Harry Harrison’s 1966 novel, Make Room! Make Room! is probably more familiar to people through the film, starring Charlton Heston, Soylent Green which I’d seen several times before I read this book. It had been out of print for a good number of years and, having enjoyed the film based on it and, when younger, a number of Harry Harrison’s other novels, I’d been quite keen to read this. So when it was republished I was a happy SF fan.
The novel itself is a dystopia, set in 1999, then the future. It has an ecological premise; the world is unable to sustain the human race. The plot of the book concerns the attempts by policeman, Andy Rusch, to investigate a murder. In the imagined future, the investigation of a murder was fairly rare, because the police had to spend so much of their limited time and resources controlling desperate and hungry people. Fans of Heston’s film should note, also, that the central revelation of that film is absent from the novel (let’s face it, there’s more than a reasonable chance that even if you’ve not seen the film, you know what that is).
The world depicted in Make Room! Make Room! is a compelling, if unrelentingly grim, one. The environment is the enemy, though the slant in this is slightly different from a lot of other ecological apocalypse fiction. The tendency (as far a I’ve noticed anyway, and this isn’t absolute – I’m sure I could go and find some other, differing, examples) is to portray the environment becoming overloaded with toxins due to our thoughtless use of resources, or for one big man-made event to cause an ecological disaster. In the case of this novel (and this probably has a lot to do with when the book was written) it is purely a result of our desire to end death. The dire situation that humanity finds itself in, is caused by something almost unquestionably good (though there is also the theme of access to birth control, in the mid-sixties in America, a huge issue).
Rusch’s friend Sol, has this to say on the subject:
“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.”
I should point out here that I imply no luddism on my own part by distinguishing between the causes of the catastrophe in this and other novels. Progress is a good thing. To point to a crude example would be that the Soviet Union sought economic progress, and undeniably got it. However, many of the environmental consequences of this were unquestionably catastrophic. My point is that the eradication of death and disease are hard to find any fault with, whereas there are some human economic activities which have visible and immediate consequences when we consider the impact that they have on the way that people live.
There are some obvious criticisms to make of Make Room! Make Room! Written in the 1960s, it deals with the consequences on human beings of unchecked population growth. Set in 1999, it offers a world of 7 billion people that can’t feed itself and the action happens in a decaying New York of 35 million people. Clearly, this didn’t happen, so if one were to be lazy, you could dismiss the book out of hand by pointing out how “wrong” Harry Harrison was. Whilst the direst predictions perhaps didn’t come true, it’s worth pointing out that it’s just fiction! Science Fiction at that! While the failure of prediction is there, the wider themes of how we use and distribute resources still provoke thought today. It maybe true that New York hasn’t become as degraded as depicted here, that is not to say, however, that we have suddenly solved the problems of how resources are distributed in the world. From that point of view, the novel still resonates.
However, I couldn’t love the book; though my problems aren’t with it’s inaccurate depiction of the world, well, in our past now. It’s very much a book of the 1960s and read in that context, it’s interesting – there are many themes relevant to that era that you can follow – but I just wasn’t overly convinced by the book as a whole. It’s enjoyable, but not great. It moves at a decent pace and, in spite of the grimness in it, it has moments of wit. I don’t think you’d regret reading it, but there are far better examples of the genre available than this.
The bigger problem is that Harrison’s writing is quite pulpy, and certainly closer to the roots of SF than a lot the work that was happening around this time and would happen after. I have nothing against this, and it can be enjoyable enough. I’m just not so sure now how well Harry Harrison’s work has dated. When I was younger I read a few things by him (The Technicolor Time Machine, Bill the Galactic Hero and the like) which were fun, and often funny. If I were being totally objective, however, I think that I’d have to admit that a lot of the positive feelings that I have about this are because I love the genre and, when the mood suits, enjoy reading this kind of stuff. So, if you are a genre fan, and are interested in some of the earlier works that are in its past, you may also find some value in this. I don’t think it’s a particularly good advert for the literary merits of SF, though (though, of course, not everything has to be…)
There are some good attempts on the internet at the moment to reappraise some of science fictions classic works, especially those that have been out of print (there are a few, but SF and Fantasy Masterworks Reading Project is a particularly good example). One of the questions that reviewers often ask themselves is, is this book worthy of being called a masterwork? Of course, things are slightly more complicated than that; it’s suggested sometimes that many of the works that find themselves in the two series that Gollancz publish get there by dint of the fact that the rights are available, while I’m sure that there are other – undisputed – classics that won’t get into it because someone already holds the rights and publishes it.
This isn’t published in that particular range, instead, it is a Penguin Modern Classic. It is certainly heartening to see SF getting picked up by Penguin to publish in this range. However, I’m not convinced that it’s necessarily always the best examples of SF that have made it there. While Make Room! Make Room! unquestionably has something to say for itself, and isn’t an unpleasant read (I’m glad I’ve read it now), I can’t really suggest than anyone rush it to the top of their “to be read” pile unless they have a particular reason for wishing to read it.