Rafeeq O.'s Reviews > Make Room Make Room

Make Room Make Room by Harry Harrison
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Harry Harrison's 1966 Make Room! Make Room!, set in the once-portentous and exquisitely science-fictional year of 1999, is a decently entertaining, grim, yet ultimately frustrating dystopia of the overpopulation subgenre. It is this frustration--not of the impossibility of escape for the trapped characters, for such is to be expected of dystopia, but of the relative mismatch between the Prologue and final polemical mouthings a few chapters before the bleak conclusion versus the actual meat of the plot of the novel--that caps the book for me at 4 stars.

Now, first, to get the most obvious matter out of the way, I should comment that the whole "Soylent Green is people!" schtick--I myself haven't seen the 1973 film, but of course I've read of its famous end--would never, ever, ever fit within the plot of the of Harrison's novel. Why? Because the Prologue, after beginning with a quote by President Eisenhower pooh-hooing the notion of having a political position on birth control, gives some statistics on population growth against finite resources, and then the much later multi-page speech-like summation of the Irascible Old Man Who Remembers explains that, somehow, birth control never took off when it should have in the 1960s, and as his debating foil admits, "people still think it has something to do with killing babies" (1980 Ace paperback, page 237). So...yeah. Clearly, no one is going to be scooping up people and recycling 'em into food in this book.

In any event, by the once-future 1999 of the novel, Earth's population has reached a once-unthinkable 7 billion, and once-livable New York City alone holds 35 million people. The world is a poor, decaying place now. Fortunate ones in New York might live in crowded apartments, perhaps with strangers, even entire families, assigned by the government. After the city "closed off the gas mains," 75-year-old Solomon Kahn and his roommate, police officer Andy Rusch, cooked for a while with electricity, but now that it is "too erratic...and expensive" for anything except the all-important television and the refrigerator and some lighting, Sol has knocked a hole in the wall and run out a chimney (page 98), and they use fishy-smelling "seacoal," which is "supposed to be made of cellulose waste from the fermentation vats at the alcohol factory, dried and soaked with low-grade plankton oil to keep it burning" but perhaps is "really made of dried and pressed fish guts from the processing plants" (page 99); every morning Sol shovels up the stove's ashes and simply throws them out the window (page 99). Everyone gets a monthly Welfare allowance, and although "weedcracker"--not marijuana but seaweed--is a staple of diet, "soylent burgers" are a luxury that cost as much as a week's groceries (page 199), and water is lugged in to the apartment every morning in jerrycans filled at the local "water point" whose doors are locked at noon by an armed police officer (page 9).

Andy and Sol have it pretty good, though. They have a place to live, at least, unlike so many millions in the city who sleep in the doorways of buildings and on the sidewalk in "a stifling miasma compounded of decay, dirt and unwashed humanity" (page 8), under old crumbling overpasses of the nearly unused freeways, and in the "wasteland of sealed buildings, empty sheds, rusting mountains of scrap, pieces of ships, [and] broken hills of concrete and rubble" of the fenced-off old Brooklyn Naval Yard (pages 172-73). People also live in the dead automobiles clogging the "hundreds" of otherwise-abandoned parking lots (page 249), for motorized traffic, after all, is almost non-existent anymore except for the occasional government truck, replaced by bicycle-drawn cabs and "tugtrucks" drawn by plodding person-power. "Everything's makeshift" and run-down, with old electronics "cannibalize[d]" (page 101) and ancient rusting fire escapes breaking loose and falling off "often enough" (page 97). The tear gas grenades the police have dug out of storage for riot control are a quarter century old (page 213), and even a Zippo lighter hasn't been manufactured in years and years (page 99). Despite cheap government weedcrackers, beriberi and kwashiorkor are endemic among the populace due to lack of protein (page 201). Street children who have fought and, despite "bites and streaks of uncongealed blood," vanquished a big rat "would eat well tonight" (page 131), while only the very few wealthy might purchase from the heavily fortified shop of "meatleggers" a "[g]ood leg of dog," or perhaps even a tiny half-pound steak of actual beef (page 57).

