A Study of the Hollow Earth

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Archive for the month “July, 2013”

“Make Room! Make Room!” and a The Politics of Contraception

Make Room_book coverOne of the great social anxieties of the 1960s was the population explosion rampant in the post-WWII years and its environmental impact, a social tremor that still exists. The cultural meme of “Soylent Green is people!” is treated as a joke today, but had far more relevant implications in decades past. This phrase from the 1973 Richard Fleischer film Soylent Green, does not actually appear in its original source material, Harry Harrison’s 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room! Relying on shocking cannibalism, Fleischer ignores Harrison’s interest in the political movement for contraception to be made legal and widely available.

The fears of overpopulation had been extent since the publication of Robert Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) and its incredibly depressing, pre-Darwinian assessment on the nature and condition of population growth based on three principles:

That the increase of population is necessarily limited by the means of subsistence,

That population does invariably increase when the means of subsistence increase, and,

That the superior power of population is repressed, and the actual population kept equal to the means of subsistence, by misery and vice.

Harrison certainly takes ‘misery and vice’ into consideration in his novel. By the mid-twentieth century the issue had attracted the likes of John D. Rockefeller III, who established the Population Council in 1952 (Stableford, 398-9). (An interesting point of consideration is that someone as wealthy as Rockefeller was probably more interested in preventing the growth of a restless, impoverished underclass prone to rebellion rather than the prevention of mass misery.) In an interview with Locus Magazine in 2006 Harrison revealed his inspiration for the novel:

It was really the first book, fiction or non-fiction, about overpopulation. 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! But I started reading a bit about overpopulation, and got the idea for the book. It stayed in my head as I watched the population trend going the wrong way. The thing took about eight years to write because I had to do a lot of research which was worth it. (Harrison, 2006)

Harrison realised that the issue of overpopulation would not be limited to India, and that there was a global groundswell of changing attitudes towards population and birth control. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction lists the three major themes explored in novels of overpopulation published since the 1960s: “the exhaustion of resources; the destruction of the environment by pollution; and the social problems of living in crowded conditions” (Clute, 901). Harrison, from his research, is able to divine all of these aspects, but focuses more firmly on depleted resources and the soul-destroying conditions of living cheek to jowl. Despite the “heroic adventure” often found in “post-apocalyptic narrative” (Booker, 61), there are no heroes in Make Room! Make Room!, no redemptive outcomes, no change to the status quo. Brian Aldiss called this a “masterly stroke” as it “defies a long-established SF convention that Everything Falls Apart in the Final Chapter.” (Aldiss, 299) Had the world been saved, it would have lessened the message Harrison was alluding to: change must happen in the present, so that this is not the future. As part of this narrative theme, the novel is not so much a post-apocalyptic tale as it is a slow-apocalypse in motion. The post-apocalypse is yet to come, but there is no doubt in the mind of Harrison’s characters that is it coming.

From the outset, in Harrison’s dedication, the severity of the issue is apparent: “To Todd and Moira. For your sakes, children, I hope this proves to be a work of fiction.” (Harrison, v) His novel is not meant only to entertain, but to inform, to sway opinion, and possibly to change the world. The point of his prognostications is not to be proven right, but to force the world to prove him wrong.  Harrison also provides a prologue for readers that outlines his reasons for this parable:

In December 1959 The President of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower, said: ‘This government…will not… as long as I am here, have a positive political doctrine in its program that has to do with this problem of birth control. That is not our business.’ It has not been the business of any American government since that time.

In 1950 the United States – with just 9 per cent of the world’s populations – was consuming 50 per cent of the world’s raw materials. This percentage keeps getting bigger and within fifteen years, at the present rate of growth, the United States will be consuming over 83 per cent of the annual output of the earth’s materials. By the end of the century, should our population continue to increase at the same rate, this country will need more than 100 per cent of the planet’s resources to maintain our current living standards. This is a mathematical impossibility – aside from the fact that there will be about seven billion people on this earth at that time and – perhaps – they would like to have some raw materials too.

