A while back, I wrote on this blog about my favourite works of dystopian fiction, which ranged from such well-known novels of futuristic doom and gloom as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953) and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) to lesser-known items like Christopher Priest’s Fugue for a Darkening Island (1972) and Jack London’s The Iron Heel (1908). However, writing that particular post made me realise that there were a lot of famous dystopian novels I hadn’t yet read. So in the past year I’ve been catching up with them – Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003), Doris Lessing’s Memoirs of a Survivor (1974) and, most recently, Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! (1966). Here, I’d like to say something about that last book.
The edition of Make Room! Make Room! I read was a 2009 one published by Penguin Modern Classics. This feels ironic considering that for most of his career Harry Harrison (who died in 2012) was regarded as a solid, meat-and-two-veg-type science fiction writer. Not the sort of person you’d expect to find favour among mainstream literary critics or to have work published by a company as synonymous with highbrow literature as Penguin.
Harrison’s first creative job was actually as an artist, not as a writer. Following stints in the Air Corps and military police during World War II, which left him disdainful of military culture – in the introduction to one book he wrote that the armed forces’ “mixture of sadism, unquestioned authority, brutality, racism, intolerance, vulgarity, to name but a few, was the antithesis of everything that I believed in” – he spent much of the late 1940s and 1950s drawing and editing comic-books. It wasn’t until a bout of illness left him, temporarily, unable to draw that he tried his hand at writing. In the decades that followed, he established himself as one of science fiction’s most popular authors, thanks largely to swashbuckling and tongue-in-cheek space operas like the Stainless Steel Rat books. I read some of these in my youth and have always thought their comedic and satirical elements helped pave the way for Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
However, space operas and humour were two things unlikely to win favour with literary critics, which meant that Harrison, though popular, was underrated as a writer. This was a pity. For one thing, science fiction is a genre whose practitioners include many right-wing dingbats – see Robert Heinlein (whose gung-ho 1959 novel Starship Troopers Harrison took the piss out of with 1965’s Bill the Galactic Hero), Jerry Pournelle, Orson Scott Card and arsehole extraordinaire Theodore Beale. In comparison, Harrison’s authorial voice was refreshingly liberal and anti-militaristic and it would’ve done the genre’s reputation no harm if he’d been taken more seriously.
Anyway, I trust Harrison enjoyed a wry chuckle about Penguin’s decision to label Make Room! Make Room! a ‘modern classic’ three years before his death.
Make Room! Make Room! is very different from the Stainless Steel Rat and Harrison’s other outer-space-set fiction. Its story takes place in New York in 1999, 33 years in the future from when Harrison wrote it. The New York it depicts is hellish, bursting at its concrete seams with 35 million inhabitants, with gasoline all but gone and supplies of food and water running dangerously low. The book is Harrison’s warning about the danger of letting the human population grow unchecked and the resultant depletion of earth’s resources. However, in the opening chapters, the story unfolds against the backdrop of a sweltering heatwave: “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… Days of heat had softened the tar so that it gave underfoot, then clutched at the soles of his shoes.” In 2017, this gives the reader the uncomfortable feeling that what’s really blighting the city is the rising temperatures of man-made climate change.
The novel’s hero is a tough but dutiful cop called Andy Rusch who’s tasked with investigating the murder of a gangster called Michael O’Brien. Cruelly, O’Brien has been living it up in a swanky gated-community apartment with near-unobtainable luxuries such as liquor and red meat, while Rusch is stuck in a partitioned room cohabited by an old man called Sol who spends much of his time pedalling on a wheel-less bicycle that’s wired to an electrical generator (which keeps his ancient TV and fridge running). Although the city authorities believe that O’Brien was rubbed out by a rival syndicate keen to muscle their way into the city – and keep pressurising Rusch to find the culprits – the murderer is really a hapless young petty criminal called Billy Chung who accidentally killed O’Brien during a bungled robbery.
