have found this an interesting read (and the book has attracted kind reviews in journals) but non-students may first wish to dip into this book via Google Books free access facility before they decide to buy it. (Note: you need to check you are accessing the 2nd edition which is updated and expanded on the first edition but the writing style and take-home message for both editions is the same.) Google Books enables free access, albeit in low resolution, to 90% of the book in 10% daily chunks.   Jonathan himself decided to study environmental science as a result of a timely combination of a chemistry teacher's school morning assembly on oil depletion and Harry Harrison's vision.


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