In which case, what will the world be like? (Harrison, vi)

Harrison has given readers a genuine social problem, its political origins, and the statistics regarding the overall problem faced by a future world with seven billion people. We are meant to acknowledge that while this is nominally a work of fiction there are very real consequences should the present course of society – as defined by quantifiable figures – remain unchanged. What is missing from this 2008 Penguin Classic edition of the novel is the original introduction from Paul Ehrlich (founder of Zero Population Growth, a movement designed to maintain, or even reduce, the world’s current population) and a bibliography on overpopulation (Barron, 211). These paratextual materials would have acted as additional elements for contemporary readers to weigh the seriousness and veracity of Harrison’s thesis by following up his sources and proving it so themselves.

The message of the novel – that without changes to human reproductive practices the future will find itself with millions crammed into slums on top of each other, fighting for food and resources – is couched in a murder mystery. Police detective Andy Rusch is our literary Virgil to the New York City of 1999, with 35 million people barely kept in food and water under an oppressive government and even more oppressive class system, all teetering on the brink of collapse. With this narrative style, it is not immediately obvious that the entire novel’s purpose is to convey the need for birth control until Andy’s roommate Sol takes the pulpit:

‘They’ve been over this ground a thousand times before. But does anyone mention out loud the sole and only reason for the Emergency Bill? They do not. After all these years they’re too chicken to come right out and tell the truth, so they got it hidden away in one of the little riders tacked onto the bottom.’

‘What are you talking about?’ Andy asked, only half listening.

‘Birth control, that’s what. They are finally getting around to legalizing clinics that will be open to anyone – married or not – and making it a law that all mothers must be supplied with birth-control information…’ (Harrison, 172-3)

The novel is mostly over before we finally get to the core of the issue; Harrison has let the reader absorb the horrors of this grossly over-populated New York City before laying before them his singular case for free information about birth control for women. In a conversation with Shirl, Andy’s girlfriend, Harrison uses Sol to expose the foil to this idea, and why opponents to birth control are wrong:

‘You heard about the Emergency Bill? It’s been schmeared all over the TV for the last week.’

‘Is that the one they call the Baby-killer Bill?’

‘They?’ Sol shouted…’Who are they? A bunch of bums, that’s what. People with their minds in the Middle Ages…’

‘But, Sol – you can’t force people to practice something they don’t believe in. A lot of them still think that it has something to do with killing babies.’

‘So they are wrong…You know well enough that birth control has nothing to do with killing babies. In fact it saves them. Which is the bigger crime – letting kids die of disease and starvation or seeing that the unwanted ones don’t get born in the first place?’

‘Putting it that way sounds different. But aren’t you forgetting about natural law? Isn’t birth control a violation of that?’

‘Darling, the history of medicine is the history of the violation of natural law… Everything was against natural law once, and now birth control has got to join the rest. Because all of our troubles today come from the fact that there are too many people in the world.’ (Harrison, 177-8)

It has taken over 170 pages to get to the root of the message that Harrison wants us, as readers, to understand: human thinking about controlling reproduction must change, because if it doesn’t, a world of starvation, disease and deprivation awaits us.

In 2008, Harrison wrote an afterwards to accompany the issuing of the Penguin Modern Classics edition of Make Room! Make Room! in which he analysed the predictions he made, and the resultant society:

How has this novel stood the test of time?

It has been over half a century since I first began working on this book, digging out information on overpopulation, pollution and oil consumption. These were the facts that underlay my story of the future…

But how right were my predictions?

Pretty bad in most of the general details. I have never believed that science fiction predicts the future. It does not. There are predictions made in the literature; but they are hunches, guess, hopes. Authors shotgun the future with ideas. And, like shotgun pellets hitting a stretch of wall, some will hit the target…

Unhappily for mankind the population details, food shortages and oil consumption I wrote about have proven to be too horribly correct…

I am not happy about being correct; I wish it had been the other way around. I wish we had controlled population growth and developed green energy sources.

Perhaps we still can. Dare I be optimistic? I shall try.

While you, dear reader, will hopefully read this book and agree with me. (Harrison, 232-233)

Harrison, in this final statement, is confirming what the original intent of the novel was in 1966: to try and change the course of society, to force readers to recognise the need for population controls. What is more, he views his contemporary world to still be on a path to collapse and despite being wrong in some of the novel’s details, the outcome was mostly on target and there is still reason to be concerned.

