Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison is a classic look at overpopulation in crowded cities, so of course it makes sense that I would look to it for some inspiration in regards to my own story of an overcrowded world, The Only City Left. Make Room!x2 was written in 1966 and takes place in 1999, where no one is partying because there’s barely enough food, water, and space to survive, much less dance with Prince.
As in The Caves of Steel, New York is used here as the ideal City (in the Platonic sense, not the “I’d want to live there” sense). Life in this New York is miserable and crowded, with none of the amenities of far-future technology: “There was nothing to do, no place to go, the city pressed in around him and every square foot of it was like this, filled with people, children, noise, heat.”
Also similar to The Caves of Steel, Make Room!x2 (sort of) revolves around a murder.
Detective Andy Rusch is barely scraping by, sharing a small apartment with his elderly roommate, Sol, who has lived long enough to know just what he’s missing. Andy, like the rest of the cops, is overworked, and underpaid. Most crimes go unsolved because the police don’t have the time to follow up on them, but when Big Mike O’Brien is killed, political pressure is applied to make sure this case is solved.
Possible spoilers from here on out. You have been warned.
While Make Room! Make Room! is an interesting, if very depressing, look at the perils of overpopulation, it’s a bit disjointed as far as the story goes. It’s a murder mystery but not really, as the focus is only intermittently on Andy solving the crime. Instead the story jumps around from Andy to street rat Billy Chung to O’Brien’s ex-moll Shirl Greene, and to Sol, Andy’s roommate, never sticking to one point of view to any satisfying conclusion.
The characters are there to provide a look at life in New York City, and that life is horrible unless you’re into organized crime or politics (between which there is a very thin line if there is one at all). Each character has bleak, wandering story in which they are barely in control of their own existence, impotent in their endeavors, enjoying only meager and temporary successes.
No matter how well Andy does his job, he only gets crap from his boss, more assignments, and in trouble with Shirl. Shirl, for her part, is more than willing to live in poverty with Andy, but he is so caught up in his job that he ignores her to the point she must abandon him. Billy Chung resorts to crime to improve his life, ends up murdering Big Mike and fleeing without any valuables, and wanders around for the rest of the story until he dies resisting arrest. And Sol is fine until he gets fed up enough to march in protest and ends up breaking his hip and passing away for lack of proper medical care.
While this all adds to the feeling of dread and uselessness that underpins the story, which I’m sure is the point, the story is tough to read. It ends with Andy bumped back down to beat cop, completely unfairly, and the population only growing, growing, growing.
Towards the end of the book, Andy’s roommate Sol gives a long speech about overpopulation, religion, and the lack of political will to fix the world’s problems. It’s a bit heavy-handed, but the damnable thing is that it is as true today as it was when Harrison wrote the book. We might have passed by 1999 without a problem, but there’s no indication that we’re not simply kicking the world of Make Room! Make Room! down the road a bit. 2050? 2099? Who knows.
It’s a classic book, and it definitely informs the history of my far-future Earth in The Only City Left, but having read it twice now, I think it’s one I will retire from my re-read list. I can watch the news to be this depressed, but for my fiction I’d prefer a little more adventure to go with my social commentary.
Note: Although the movie Soylent Green is based on Make Room! Make Room!, there is no plot in the book about people being turned into food. Soylent steaks are mentioned but they’re only fake steaks made of soybeans and lentils.