One 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
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