In their history on science fiction, Mark Bould and Sherryl Vint frame Make Room! Make Room! in terms of human despair: “A tale of the impossibility of human community and love in overcrowded and impoverished circumstances” (Bould, 142). These themes certainly emerge, but they do not do the novel justice in ignoring Harrison’s message about the necessity for widespread, effective birth control. This message was also displaced in the making of Soylent Green (1973), as ‘much of its substance was lost in translation’ in John Clute’s judgement (Clute, 546). Harrison himself was said to be gravely disappointed with the film; the kindest thing he said of it was that Soylent Green “at times bore a faint resemblance to the book.” (BBC, 2012).

In the years after Harrison’s seminal novel, several more authors followed suit on the topic of overpopulation, including A Torrent of Faces (1967), Logan’s Run (1967), and Stand on Zanzibar (1968). Paul Ehrlich also continued what he started with his introduction for Harrison in the publication of his ground-breaking work The Population Bomb (1968). Stableford points out that the ‘anxieties regarding population peaked in the early 1970s, but did not die away’, they were merely co-opted into other environmental catastrophe literature (Stableford, 399). The relaxation of restrictions on birth control, however, certainly emerged from this tumultuous era, but there is no answer as to whether Harrison’s work directly influenced this, or if he was riding a wave of public sentiment already setting change in motion. David Seeds reports on the rejection of Paul Ehrlich’s work as “neo-Malthusianism” by those opposed to the rising environmentalism movement (Seed, 139), indicating a disbelief in the argument that the earth is limited in its ability to provide for the human population.

Certainly not enough academic work has been done on the impact of works like Make Room! Make Room! on the socio-political changes of the 1960s and 1970s. Overpopulation and birth-control faded into the background of environmental concerns stemming from overpopulation, the subject now relegated to a secondary issue in science fiction novels. Perhaps this is because birth control, at least for a time, was no longer a social issue that required attention. Almost on schedule with Harrison’s predictions, however, the earth has crossed the seven-billion mark in its population, and it may be time to pay attention once more.

By B. Shapiro-Hafid


Aldiss, Brain and David Wingrove. Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction. London: Paladin. 1988.

Barron, Neil, ed. Anatomy of Wonder: A Critical Guide to Science Fiction, 2nd Ed. New York: R.R. Bowker Company. 1981.

Booker,  M. kieth and Anne-Marie Thomas. The Science Fiction Handbook. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell. 2009.

Bould, Mark and Sherryl Vint. The Routledge Concise History of Science Fiction. London: Routledge. 2011.

Clute, John and Peter Nichols. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. London: Orbit. 1999.

Harrison, Harry. Make Room! Make Room!. London: Penguin Books. 1966, 2008.

“Harry Harrison: When the World Was Young”. Locus: The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy. March, 2006. < http://www.locusmag.com/2006/Issues/03Harrison.html&gt;

Mann, George. The Mammoth Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. London: Robinson. 2001.

“Sci-fi Author Harry Harrison Dies”. BBC News. 15 August 2012. Accessed 4 April 2013. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-19270109&gt;

Seed, David, ed. A Companion to Science Fiction. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing. 2005.

Stableford, Brian. “Population.” Science Fact and Science Fiction: An Encyclopedia. New York: Routledge. 2006. 398-400.

