Saturday, July 30, 2022

Harry Harrison - Make Room! Make Room!

Harry Harrison's 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room! is perhaps best known for the Hollywood film Soylent Green that was loosely based on it. The book itself is a political tract dressed up as a science fiction novel, but it is a decent novel - even if the underlying politics are wrong, and the there's a constant tension throughout between Harrison's liberal politics and the right-wing Malthusian agenda underlying the book.

Make Room! Make Room! is a pastiche of a noir detective novel set in New York in 1999. In this future the world is massively overcrowded. New York itself is home to 35 million people and its essential infrastructure cracks under the strain. We hear horrific reports of what is happening elsewhere in the world - Russia and China are in perpetual war in order to keep down numbers for instance. In New York, impoverished people queue for hours for water and soylent steaks [Soy Lentil], unless the water fails because farmers have blown up the pipes. The city is never far from a riot, and life has little value if murder can bring a welfare card or access to other resources.

The book begins with corruption - a wealthy gangster is killed by an impoverished youth. The city fathers think its another mafioso trying to muscle in on their own territory so they pressure the police to find the killer. Andy Rusch is the policeman first on the scene he quickly falls for Shirl, the dead gangsters lover. Together they get a brief glimpse of a better life as they enjoy the remaining fruits of the gangster's wealth, before they move back to Andy's tiny apartment which he shares with the elderly veteran Sol. 

In the narrative Sol plays the role of political commentator - the sort that Robert Heinlein loved to place in his own works. Sol, with the benefit of age, extols on how life was, until people wouldn't stop having children. Medicine, he argues, lead to death control which meant that the world population grew and grew, until the overcrowded planet collapsed. No-one, he tells Shirl, can have any other explanation, neatly ignoring all those economists, political theorists and activists who have argued that there is another explanation. Sol (presumably Harrison's alter-ego) joins a demonstration defending a government bill designed to limit population, at a protest between opposing camps he is injured and dies. In the aftermath of this Shirl leaves Andy, unable to cope with the arrival of a new family taking up the room, and Andy finds the killer, only to find that his seniors in the police ignore this achievement as it's no longer important.

The book does not end as the movie famously does. Though it does finish on a note of despair - Shirl at least has temporarily improved her position, but for the rest life will continue to be very grim. As the new millennium dawns the world population is growing uncontrollably. It's a dire warning, and Harrison opens the book hoping for his two (remember population replacement levels are considered to be about 1.6 children per woman) children's sake that the book proves to be a "work of fiction".

It is of course a "work of fiction" because the predictions inside did not come true. It is also fictional because it is based on incorrect economics. I have written elsewhere on why Malthusian arguments linking population and environmental disasters are incorrect. I hope readers will look at that article before filling up the comment box below with feverish typing. In short, I argue that there are (and were when Harrison was writing) two basic problems with Malthusian politics. Firstly, the driving force of hunger, unemployment and ecological collapse is the capitalist system of production - because it is based on uncontrolled accumulation for profit. The second reason is that the predictions have never matched reality. World population is now reaching a plateau and will likely level off, and then decline in the coming decades. Population growth cannot be directly linked to ecological disaster, as it is mostly happening in countries that have the least population. 

But, in another sense, Harrison's book is prophetic, because the world he depicts is happening. Food and water shortages, unemployment, low pay, poverty are a reality, and enormous numbers of people are suffering and coming into conflict with the system. The cause of that is not overpopulation, but capitalism. We only need look at the way the environmental crisis is dovetailing with economic and social fractures in society to threaten enormous horror. In this sense the book is fascinating, because what Harrison does well is to give his detective novel the backdrop of a society going through a massive social crisis. In Make Room! Make Room! the politicians have no solutions, and live isolated lives of plenty while they use the forces of the state to repress the masses. The people, on the other hand, face a choice - either a personal struggle for existence through crime, or mass revolt. Riots and protests do, as a result, make for key plot points.

The problem is that while Harrison had liberal politics, and indeed the book does demonstrate a certain amount of what we might call class politics - there's a humorous aside where Sol describes the "last Tory" in England being shot trying to stop his grouse woods being ploughed under for food - the basis for the book is utterly reactionary. This is given away by Harrison's "suggestions for reading" at the end of the book (something unusual in a work of science fiction) which includes writings by reactionary overpopulation theorists like William Vogt and Robert Malthus.

Despite the reactionary politics behind it Make Room! Make Room! is an interesting read. Its origins lie in the growing concern over environmental degradation in the 1960s, yet its starting point is a politics that utterly fails to grasp the real problem with society. Nonetheless Harrison writes a good story, and there is far more to the novel than the film it spawned would suggest. It's just a shame that Harrison didn't find any more radical works to read.

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