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.


  1. This one does sound like fun. I was reading about it somewhere else recently as well, though I can’t remember where. *footsteps retreating into the distance* *footsteps returning* Nope, no idea.

    I’m still not quite convinced by the current design of the modern classics, although this is a particularly nice example.

  2. I know what you mean, Rob. I imagine it’s very difficult to settle on a standard design to cover such a wide range of books, from sci-fi to European classics to modernism to school standards like Waugh and Fitzgerald. Actually I think the last two provide some of the best covers for the new Penguin Modern Classics, as here and here.

    The typeface does risk looking a bit 60s-70s-retro, which was particularly the case in some of the earliest titles in this new format such as Saul Bellow. I’m fond of them now, but did take a while to warm to them. Partly this is because I really liked the old Penguin Modern Classics look, with the silver band across the base of the cover with author and title. They worked well with colour images: the new ones, I think, work best with monochrome (as did the old Penguin 20th Century Classics, with their green spines and italic Garamond titles).

  3. I was just wondering yesterday if I should read this book. I’m not entirely convinced it’s my type of book, but I do like the cover. I am a fan of this series’ design and only wish they were available in the U.S. I did break down a few days ago to purchase one from the Book Depository. I’ll see if it holds up as well in my hands.

    By the way, you say it is difficult to credit that birth control was a social issue in the 1960s. It sure was! In fact, several states outlawed the use of birth control – or any contraceptives – if you can believe it. Most of the laws were passed in the 19th century, and I don’t think they were highly enforced, but they were there and many people thought they should be enforced.

    In 1965 the Supreme Court determined that it was unconstitutional to ban birth control. This is where they determined that the U.S. Constitution contains the implicit right to privacy. Which led directly to the decision in Roe v. Wade in 1973 which found that a woman’s right to an abortion is contained in that implicit right of privacy. I don’t think contraceptives are a social issue anymore here – at least no one is clammoring to overturn Griswold v. Connecticut, that 1965 case, but this social issue has led to some very important constitutional law developments that are still going on today.

  4. Excellent background information, thanks Trevor! I’ve always wondered what the context of Roe v. Wade was, as it’s a case we hear so much about but never in detail.

    Which Penguin Modern Classic was it that you bought, Trevor?

  5. The context of Roe v. Wade is incredibly interesting, and it isn’t going away soon. That case directly sparked stupendous rise of the religious right that has held so much power here for the last twenty-five or thirty years – a movement I hope has been repudiated this last decade. We’ll see. I’m not against religion by any means, being religious myself, but that was a frighteningly strong movement.

    Oh, and the Penguin Modern Classic I bought was 1984. My wife and I are reading it next month, and I thought it was time to get a good edition. None of the ones here in the U.S. are that attractive, so off to the Book Depository. By the way, I have visited Caustic Cover Critic and Penguin’s website hoping to find a complete cover catalog of the new editions. I haven’t found what I’m looking for. Do know if a comprehensive list of titles with their cover art exists online?

  6. I read the Deathworld books by Harrison as a teenager. I still have them on my shelves. Great sci-fi fun. I should really have read more of his stuff. Thanks for the reminder.

  7. Great minds think alike. I ordered this from Amazon earlier in the week and it turned up yesterday. Am really looking forward to reading it, thanks in part to your review.

  8. Do know if a comprehensive list of titles with their cover art exists online?

    Good question Trevor. Not as far as I am aware. I suppose one could use this page on the Penguin UK site to look for different genres within their classics titles. Anything 20th century would be a Penguin Modern Classic, though not all will have been rejacketed with the new look.

  9. Great review! Some other Harrison might be worth your time, though I would steer clear of Stainless Steel and Bill titles. Probably the best bet is ‘A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!’, a charming Victorian-era alternative universe adventure romp about an ettempt to create the huge undersea tunnel of the title so that the great steam-powered Kingdom of Queen Victoria has speedy access to her (non-rebelling) American colonies. lots of (not terribly deep) fun.

  10. The reissue may be quite popular. I saw eight copies in Borders a couple of days ago, tucked into the obscure little sci-fi shelves. I passed on them, hoping to get my copy from Waterstone’s and get a few more points on my card. Impatience took over yesterday, since neither Waterstone’s in Glasgow had it in stock, and I trundled back to Borders to find all copies were gone. Dammit!

  11. Returning to Roe v. Wade, in Freakonomics the authors claim that this ruling did more to reduce US crime rates in the 90s than all of the policing initiatives put together. Dubner and Leavitt argue that when people at the lowest rung of the social ladder were able to terminate unwanted pregnancies, it reduced the pool of potential criminals.