Thus, the book has a double narrative, focusing on both Rusch pursuing the killer and Chung fleeing and trying to evade capture. However, the plot has a darker momentum too – downwards. We see Rusch’s life gradually disintegrate as the polluted, over-populated, under-resourced city around him goes from bad to worse and, despite his best efforts, he fails to hold onto the two people who matter most to him: the feisty but vulnerable Sol and the gorgeous but good-natured Shirl, moll of the late Michael O’Brien, whom Rusch falls in love with during the course of his investigations.
It’s a smart move by Harrison to wrap up the apocalyptic content of Make Room! Make Room! in the trimmings of a crime / detective story. Rather than thrust the horrors of this hellhole New York into our faces, he lets us concentrate, mainly, on the story of Rusch tracking down Chung; while slipping in disturbing details about what’s going on in the background. There are casual mentions of ‘tugtrucks’ – which we eventually realise are wagons pulled along by teams of sweating, straining human beings, there being no more fuel left for conventional, engine-powered trucks. Shirl pays a visit to a heavily fortified, heavily guarded hideout that’s not selling drugs, as we initially expect, but selling cuts of meat. And there are references to Rusch stepping over sleeping or huddling bodies in hallways and stairwells, indicating that hell isn’t quite Jean-Paul Satre’s definition of it as ‘other people’. No, hell is lots of other people.
One thing that’s helped Make Room! Make Room! endure is it being the basis for the fondly remembered 1973 movie Soylent Green, which starred Charlton Heston as its main character, renamed as Thorn. I remember reading about Soylent Green in a book called Future Tense: the Cinema of Science Fiction (1978) written by the movie critic John Brosnan. As part of his coverage of the film, Brosnan interviewed Harrison, who had mixed feelings about how his story had been adapted from the page to the screen.
He certainly admired the job that the director Richard Fleischer (another underrated talent) had made of Soylent Green, but he begrudged some of the changes wrought by the filmmakers. For instance, Sol – who in Soylent Green is played by Edward G. Robinson – dies in the book from injuries he sustains after a demonstration he takes part in, in support of family planning, turns into a riot. In the movie, Sol decides he’s had enough of the increasingly-shitty world and goes to a ‘euthanasia clinic’ to end it all. Harrison wasn’t impressed by the use of this plot device because, unbeknownst to the filmmakers, euthanasia clinics and suicide machines are something of a cliché in science fiction. (Recently, I’ve also been reading Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow, first published in 1895, and even it refers to a futuristic public facility called a ‘government lethal chamber’.) However, he conceded that Sol’s death-scene in the film, where calming images of fields, forests, flowers, wildlife, unpolluted oceans and other things that no longer seem to exist are projected around him while he expires, was powerful.
And Harrison didn’t like the movie’s climax, which ironically has become its most famous moment – wherein Heston discovers that soylent green, the mysterious foodstuff that everyone eats in the future New York, is secretly made out of recycled human corpses. This prompts him to yell, “Soylent green is PEOPLE!” Harrison had researched Make Room! Make Room! meticulously to make its apocalypse seem as realistic as possible, so he’d have known that the idea of humanity relying on industrialised cannibalism to survive wasn’t feasible. Human beings don’t fatten up very quickly and they require a lot of feeding and looking after, so as a foodstuff to meet the world’s dietary needs, they’re economically a bad idea. And as this recent study has shown, they’re not even that rich in calories.
In contrast, Make Room! Make Room! ends with Rusch on duty in Times Square on the eve of the Millennium – and while the beleaguered city enters the 21st century, he’s given a bitter reminder that no matter how bad things get for the great mass of humanity, there’ll always be a wealthy minority who carry on living in luxury.
No doubt Harrison set Make Room! Make Room! in 1999 because he couldn’t resist having its final scene occur at the dawn of the new Millennium, a moment loaded with significance. However, that doesn’t make the book any less terrifying in 2017. After all, we still live in a world whose ever-burgeoning human population is decimating its supplies of soil, water, vegetation and animal life. Our civilisation is still hopelessly dependent on a fossil fuel whose stocks are frighteningly finite. Add to that the fact that our most powerful nation is run by an unstable and illiterate moron who thinks he can make the threat of man-made climate change disappear simply by denying its existence.
Today more than ever, Make Room! Make Room! is an example of ‘science fiction’ threatening to become ‘science fact’ – in the worst possible way.