Make Room! Make Room! – Harry Harrison (1966)
‘It is 1999 and the planet’s population has exploded. The 35 million inhabitants of New York City run their TVs off pedal power, riot for water, loot and trample for lentil ‘steaks’ and are controlled by sinister barbed wire dropped from the sky. When a gangster is murdered during a blistering Manhattan heat wave, city cop Andy Rusch is under pressure to solve the crime, but also captivated by the victim’s beautiful girlfriend. It is going to be difficult to catch a killer, let alone get the girl, in the crazy streets crammed full of people, and a world going into meltdown.
Written in 1966 and made into the science-fiction film Soylent Green, Make Room! Make Room! Is a witty and unnerving story about stretching the earth’s resources, and the human spirit, to breaking point.’
Blurb from the 2008 Penguin Modern Classics paperback edition
Harry Harrison, in an afterword to the 2008 Penguin Modern Classics edition, very humbly accepts that his vision of 1999 wasn’t quite as he has imagined it here, but it’s not far off.
The narrative broadly follows the life of new York Cop Andy Rusch who has to police a city on the brink of water and food shortages in a world which is grossly overpopulated.
The novel begins with a riot over a local delivery of ‘soylent’ (i.e. soya and lentil) steaks which was irresponsibly reported on TV. The shop is subsequently mobbed and looted, during which young Billy Chung escapes Andy’s clutches with a whole box of steaks.
Billy sells some of the food to get the deposit on a telegram delivery job and so is sent to deliver a telegram to O’Brien, a local gangster in a private block of apartments.
Billy subsequently breaks into the building, thinking the apartment would be empty but bumps into the gangster and kills him in panic.
Due to a misconception by the PTB on the relevance of an identifying mark Billy leaves on the window through which he can gain access, it is thought that organised gangs from outside new York are attempting to take over.
Thus Andy is told to keep on hunting for Billy Chung.
In the meantime he hooks up with the gangster’s girlfriend. Their lives, and Billy’s, serve to demonstrate the state the city is in.
Somehow Harrison manages to pull off his audacious artistic licence by finding connections between characters who, in such an overpopulated city, would never have connected in such a fashion. Andy originally nearly catches Billy stealing soylent steaks which sets off a chain of events leading to O’Brien’s murder. Andy investigates, meets Shirl and they move in together.
Later, Shirl bumps into O’Brien’s sister (who had her ousted from O’Brien’s apartment) on the street in Andy’s section of New York. Andy also randomly encounters Pete, Billy’s millennial preacher companion.
Somehow, however, it all works. There’s an odd symmetry to this novel which begins with a shooting and ends with no happy endings. Oddly, this isn’t a bleak novel, despite the all-too-real warnings of overpopulation. People do find small oases of happiness. Andy’s room-mate, Sol, a retired soldier, grows herbs and onions on his windowsill and keeps fit on a training cycle which also recharges a battery for his TV.
Although Sol dies and Shirl leaves him when he is obliged to take in a family from Hell, Andy is philosophical, and sees Shirl some time later from a distance getting into a cab with some friends. With food and water shortages, disease is beginning to spread as the Millennium approaches, Andy is offered a chance to leave the city and go with a colleague to work in a prison but he chooses to remain, doing his job and his duty.