In 1973, American filmgoers were shocked by a film entitled Soylent Green, starring Charlton Heston and Leigh Taylor-Young. The film depicts New York City in 2022 with a population of 40 million. The streets are crowded with homeless people, but those few with jobs and a place to live in a dilapidated apartment are little better off: starvation is no more than a slender paycheck away. Water and food are rationed. Most people barely survive on food substitutes from the Soylent Corporation. Euthanasia is encouraged.
When the Soylent Corporation introduces a nutritious new wafer of “high-energy plankton,” Soylent Green, the demand is far greater than the supply. At length we learn that the bodies of older people who submit to an early death are processed in a Soylent Corporation plant and converted into . . . yes, Soylent Green.
Overpopulation is the central issue
The film was loosely based on science fiction writer Harry Harrrison‘s novel Make Room! Make Room!, which had been published six years earlier—emphasis on “loosely.” Harrison did not envision a society fed with the products of human remains. Soylent steaks consist of soybean and lentil. Nor did euthanasia figure into his story; instead, the Eldsters constitute an aggressive pressure group often to be found demonstrating on the streets of the city. Harrison’s concern was overpopulation, a subject of intense public debate in those days. (Paul Ehrlich‘s seminal work, The Population Bomb, was published just two years after the novel, further raising the profile of the issue.)
Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison (1966) 223 pages ★★★☆☆
Other themes enter into Harrison’s story, such as global warming, depleted natural resources, failing government, violent conflict over restricted water supplies, and corruption, and the deterioration of the city’s housing stock and infrastructure. For example, motorized transportation is rare. Pedicabs have replaced taxis, and “tugtrucks” carry commerce around the city. But Harrison could not have been clearer that his central concern was overpopulation. The food shortage has become so severe that the price of a bottle of whiskey is unattainable except to the rich. “There was almost none being made now because of the grain shortage . . . “
Overpopulation isn’t an issue just in New York City or the USA. “All of England is just one big city . . .” Rural areas in the U.S. are crowded, too—and everyone, everywhere, suffers from the endless crush of humanity. Typhoid and dysentery are spreading rapidly because of the lack of water for sanitation. “The whole country is one big farm and one big appetite.” This is a Malthusian nightmare.
Here’s how one rioter describes the pathetic lives people live in 1999 New York: “The authorities have seen to it that we cannot work no matter how fit or able we are. And they have fixed the tiny, insulting, miserable handouts that we are supposed to live on and at the same time see to it that money buys less and less every year, every month, almost every day . . .” Rations of food, water, and other necessities, even paper, are repeatedly cut. The housing stock is so inadequate that “cavemen” populate the subway tunnels and millions sleep on the streets.
A police procedural that ends in tragedy
The central figures in Harrison’s tale are 30-year-old Andrew (Andy) Rusch, a detective third class in the New York Police Department, and Billy Chung, a teenager driven by hunger to become a burglar. Andy shares a single room with an old man named Sol. Billy lives with his large family in Shiptown on one of the many old Liberty Ships that have been strung across the Hudson River and converted into slum housing. When Billy burgles an apartment in a wealthy housing development—one that’s not just gated but surrounded by a moat as well—he accidentally murders the owner.
Unfortunately, the owner is a notorious mob figure named “Big Mike” O’Brien who serves as a liaison between the “syndicate” and the city’s political establishment. Andy is assigned to the case. Almost invariably, murders are essentially ignored; there are simply too many to bother. Most police time goes into riot control. But the syndicate pressures the police department to solve Big Mike’s murder—because the Boss fears that it was the work of a rival mob in New Jersey.
Andy grudgingly pursues the case, working 18-hour days for weeks. His only reward is meeting Big Mike’s mistress, Shirl; the two fall in love, and Shirl moves in with Andy and Sol. All’s well at first. But when Andy gets close to tracking down Billy and is working virtually around the clock, Shirl leaves him. The story ends in tragedy. There is no escape from Harrison’s gloomy vision.
Harrison’s view of overpopulation is simplistic
Sol tries to explain the problem of overpopulation to Andy, explaining what he’d observed in Mexico in 1949: “They never baptize the kids until after they are a year old because most of them are dead by that time and baptisms cost a lot of money. That’s why there never used to be a population problem. The whole world used to be one big Mexico, breeding and dying and just about staying even.” What changed was the arrival of modern medicine. “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.” Sol contrasts “death control” with population control, which he asserts is the sole solution to overpopulation. He rails against Congress, which, under pressure from religious zealots, has resisted decades of efforts to legalize population control.
About the author
American science fiction author Harry Harrison wrote 58 novels. He was a popular figure in the science fiction community. He died in 2012 at the age of 87.
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