After ‘Symzonia’: Critical Reception of a New Idea

The critical reaction to the publication of Symzonia was tepid: ‘It is, upon the whole, dull and uninteresting. A great deal might have been made out of the subject, for there is at least as much to satirize as in the age of Swift. The author is, however, very good natured, and if there is nothing brilliant in his observations, there is nothing to offend.’[1] The novel is treated with the same tongue-in-cheek attitude that Symmes himself was, referring to his ‘concentric’ theory as ‘the excentric theories’ that inspired the novel.[2] Duane Griffin claims that ridicule of Symmes’s theory increased because Symzonia was a satirical novel,[3] but most readers would probably interpret it as an earnest effort, not one of satire, even if there are several parallels with Gulliver’s Travels. The deficiencies of American society and politics are shown contra the perfection of Symzonia; Gulliver, unlike Seaborn, does not admit to these issues. Peter Fitting states ‘I read this novel – as have most of my colleagues in the fields of science fiction and utopia – as a satirical utopia which includes a defense of Symmes’s theory.’[4] Another contemporary reviewer of the novel actually barely references Symzonia at all, choosing instead to review Symmes’s theory and make reference to the ‘internal’ as infernals, and that moving to the inside of the earth would be financially sound, ‘for if ordinary bottom lands are notoriously fertile, what must those be, which are not only at the bottom, but on the other side.’[5]  There is also strong anti-imperial sentiment when the anonymous reviewer claims that if ‘the Internals refuse to eat, drink and smoke, as we direct, there then will doubtless be found ways to compel them’,[6] emphasising (and disparaging) the rules of colonial trade that the U.S. had within the last two generations thrown off. Hester Blum finds Symzonia to be ‘parodic…but not of the outlandishness of Symmes’s theories themselves’ and is instead ‘a critique of US and British imperialism…a jape at the genre of writing produced by imperial ventures.’[7] From the contemporary reviews, Blum may be right about how the themes of exploration and imperialism are being treated, but unlike the others, does not believe that Symmes himself is an object of derision, especially if Symmes is the one doing the writing. There is some reason to doubt some of the insincerity towards nationalistic expansion, though, because the U.S. had only recently, with the Louisiana Purchase, doubled its size. Nor could Americans have been unaware of the ever-expanding British influence across the globe.

Setting aside the satire about American society and politics, at face value Symzonia does appear to urge readers to support American exploration and expansion (as well as American ideas and American literature). The novel itself seems to stand in contrast to what some historian’s viewed as Symmes’s distinctly anti-imperial language in his known writings: ‘For Symmes, the polar entrances to the interior belong to “the world” and to the mind rather than to the factional economic and political actors that—in his age and ours—continually conquer new territory in search of wealth.’[8] While Symmes did put his theories to the rest of the world, he was looking for economic and scientific support. The petitions that went before Congress certainly emphasised the need for America to get there first, as do many later novels. Only after failing with his own people did Symmes try to join a Russian expedition to the Arctic.

It is difficult to read into the intentions of Symmes (if it was indeed Symmes, though it seems unlikely to be any other) in the publication of this story, as he never wrote any other fictional narratives, and spend the bulk of his life after this point travelling the US and proselytising his theory, in which this tale might have been a tool. Besides Symmes as the author, a case has been made for one of contemporaries, Nathaniel Ames, but few have taken up that call. There is also the interesting bit of evidence that Elmore Symmes provides in his trio of essays about his father in which he provides a copy of a hand-drawn map by Symmes, and ‘the word “Symmsesonia” is the name he desired given to a continent when one was discovered’;[9] a slightly different spelling, but the same sentiment, put on paper in 1822. The novel is the epitome of early science fiction, blending scientific fact and theory at a time when these things were in a constant state of fluctuation, for an audience that was ready to receive an exciting travel narrative not unlike those of actual accounts. Most significantly, though, Symzonia would help to lay the foundation for dozens of hollow earth stories to follow over the next hundred years.

Imaged from Elmore Symmes's article 'The Theorist, John Cleves Symmes'.

Imaged from Elmore Symmes’s article ‘The Theorist, John Cleves Symmes’.

[1] Anon., ‘Review of Symzonia: A Voyage of Discovery’ in The Literary Gazette; or, Journal of Criticism, Science and the Arts. 6 January 1821 (Vol. 1, No. 1), p.8.

[2] Anon., ‘Review of Symzonia’, The Literary Gazette, p. 6.

[3] Duane Griffin, “Hollow and Habitable Within”. P. 390.

[4] Peter Fitting. Subterranean Worlds. P. 106.

[5] Anon., ‘Art. VI – A voyage to the internal world’ – The North American Review (Vol. 13, Issue 32, 1821), pp. 135-6.

[6] Anon., ‘A voyage’, The North American Review, p. 140.

[7] Hester Blum, ‘John Cleves Symmes and the Planetary Reach of Polar Exploration’, American Literature (Vol. 84, No. 2, June 2012), p. 261.

[8] M. Allewaert and Michael Ziser, ‘Preface: Under Water’ in American Literature (Vol. 84, No. 2, June 2012) p. 236.

[9] Elmore Symmes, ‘John Cleves Symmes, The Theorist’, Southern Bivouac: A Monthly Literary and Historical Magazine (Vol. 2, 1887), p. 628.

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