Make Room! Make Room!
|Genre||Dystopian science fiction|
|Media type||Print (Hardcover & Paperback) Electronic (Kindle)|
Make Room! Make Room! is a 1966 science fiction novel written by Harry Harrison exploring the consequences of unchecked population growth on society. It was originally serialized in Impulse magazine.
Set in then-future August 1999, the novel explores trends in the proportion of world resources used by the United States and other countries compared to population growth, depicting a world where the global population is seven billion, subject to overcrowding, resource shortages, and a crumbling infrastructure. The plot jumps from character to character, recounting the lives of people in various walks of life in New York City (population around 35 million).
Make Room! Make Room! is set in an overpopulated New York City of 1999 (thirty-three years later than the time of writing). Police detective Andy Rusch lives in half a room, sharing it with Sol, a retired engineer who has adapted a bicycle generator to power an old television set and a refrigerator.
When Andy queues for their continually reducing water ration he witnesses a public speech by the "Eldsters", people 65 years and older forcibly retired from work. Pandemonium starts when a nearby food shop has a sale on "soylent" (soya and lentil) steaks. Andy finds that the shop is under attack and being looted.
One of the looters, Billy Chung, a desperately poor boy, grabs a box of soylent steaks which he sells to fund himself as a messenger-boy. His first delivery takes him into a semi-fortified apartment block, complete with the rare luxuries of air conditioning and running water for showers. He delivers his message to a rich racketeer named "Big Mike" and sees Shirl, Mike's concubine. Billy leaves the apartment but hides in the basement, and then later breaks back in for theft. Mike surprises him in the act. Billy kills him and flees.
While Andy investigates the murder, he becomes enamored of Shirl. He ensures that she is permitted to stay in the apartment until the end of the month. During this month they both live there in luxury. Afterwards Shirl moves in with Andy and Sol.
Shirl becomes disappointed with their impoverished lifestyle. Andy attempts to investigate Mike's death, but he is distracted by riots, paperwork, and the spreading of the undermanned police force to its limit; this makes him irritable. His irritability and shame for the life he has given Shirl distances him from her. He becomes obsessed with capturing Billy Chung.
To evade capture, Billy leaves the part of the city to which he is accustomed, eventually breaking into the abandoned Brooklyn Navy Yard, where he comes to live with Peter, a fatalist hermit eagerly awaiting the new millennium as the end of the world. Soon they are attacked by a small group of homeless people and forced to leave their location. Later they find a new home in a discarded car whose previous owner froze to death. Here, Peter's stoic acceptance of events frustrates Billy. He decides to return to his family, believing the police will have lost interest in him.
Meanwhile, Sol decides he can no longer remain passive in the face of humanity's growing crisis. He joins a march to protest the overturning of a legislative bill that supports family planning, and joins a group that supports population control as humanity's hope of survival. Sol is injured in a riot at the demonstration, becomes bedridden, catches pneumonia, and dies.
A few days after Sol's funeral, a family takes Sol's living quarters as their own, making Shirl and Andy's life more miserable than before.
Andy stumbles upon Billy Chung and accidentally shoots and kills the boy in the latter's attempt to escape. The police chief demotes Andy. Andy returns to his quarters and finds Shirl has left him.
The story ends with Andy on patrol in Times Square on New Year's Eve, where he glimpses Shirl among rich party-goers. As the clock strikes midnight, Andy encounters Peter, who is distraught that the world has not ended and asks how life can continue as it is. The story concludes with the Times Square screen announcing that "Census says United States had biggest year ever, end-of-the-century, 344 million citizens."
Concept and creation
Author Harry Harrison claimed, "The idea came from an Indian I met after the war, in 1946. He told me, 'Overpopulation is the big problem coming up in the world' (nobody had ever heard of it in those days) and he said, 'Want to make a lot of money, Harry? You have to import rubber contraceptives to India.' I didn't mind making money, but I didn't want to be the rubber king of India!"
Social commentary is the novel's underlying theme, with author Harrison using Sol in promoting the importance of birth control and sustainable development. Overpopulation had recently become a concern; Paul R. Ehrlich, founder of the Zero Population Growth movement, wrote the introduction to the paperback edition.
In the book, environmental destruction has rendered people apathetic, leaving them struggling to sustain themselves in any fashion they can find. Almost all mechanized transport has been replaced by human power, much of the farmland has been poisoned by pollution or absorbed in a growing dust bowl, and the government can barely cope with providing basic food and water rations to a disorderly population crowded into the decaying cities. The loss of mechanized transport is revealed by a number of stark, disturbing images including the "tugtrucks" — large bins on four old tires towed by the human muscle-power of two "truckers" — and "the lots", former parking/impound lots where the destitute live in long-dead cars, and the "now silent subway stations" where still more destitute people are assigned to live by the city welfare department.
In the speculative fiction tradition of What if?, a convincing alternative world is depicted, not as prediction, but as a vivid communication of what such a future would be like from the common citizen's point of view. Harrison's writing is unusually bleak, departing from his usually humorous approach, but maintains his usual distrust of authority.
The late 1960s and the 1970s produced descriptions of New York City, both fictional and reportage, suggesting that violent crime was rampant and that complete social breakdown, if not imminent, was on the horizon. Make Room! Make Room! was perhaps influenced by this context and can be regarded as an extreme extrapolation of the societal trends perceptible at the time of its writing.
In recent editions of the book, a 2008 afterword written by Harrison mentions his focus on a lack of sustainable energy in the dystopian future.
Several years after writing the novel, Harrison created the short story "Roommates" (1971), largely by joining excerpts from the novel. Harrison describes the impetus and creation of the short story in his introduction for it in The Best of Harry Harrison. He recounts how he was asked for an excerpt for reprinting, but that he did not think any simple excerpt stood alone. So he took various scenes from the "roommates" plot strand and combined them into the short story.
- Netzley, Patricia (1999). Environmental Literature. California: ABC-CLIO. ISBN 1-57607-000-X.
- Westfahl, Gary (2005), The Greenwood encyclopedia of science fiction and fantasy: themes, works, and wonders, Greenwood Publishing Group, p. 575, ISBN 978-0-313-32952-4
- "Harry Harrison: When the World Was Young", Locus Magazine, March 2006
- Stableford, Brian, Science Fact and Science Fiction: An Encyclopedia, CRC Press, 2006, p. 399, ISBN 978-0-415-97460-8
- Belasco, Warren James (2006), Meals to come: a history of the future of food, University of California Press, p. 50, ISBN 978-0-520-24151-0
- Make Room! Make Room! title listing at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database
- Roommates title listing at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database
- Make Room! Make Room!
- Millennial Reviews: XXXIV: Make Room! Make Room! - Harry Harrison - criticises inaccuracy of predictions