Shirl Greene is one of the very few who eat and drink well, watching a 50-inch television (page 48) in a nice air-conditioned apartment with expensive running water, now and then even sneaking a shower (page 47), high up in a moat-encircled building served by an elevator and protected by a doorman and guards. All the 23-year-old redhead has to do, aside from running the daily shopping errands with a bodyguard, is serve as the girl of Big Mike O'Brien, a prominent businessman from a rough-and-tumble background who is "in the rackets" (page 88) and is "some sort of contact man between the syndicate and the politicians" (page 89). Yes, she may "winc[e]" as she examines "her sore breasts" afterward, for "[h]e [is] always too rough and it show[s] on her kind of skin; she'[ll] be black-and-blue tomorrow" (pages 46-47), but after her father ran off with the prize money from a beauty contest she won at age 20, she started living with one of the pageant judges and then moved on from there, and although she explains, "I haven't known that many men," essentially "they were all men like Mike" (page 130).

Anyway, Big Mike gets killed in a break-in at the apartment, and although Andy believes the killing was "a public service" (page 76) and even his sour boss would prefer to "[f]ile and forget it" (page 84)--after all, when the city has "five, maybe ten killings...every day, a couple hundred felonious assaults, twenty, thirty cases of rape, at least fifteen hundred burglaries," the "understaffed and overworked" police "usually don't even try" to solve a case without any witnesses (page 90)--someone is putting pressure from on high. Andy took the call, so now he's stuck with assignment. Plot ensues.

There really is, however, still quite a bit of vagueness in the goings-on. Who exactly is the mysterious man pulling the strings on the investigation, the supposed "Mr. Briggs" whose actual name his compatriots are "careful not to mention" (page 92)? Yes, he's a big mob boss looking into the possibility that Big Mike was killed by a Jersey operator contemplating a takeover, but how exactly is Briggs connected with the "judges and politicians" (page 89) who used to visit Big Mike? Is the Mayor in Briggs' pocket as well, and the Police Commissioner? What exactly is the racket, and why does no one, absolutely no one, otherwise care whether the murder victim is alive or dead? We never quite know.

The most frustrating vagueness, though, surrounds the notion, scarcely hinted at until it at last is ranted about, that general opposition to birth control in the industrialized world is what has made the present so threadbare and broken-down. Strategic Air Command still has "Mach-3 planes" (page 114), as does the Navy (page 299), but there appear to be no consumer goods manufactured anymore, with people simply making do by reusing and repurposing the scraps of the past. The rest of the world is the same, with "England...just one big city," Denmark somehow better but off-limits behind "a concrete wall right across Jutland" and "beach guards who shoot on sight" (page 190), and Russia transparently denying reports of famine (page 299).

I know the population explosion was a big topic in the 1960s, as DDT reduced malaria at the same time that better hygiene methods, vaccines, and medical care slowed disease in continents previously scarcely treated. As Sol puts it, "Death control slid into the world mostly without people even knowing it" (page 238)...but birth control somehow never really came. Sol's rant about how people "overproduce[d] and overconsume[d], until now the oil is gone, the topsoil depleted and washed away, the trees chopped down, the animals extinct, the earth poisoned" (pages 239-40) is of course spot-on for these legitimate concerns, especially for the period of writing. What I have a hard time buying, however, is that only now, with the potential passage of the cringingly vague "Emergency Bill" in Congress, is the U.S. "finally getting around to legalizing clinics that will be open to anyone--married or not--and making it a law that all mothers must be supplied with birth-control information" (page 229). Wow. A piece published in 1966 talks about finally getting around to this in 1999? I dunno...

Just as bad, these sentiments, which are revealed in very stagey dialogues between the Irascible Old Man Who Remembers and the Young Girl Who Doesn't Know Any Better, just seem to appear near the tail end of the book, dropped in with one loud clunk and then another. As I think back through the book, I believe there are only perhaps two or three instances where it is mentioned that people are still having too many children, and this lack is a noticeable structural flaw in the piece. I can't remember whether I noted this when I read the book as a teenager in, according to the sales slip I use as a bookmark, 1980, but I certainly do now.

Characterization occasionally is somewhat hammed up, too, and I really am not fond of the plethora of comma splices here either--not the ones in dialogue, mind you, but the ones in ordinary authorial narrative. The comma, the period, and the semicolon all are different animals, after all, with different habitats, and affect their environment in different ways. The recurring instances of sentences simply run together with a comma without any apparent purpose just seems a tad unseemly to me.

Still, despite some problems, Harry Harrison's Make Room! Make Room! remains a decent 3.5- to 4-star read. It may be a bit dated, but so long as we don't scrutinize too hard and don't insist on certain details that Harrison blithely refuses to fill in, the novel remains worth experiencing.

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Reading Progress

March 7, 2021 – Started Reading
March 12, 2021 – Shelved
March 12, 2021 – Finished Reading

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