Orb/Tom Doherty Associates, 2008
originally published in 1966
"He said be fruitful and multiply, and we have..." (176)
If you look up the word Dystopia, you'll find that one of its definitions is the opposite of Utopia. The setting for Make Room! Make Room! is New York City, 1999, well beyond teeming with a population of 35 million people, definitely not a utopia, by any stretch of the imagination. The increase in welfare payments has brought the city income tax to a whopping 80%. Housing is scarce for the regular person, while the more affluent live in guarded apartments, one in particular resembling a castle complete with moat and drawbridge. Food is a precious commodity and water is rationed, again, except for the rich who have speakeasy-like secret meat markets for their shopping pleasures and can enjoy long showers.
One of the defenders of the people in this overpopulated New York City filled with desperate people is Andy Rusch. He's a policeman who sees himself as "a crummy cop trying to hold things together while the rest of the bastards are taking them apart." He lives in a room next to Sol, an elderly man who fills Andy's head with his old stories. Andy is currently tasked with finding Billy Chung, the murderer of a wealthy criminal named Michael O'Brien, who most of the policemen are glad to see gone. In a city where the populace often resorts to rioting, where crowd control and protecting the streets are the mainstay of police activity and murder investigations are not top priority, Andy wonders why this guy's death is such a big deal. All he knows is that the word has come down from the politicians that he's to give the case top priority. Overworked, tired, with a little extra food ration for being a cop, he starts his investigation and meets Shirl Greene, girlfriend/mistress to the dead guy, who is about to be tossed out into the streets; Billy Chung manages to find a way to disappear, holing up with a former priest who is waiting for the turn of the millenium, for the new heaven and new earth. Each character fulfills a definite role in terms of who they represent in this city; this plot is the frame for the real point of this book, which examines the hell of "an overpopulated future," as well as how the world got to this state. It is the wise, elderly Sol who provides the answers, starting with the advances in modern medicine to the point where
"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.”He also poses a question about a bigger crime, that of "letting kids die of disease and starvation or seeing that the unwanted ones don't get born in the first place?" Politicians won't take on the issue, as it is far too controversial -- they only go as far as making access to birth control information mandatory. Other points made in this novel deal with the welfare system, price gouging, and the too little, too late political measures that have no real effect in times of crisis. I found some of Harrison's issues that are still relevant, although many of the reviews I've read of this book note that the themes explored in this book are outdated and therefore nothing to get overly excited about.
Actually, I look at like this: this novel is an intriguing look at issues of its time, and really should be respected as such. Overpopulation and the failure of the earth to sustain an out-of-control population was a real concern back then, publicized by Paul Erlich in the late 60s. Today we also tend to forget that contraceptives were not as easily available as they are now -- in 1964, the pill was still illegal in eight states, and it was only a US Supreme Court ruling in 1965 that made it legal in Connecticut. And back then, the influence of the Catholic church reached far and wide in matters of contraception.
Another prevalent criticism of this book was that it was nothing like the movie Soylent Green -- and failed to mention the secret behind the food. Really? Seriously? This book didn't even go down that path, so why on earth criticize it for something that Hollywood made up after the fact? Even Harrison, as his LA Times obituary notes, thought the film only occasionally "bore a faint resemblance to the book."
While Harrison's doom-and-gloom scenario of 35 million people in New York City never came to pass, the book shouldn't just be one you turn your nose up at. According to the author's obituary, Tom Doherty, founder of Tor Books, noted that Harrison saw science fiction as a medium that "caused people to think about our world and what it could become.” That's one major reason I read sci-fi, although I have to admit I'm partial to older novels like this one. I liked it, and while maybe it's not the best sf novel I've ever read, it's definitely one I won't forget.