February 6, 2009
Harry Harrison: Make Room! Make Room!
Harry Harrison was first recommended to me by a friend in school, over 20 years ago. (Dan: I told you I would.) That recommendation, from a teenage Douglas Adams fan, was for Harrison’s comic sci-fi Stainless Steel Rat books, which I see now stretches to a dozen volumes, including titles like The Stainless Steel Rat Joins the Circus and The Stainless Steel Rat Sings the Blues. He is also the author of a re-interpretation of Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk, called Bill the Galactic Hero. By these standards, the title of his 1966 dystopian novel is positively restrained.
Make Room! Make Room! is best known as the inspiration for the 1973 film Soylent Green, though the central revelation of the film is not in the book, which is a more straightforward environmental clarion call. The book is set in 1999, when unrestricted population growth has led to a population of 35 million in New York City.
After the damp hallway the heat of Twenty-fifth Street hit him in a musty wave, a stifling miasma compounded of decay, dirt and unwashed humanity. He had to make his way through the women who already filled the steps of the building, walking carefully so that he didn’t step on the children who were playing below. The sidewalk was still in shadow but so jammed with people that he walked in the street, well away from the curb to avoid the litter and rubbish banked high there.
‘He’ is Andy Rusch, a cop on the trail of a murder, an increasingly common crime in new New York. Most go uninvestigated – mere control of ration distribution is about the limit of the overstretched police department’s capabilities – but this one is different, because of a possible gangland connection. Harrison investigates it too, following the perpetrator – a kid among millions, living hand to mouth and dreaming of being able to eat soylent (soybean and lentil) steaks – and the lover of the victim, a society gal for a society that has all but collapsed, one of the privileged few who can afford to eat real meat and drink “Frenchwine Champagne – a rare, selected, effervescent beverage of great vintage. Artificially colored, flavored, sweetened and carbonated”.
So much of the fun here is the usual fun with future dystopias: Harrison bringing imagination to bear on names, social changes and innovations. But he is entirely serious about his bottom line, which is of man’s pillage of the earth and its resources. Interestingly, and unlike John Christopher’s ecopocalypse novel The Death of Grass (forthcoming in Penguin Modern Classics), humanity’s downfall comes not by way of nature’s revenge but by science’s selfless behaviour directly. Harrison’s view seems to be expressed in the words of Sol, the only character who isn’t drifting along as though everything is the same as it always was:
I’ll tell you what changed. Modern medicine arrived. Everything had a cure. Malaria was wiped out along with all the other diseases that had been killing people young and keeping the population down. Death control arrived. Old people lived longer. More babies lived who would have died, and now they grow up into old people who live longer still. People are still being fed into the world just as fast – they’re just not being taken out of it at the same rate. Three are born for every two that die. So the population doubles and doubles – and keeps on doubling at a quicker rate all the time. We got a plague of people, a disease of people infecting the world. We got more people who are living longer. Less people have to be born, that’s the answer. We got death control – we got to match it with birth control.
This is surprising too from a 21st century perspective: it’s difficult to credit that birth control was a controversial social issue (was it?) in the US in the 1960s. And even though it no longer is, Harrison in a short afterword to this new edition feels that the thrust of his prediction has come true, but that “if science fiction has taught us one thing – it is that we have the power to change.”
Harrison, as suggested by his large back catalogue, is an old pro, and applies imagination to plot and themes, together with a smattering of wit, to produce an entertaining and interesting read – even if it does seem (despite his afterword) as much a snapshot of the fears of times past as a contemporary parallel. Nonetheless, in a way its greatest prediction is itself: that environmental concerns would become so mainstream in 40 years’ time that the book would warrant the present handsome reissue. What I still want to know, however, is whether Harrison’s other work stands up to modern attention, particularly given his reputation for humorous sci-fi, that genre with the shortest half-life of all.