Make Room! Make Room!
Make Room! Make Room!
Cover of Penguin paperback 1967 re-issue, book cover illustration by Alan Aldridge.
Author(s) Harry Harrison Country United States Language English Genre(s) Dystopian science fiction Publisher Doubleday Publication date 1966 Media type Print (Hardcover & Paperback) Electronic (Kindle) Pages 216 pp ISBN NA
Make Room! Make Room! is a 1966 science fiction novel written by Harry Harrison exploring the consequences of unchecked population growth on society. The novel was the basis of the 1973 science fiction movie Soylent Green, although the movie changed much of the plot and theme, and introduced cannibalism as a solution to feeding people. The novel was originally serialized in Impulse magazine.
Set in then-future August 1999, the novel explores trends in the proportion of world resources used by the United States and other countries compared to population growth, depicting a world where the global population is seven billion, subject to overcrowding, resource shortages and a crumbling infrastructure. The plot jumps from character to character, recounting the lives of people in various walks of life in New York City (population around 35 million).
Make Room! Make Room! is set in an overpopulated New York City of 1999 (thirty-three years later than the time of writing). Police detective Andy Rusch lives in half a room, sharing it with his "room-mate" Sol, a retired engineer who has adapted a bicycle generator, connected to old car batteries, to power an old television set and a refrigerator.
When Andy queues for their continually reducing water ration he witnesses a public speech by the "Eldsters", people 65 years and older forcibly retired from work. This demonstration produces pandemonium when it becomes known that a nearby food shop has a sale on "soylent" (soya and lentil) steaks. Andy follows the crowd to find that the shop is under attack, with the front glass smashed as he arrives and people looting the contents.
The narrative switches to follow Billy Chung, a desperately poor Taiwanese (originally identified in the novel as Chinese) boy and one of the looters, who grabs a box of soylent steaks and narrowly escapes Andy's clutches, and who, after eating several of the steaks, sells the rest for enough money to fund himself as a messenger-boy. His first delivery takes him into a semi-fortified apartment block, complete with the rare luxuries of air conditioning and running water for showers, wherein he delivers his message to a rich racketeer named "Big Mike". While Mike is reading the message, Billy catches sight of Shirl, Mike's concubine. Billy leaves the apartment after Mike acknowledges the message. The narrative shifts to Shirl and thereafter (with the exception of a few brief departures) follows either Andy, Billy, or Shirl throughout.
Shirl takes a trishaw taxi to market while her bodyguard Tab runs alongside, and there buys "staples" including 'weed-crackers' and petroleum-based margarine before going to a meat smuggler to buy beef steak for Mike. On return to Mike's apartment, they find he has been murdered, and it is revealed that Billy had hidden in the building's basement, and then broken into what he thought an empty apartment, partly for theft and partly for fascination with Shirl, killed Mike when surprised by him, and fled, leaving the nearly-stolen goods behind.
Andy is called to investigate the murder and correctly reconstructs its cause. He expects the case to be abandoned, but the criminal syndicate operating via corrupt official Judge Santini thinks the valentine mark left by Billy may indicate the New Jersey Mafia, and instructs the Justice Department to find the killer.
As the investigation continues, Andy becomes enamored of Shirl, and ensures that Shirl is permitted to stay in the apartment until the end of the month. During this month they live in luxury, eventually consuming Big Mike's food and drink supplies.
As the end of the month approaches and Shirl realises she has nowhere to go, Andy suggests that she come to live with him. After she accepts, they eat and drink the last of the food and alcohol and steal some of Big Mike's bedsheets. After persuading an initially-reluctant Sol, Shirl lives with Andy, but becomes disappointed in the impoverished lifestyle. She befriends a woman who protects her from being robbed of her water supply, and learns about the now-common diseases such as kwashiorkor and beri beri afflicting the malnourished.
Meanwhile, Andy attempts to investigate Mike's death despite contending with riots, paperwork, and the chief's trying to spread his meager force to its limit, which makes him irritable. This, in combination with his shame of the life he is now giving Shirl, distances him from her. He therefore becomes obsessed by the idea of capturing Billy Chung. Eventually, he finds fingerprint cards revealing Billy's home address among a suburb composed of decommissioned ships. A visit to this address reveals Billy's absence, so Andy leaves stool pigeons to alert the police if and when Billy returns.
Later, Billy returns home, but, after a brief altercation with his mother and older sister, leaves again. After narrowly escaping the alerted police and nearly jumping to his death in a drug-induced haze, he leaves the part of the city to which he is accustomed, eventually breaking into the abandoned Brooklyn Navy Yard, where he comes to live with Peter, a fatalist hermit eagerly awaiting the new millennium as the end of the world. There, Billy discovers a supply of water in an old tank, which he sells piecemeal for money to support himself and Peter, and also to maintain his newly-acquired drug dependence. Soon they are attacked by a small group of homeless people and forced to leave their location, later to find a new home in a discarded car whose previous owner had frozen to death. Here, Peter's stoic acceptance of events frustrates Billy until the latter decides to return to his family, believing the police will have lost interest in him.