    When the homicide rate in New York suddenly dipped, 18 years later, Giuliani was keen to cite zero tolerance policing as the cause.

    Re: Harry Harrison – I think I can live without the Stainless Steel Rat, but this one looks good. I really enjoyed the Soylent Green.

  12. Congratulations on the birth of Baby Self.

    I hope Mrs. Self is having some rest and you also.

    Keep us updated with pictures!

    I won’t get bored….

  13. I never knew Bill the Galactic Hero was a remake of The Good Soldier Svejk, and I’ve read both, shame on me. Ah well.

    Interesting review as ever John, I have to admit, for me the comic SF he wrote is probably the only Harrison I’d go back for. The Stainless Steel Rat stuff was never intended for realism, and so isn’t as prone to dating. Transatlantic Tunnel as recommended above is supposed to be huge fun, though I’ve not read that one myself.

    His serious stuff is more variable, much is fun if you’re a hardcore sf fan but forgettable otherwise (I read a lot of sf in my teens and twenties and Harrison was among that). His more recent works, an alternate history series about an early war between Britain and the US, is not unfortunately all that great. His knack for me was as a sort of sf Pratchett, a comic writer who also did good rip-roaring sf. His serious stuff I never thought played to where his talents lay.

    I read Make Room, Make Room years ago, probably 20 or 25 such, not sure I’d return to it now despite your review. That said, overpopulation fears were a big element in sf of the 60s and 70s, as (in my view) best captured by John Brunner in his award winning Stand on Zanzibar and as criticised by Robert Silverberg in his counterblast novel The World Inside about a future Earth with a population of 75 billion that was essentially a utopia. I can’t be sure now about the timings of Silverberg’s work, it was a riposte to a body of overpopulation literature as best I’m aware, not to a specific novel.

  14. Great stuff Max, thanks for the information. It’s this sort of cross-pollination – while bringing this book to the attention of some people who haven’t heard of it, I’ve also learned a lot more about the author and his other works – which makes blogging worthwhile.

    Steerforth and Kevin, I haven’t read Freakonomics but I recall looking through it in the bookshop and thinking that several of its conclusions (or suppositions) seemed to have an unattractively populist, sleeve-tugging aspect.

  15. John,

    On Freakanomics, I wouldn’t personally recommend it. It’s alright, and there’s nothing wrong with fresh perspectives that make one question assumptions, but at times it’s a little pat in its narratives and for me it wasn’t always wholly convincing. The best bits in any event are summaries of other people’s work (openly, it’s not dishonest in that), for example the excellent section on the economics of drug dealing is a synopsis of the work set out in Gang Leader for a Day.

    Jonathan McAlmont reviews Gang Leader for a Day on his mostly film-focussed blog here: http://ruthlessculture.com/2009/01/15/gang-leader-for-a-day/. That I intend to read, and there are to my knowledge no suggestions that it has an agenda of any kind.

    I wouldn’t personally wholly recommend Freakanomics – it’s enjoyable enough if read with a reasonably sceptical eye but it’s popular writing rather than academic which makes it hard to assess how robust the analysis is and ultimately I thought the book as a whole less than the sum of its parts. Some good articles, on match fixing in sumo for example, but overall perhaps better as magazine pieces than an actual book and some of the more startling claims I’d like to see subjected to more rigorous peer review before taking them too seriously.

  16. Congratulations!

    I’ve had Make Room, Make Room on my wish list for some time.

    I have to disagree a bit with Trevor, though. I think birth control is an on-going issue in the U.S. Every few years someone in California manages to put it on the ballot. The last time would have forced doctors to notify parents if their daughters sought birth control. There’s a movement on-going to allow pharmacists to refuse to dispense it if they have moral objections. This is a major concern with the morning after pill. Advertising on broadcast television is still not allowed. Discussing it in public schools can get you in very hot water if you live in certain parts of the country. No major political candidate a late is willing to say the support abortion rights without reservation.

    We’ve still a long way to go on this one.

  17. That’s interesting CB. I suppose when I think of birth control, I think mostly of condoms, the pill, etc – contraception rather than abortion or the like. Maybe that’s why I was surprised by the references to it in the book.

  18. True, true, CB. While I know about those movements, I didn’t necessarily lump them in with prohibitions on birth control itself as they were in the sixties. For example, I think the effort to force doctors to notify parents if their daughters sought birth control is more of a fight against teen sex than a fight against birth control. If you consider the various ways states regulate the use of birth control or conflate it with the morning after pill or abortion, then it’s still a highly relevant issue here, and there are politcal movements left and right.

    Though I don’t think there are any political movements to ban the use of condoms or contraceptives. I think those have gone away for good.

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