One time we had the whole world in our hands, but we ate it and we burned it and it’s gone now.
Written in 1966, Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison is a novel that merges science fiction and the dystopian with detective story and a little bit of a love story thrown in for good measure. The book projects a vision of New York in 1999, over 30 years in the future and on the cusp of a new millennium. The New York of Harrison’s vision is a hot and dirty city which is, as the title implies, heaving with people (an envisioned 35 million versus the approx 8.5 million it is now); where society’s basic and driving resources, and the world’s raw materials, are running at an all time low, leaving people jostling, and pitted against each other, for survival. Unlike many of the classic dystopian novels, where a new, distinctive ruling order with ominous leaders and social structures has emerged, Make Room! Make Room! seems to focus more on some of the key problems of the author’s time – including a growing gear of overpopulation, pollution, oil consumption and corruption – and imagines a future world where these problems worsened relentlessly and exponentially to leave a society of violence and poverty simmering with tension and on the verge of imploding. It’s a society we do recognise as our own, just worsened to an extreme, and that’s what’s possibly so frightening about it.
The story follows Andy, a city cop, who comes under increasing pressure to solve a murder of political interest; complicating the matter further is his falling for the murder victim’s girlfriend Shirl. Sol, Andy’s flatmate, is a great old character, no-nonsense and full of ideas on the most pressing issues of the day, with a particular interest in the issue of population control. We also follow a young boy Billy, whose story largely focuses on the desperate need to jostle and be resourceful in a world running out of resources. Through all these story lines, Harrison presents a view of this future world from diverse angles; the pressure on the good, honest workers trying to survive in a corrupt world; the pressure on the impoverished trying to survive another day; the pressure on the elderly who are no longer useful and become low priority to help; while drawing readers back in with a love story, peppered with tender moments but also under pressure, and a general meditation on how people act, and react, in times of crisis. Harrison’s writing perfectly captures the charged, tense and stifling atmosphere of the city, and the pressure on his characters as they grow closer to breaking point.
This edition from 2008 ends with an afterword by the author, where he reflects on his predictions of the time, what became true and where he was off the mark. Pointedly, he notes how science fiction is not authors trying to factually predict the future; it’s more so authors presenting and exploring a possible vision of the future made up of their ‘hunches, guesses, hopes’. He signs off with a positive affirmation and the belief that change is possible; and, in a way, this is the power of dystopian novels; the reminder of how bad things could get and the incentive to make changes now, no matter how late in the day it may be.
Make Room! Make Room! was first published in the US in 1966 by Doubleday and in the UK in 1967 by Penguin. My edition is from 2008 published by Penguin Classics with the new afterword.
Harry Harrison (1925 – 2012) was born in Connecticut and lived in New York City until 1943, before being drafted into the United States military. After WW2, he settled in the United Kingdom. His contribution to science fiction writing is almost unparalleled: Deathworld, the Stainless Steel Rat series, Bill, the Galactic Hero, Stars and Stripes Forever, and West of Eden are all classics of the genre. He received the Nebula Award, the Golden Scroll of the Academy of SF Film, Prix Jules Verne (Sweden) and the Premio Italia. He was also a member of the SF Hall of Fame.