Make Room! Make Room!
|Genre||Dystopian science fiction|
|Media type||Print (hardback & 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 a 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 in 1999 (35 years after 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" (soy 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 to steal. Mike catches him in the act so 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 soon 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. A piece of evidence left behind by Billy is misinterpreted to indicate that an out-of-town crime syndicate is planning to expand into New York City, threatening the hegemony of the local mafia. Police brass, in cahoots with New York City crime lords, order Andy to do everything in his power to solve Mike's murder, in addition to his continuing regular duties. Andy believes his mission is doomed to failure but cannot refuse. The pressure makes him irritable. Andy's irritability and Shirl's inability to cope with poverty cause a rift between the two. Shirl eventually sleeps with a wealthy man she meets at a party.
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 and catches pneumonia, then dies. A few days after Sol's funeral, a family takes over Sol's living quarters as their own, making Shirl and Andy's life more miserable than before.
Andy stumbles upon Billy Chung, cornering him in his family's home. In an act of desperation, Billy moves to attack Andy with a knife. Having aimed for Billy's leg, Andy accidentally shoots Billy in the head and kills him. The police chief is worried that the killing will be seen as race-motivated and spark more violence. The higher-ups pretend to have no memory of having ordered Andy to apprehend Mike's killer at any cost. Andy is essentially disavowed and ultimately demoted. He 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!"
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, p. 575, ISBN 978-0-313-32952-4
- "Harry Harrison: When the World Was Young", Locus Magazine, March 2006