Make Room! Make Room!

Harry Harrison
Make Room! Make Room! Cover

Make Room! Make Room!


Harry Harrison's 1966 novel 'Make Room! Make Room!' is a novel with just one central message - STOP breeding humans! Plot and characterisation are all sacrificed for the world building of a dystopian future with one key message.

My interest in this novel is due to it being the source material for the film, 'Soylent Green'. I'm aware of the central premise of 'Soylent Green' but don't recall ever seeing the film but always wanting to. If you know the spoiler of the film then you may be surprised reading this book as this premise really doesn't feature at all. Not having seen the film I can't compare the rest of it to the book. Consequently I found myself reading an entirely different novel than I was expecting.

New York of 1999 is a grim, depressing city - 35 million people live there, 10% of the population of the United States in a world of 7 billion people. Jobs are difficult to come buy, hours are long, tax is 80% of income. Food is scarce with most people living off 'weedcrackers' or if they are lucky 'soylent steaks' (as a vegan I can work wonders with soy beans and lentils so I found this future 'protein' source quite funny). Water and electricity is rationed and exceptional overcrowding exists. The New York City of 1999 is a horrible place to live.

Andy Rusch is a detective, working long hours in a permanently stressed state. He is a character of no hope. He's a character without choice. He's walking on and on, day after day on his hamster wheel, 'What can I do!' he often pleads. Following a bungled burglary ending in murder Rusch is sent to investigate. Usually murder investigations go nowhere and unless the culprit is caught immediately resources are so stretched that the crime isn't investigated. However the victim is a well connected crime boss so the matter cannot be dropped so easily.

The crime boss' girlfriend Shirl Greene moves in with Rusch and his elderly roommate Sol whilst Rusch endeavours to catch the murderer interspersed with dealing with crowd control at demonstrations and riots. Running alongside this narrative is the story of Billy Chung - the murderer as he attempts to survive and evade capture.

So, is this a crime novel? Not really - Rusch doesn't really do any detective work. In fact, there isn't a whole lot of plot at all. The novel is downbeat and whilst never pedestrian doesn't really go places. That doesn't mean it's a bad novel - I found it engaging and interesting. The strength of this book is the world building - details are carefully added and there is a sense of the screw being tightened bit by bit. It's as though the city is about to explode. The suffering is prevalent on every page and basically nobody has a good time.

The message is clear - there are too many people using too many resources and the Earth cannot sustain it anymore. There are class divides in Harrison's world but the suffering doesn't come due to mismanagement, more a human need to keep people alive and to procreate. Two thirds through the book Sol delivers his polemic - a couple of pages basically saying women around the world need access to birth control and information about it. Harrison firmly nails his colours to his mast here. It seems strange reading this now as women in most of the Western world do have access to at least some form of birth control. This was clearly a bigger issue in the 1960's. The polemic is disappointing as it seems as though Harrison needs to spell the message out in the simplest of terms. I'd got the message from the context of the novel and I felt it insulted my intelligence a little. Harrison's fears of overpopulation and the world created are frightening enough.

There has been criticism of the novel that Harrison's fears have not come true. There are 7.2 billion people in the world now and things are not that bad yet? Are they?? I think this is unjustified. It's true that chronic food, water and fuel shortages are not affecting people in the First World (although there is abject poverty in most Western societies and too many of the population struggle to meet basic needs). However, much of the world do live in overcrowded cities, much of the world has significant food and clean water shortages. It might not be New York but the problems are real. I do cast doubt on the overpopulation theory but there is a real resource distribution problem. Harrison's argument is there isn't enough to go around (although the rich have more than the poor). I disagree, we can grow enough food to feed the world, we can focus on renewable energy, we can focus on need, not short term profit - a small class of people who can choose, choose not to do so.

I did have a problem with the character of Shirl Greene. I'll be kind to Harrison and suggest she's a product of the 1960's. I couldn't stand her. She's beautiful and this and her body is her only 'tradable commodity'. She quickly becomes intimate with Rusch and moves in with him after eating and drinking her deceased exes remaining stash. She's treated as a sex object, groped by black market meat dealers and beaten by her partner. What I found annoying about her though is that she has no personality and seemingly no redeeming features other than being 'pretty'. She takes from her scumbag ex, is looked after by her bodyguard and then Rusch and does nothing at all to improve her lot in life. When she's screaming to Rusch about wanting things to change I wanted to scream, 'get a f'ing job then!' (of course - there are no jobs but she just sits home all day). I really don't see the point to her! There's a rather sexist message that Shirl can sleep with wealthy people and have a significantly better lifestyle - I'm uncomfortable with the message about women in the novel. The novel is about giving women choice but Shirl doesn't make too many choices that empower her - I get the idea that choice is limited in the novel.

The novel ends on New Year's Eve in 1999 and there is little denouement or closure. This ends the novel on a bleak note. The murder is solved unsatisfactorily - clearly this is Harrison's message.

All that said - novels are meant to be thought provoking and entertaining - this novel has one message, but it's a clear message. As an exciting novel it doesn't really work but it does make the reader question a frightening near future.