Meanwhile, Sol decides he can no longer remain passive in the face of what he sees as human life's growing crisis, and joins a protest march against the overturning of a legislative bill supporting family planning, in favor of population control as humanity's hope of survival. At the demonstration, Sol is injured in a riot and later becomes bedridden, where he catches pneumonia and eventually dies.
A few days after Sol's funeral, Andy and Shirl are in conversation when Tab arrives, reluctantly in the employ of a family that has received government permission to take Sol's living quarters as their own, making Shirl and Andy's life more miserable than before.
In the climax of the story, Andy stumbles upon Billy Chung when he returns to the ships, accidentally shooting and killing the boy in the latter's escape. Andy tells his chief thereof, only to discover that the syndicate has lost interest in the case after its own investigations confirmed the absence of a rival's invasion. The police chief therefore demotes Andy in order to save his own career. On return to his own quarters, Andy finds Shirl gone.
The story ends with Andy on patrol in Times Square on New Year's Eve, where he glimpses Shirl among rich party-goers. As the clock strikes midnight, Andy encounters Peter, who is distraught that the world has not ended and asks how life can continue as it is; but gives him no answer. The story concludes with the Times Square screen announcing that "Census says United States had biggest year ever, end-of-the-century, 344 million citizens...".
Concept and creation
Author Harry Harrison claimed that "The idea came from an Indian I met after the war, in 1946. He told me, 'Overpopulation is the big problem coming up in the world' (nobody had ever heard of it in those days) and he said 'Want to make a lot of money, Harry? You have to import rubber contraceptives to India.' I didn't mind making money, but I didn't want to be the rubber king of India!".
Social commentary is the novel's underlying theme, with author Harry Harrison using Sol in promoting the importance of birth control and sustainable development. Overpopulation had recently become a concern; Paul R. Ehrlich, founder of the Zero Population Growth movement, wrote the introduction to the paperback edition.
In the book, environmental destruction has rendered people apathetic, leaving them struggling to sustain themselves in any fashion they can find. Almost all mechanized transport has been replaced by human power, much of the farmland has been poisoned by pollution or absorbed in a growing dust bowl, and the government can barely cope with providing basic food and water rations to a disorderly population crowded into the decaying cities. The loss of mechanized transport is revealed by a number of stark, disturbing images including the "tugtrucks" — large bins on four old tires towed by the human muscle-power of two "truckers" — and "the lots", former parking/impound lots where the destitute live in long-dead cars, and the "now silent subway stations" where still more destitute people are assigned to live by the city welfare department.
In the speculative fiction tradition of What if?, a convincing alternative world is depicted, not as prediction, but as a vivid communication of what such a future would be like from the common citizen's point of view. Harrison's writing is unusually bleak, departing from his usually humorous approach, but maintains his usual distrust of authority.
The late 1960s and the 1970s produced descriptions of New York City, both fictional and reportage, suggesting that violent crime was rampant and that complete social breakdown, if not imminent, was on the horizon. Make Room! Make Room! was perhaps influenced by this context and can be regarded as an extreme extrapolation of the societal trends perceptible at the time of its writing.
The novel also takes a decidedly feminist tone. Though the main female character, Shirl, conforms to many stereotypical gender roles, author Harrison also has the character freely engage in sex for her pleasure and come and go from her romantic relationships as she pleases, both major topics of the 1960s sexual revolution and Second-wave feminism.
Several years after writing the novel, Harrison created the short story "Roommates" (1971), largely by joining excerpts from the novel. Harrison describes the impetus and creation of the short story in his introduction for it in The Best of Harry Harrison. He recounts how he was asked for an excerpt for reprinting, but that he did not think any simple excerpt stood alone. So he took various scenes from the "roommates" plot strand and combined them into the short story.
- ^ Netzley, Patricia (1999). Environmental Literature. California: ABC-CLIO. ISBN 1-57607-000-X.
- ^ Westfahl, Gary (2005), The Greenwood encyclopedia of science fiction and fantasy: themes, works, and wonders, Greenwood Publishing Group, pp. 575, ISBN 9780313329524, http://books.google.com/books?id=3JXnz9x9sO4C&pg=PA575
- ^ "Harry Harrison: When the World Was Young", Locus Magazine, March 2006, http://www.locusmag.com/2006/Issues/03Harrison.html
- ^ Stableford, Brian, Science Fact and Science Fiction: An Encyclopedia, CRC Press, 2006, pp. 399, ISBN 9780415974608, http://books.google.com/books?id=uefwmdROKTAC&pg=PA399
- ^ Belasco, Warren James (2006), Meals to come: a history of the future of food, University of California Press, pp. 50, ISBN 9780520241510, http://books.google.com/books?id=7a5XPNRFt3IC&pg=PA51
- Make Room! Make Room! publication history at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database
- Roommates publication history at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database
- Make Room! Make Room!
- Millennial Reviews: XXXIV: Make Room! Make Room! - Harry Harrison - criticises inaccuracy of predictions
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