Saturday, July 20, 2013

Review: Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison

Too many people, not enough resources. That is the central theme in Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison.

The story is set in New York City where there are 35 million people crammed into a very small space, where jobs are scarce and have to be bought, where paper is only in old books, and air conditioning is only for the wealthy. In this jam packed world lives Andy Rusch, a detective with the NYPD who spends less of his time detecting and most of his time on riot control with the rest of the boys in blue. He shares an apartment with an old man, Solomon, and is seldom there. Sol did not want to live alone and threw up a thin panel between the bedroom and the main room, probably what is called a studio apartment nowadays, and put up a notice at the local police department, which is when Andy became his roommate.

Their shared resources, food, light, and heat, are mainly composed of soy and lentils (when it is available and is called soylent), but mainly margarine made of oil and rendered whale fat on weedcrackers. Meat is a thing of the past and only for the wealthy who have the Ds to buy it. Sol converted the stove from gas to electric and finally to seacoal and powers the refrigerator with a bicycle rigged up to car batteries that Sol pedals, thus keeping fit and making ice with their water ration.

Andy catches a case at Chelsea Towers where a high ranking mob boss is violently murdered with a sharpened tire iron. His girlfriend, Shirl Greene, and the bodyguard were out at the time and found Big Mike when they returned. Since Big Mike was a big presence in political circles, Andy must find the murderer, a change from the usual SOP of finding the killer if possible and moving on to the next murder. Big people want answers about Big Mike and Andy will lose his job if he doesn't find the killer.

Make Room! Make Room! is a far cry from the usual murder mystery in that Harry Harrison's main focus is on showing how precariously humanity is perched at the edge of the abyss. With 7 billion people on the planet and 337 million people in the United States using up all the resources, the level of their comfortable existence must also change, and all because there is no birth control and the Catholic Church opposes anything that will kill babies. Harrison isn't talking about abortion, but about the pill, a case he has Sol make to Shirl after she moves in with Andy.

Birth control is an old argument, but considering that Harrison published his argument for birth control in 1966, that should also be considered. Harrison theorized that humanity would be living on top of each other by 1999 and that a population of 7 billion people would use up all the resources until there was very little left.

I found the story to be basically straight forward and the conditions appalling, which is what Harrison wanted. I did not, however, find the story completely credible. There was no mention of using the vast water resources locked in the poles or of any kind of apparatus or movement to catch and use rainwater. Harrison relies completely on artesian wells because rivers and streams are so polluted. No mention is even made of purifying the river water in a city surrounded by water.

While the premise and the way Harrison sets up his crisis is interesting, he relies more on emotion than on facts to make his case. I do agree with his stance on birth control and what would happen in a world where no one is wise enough to look beyond their immediate surroundings for an answer, but few people are that stupid and fewer still, pushed to the extremes outlined, would be content to suffer without trying everything possible.

Despite Harrison's projected numbers, there are currently 7 billion people on this planet and 8.245 million in New York City. Water is still plentiful, as are food, space, and resources, if costly. Even so, Make Room! Make Room! is interesting reading when taken in the context of its time and social conscience.

Harrison's novel was adapted for the screen as Soylent Green, a movie in which the central theme was the greenhouse effect and soylent green was made from people.

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