by Paul Tomlinson

Make Room! Make Room! is a serious science fiction novel with a serious theme; it is also a detective thriller about a hunt for a killer, and the story works incredibly well on both levels. Written in Harry Harrison's usual no-nonsense style, the novel grabs you with a remarkably understated opening, and carries you through to its bleak closing chapter which 'celebrates' the start of the 21st century with the news that the population of the United States has just hit 344 million people.

The hero of the novel is a New York detective, Andy Rusch, who shares a tiny apartment with an old man of 70-plus years called Solomon Kahn. This pairing is an excellent storytelling device, as Kahn remembers the old days, before the world became so overcrowded and before resources like water and electricity became so scarce – the two characters' dialogue sparks off one another, enabling the reader to gain sympathy for two people trapped in what is a truly unpleasant future.

The third major character in the novel is a Chinese teenager, Billy Chung, who lives in a Manhattan ghetto, and who must steal to survive.

The basic plot of the story concerns Billy breaking into an home in a luxury apartment building: he believed the owner – O'Brien – to be out, but O'Brien was in the bathroom, and emerges to catch Billy red-handed. Billy panics and clubs O'Brien with a jemmy, killing him, and makes his escape.

Andy Rusch is brought in to track down O'Brien's killer. Murders are usually afforded little police time in New York City, but O'Brien was a racketeer with friends in high places. Rusch has to stay on the case, as his superiors suspect that another racketeer might be trying to muscle in on O'Brien's territory.

Rusch becomes romantically involved with O'Brien's mistress, Shirl, and she moves into Rusch's apartment when a new owner takes over O'Brien's apartment. Rusch, Shirl and Soloman Kahn live reasonably happily together in the small apartment, until Kahn contracts pneumonia as a result of an injury sustained during a protest rally. When Kahn dies, his half of the apartment is taken over by a large and obnoxious family, who had been hanging around the morgue, waiting for a dead person's living space to be freed up. Shirl cannot stand living with the new tenants, and leaves.

Rusch successfully tracks down Billy Chung as the killer of O'Brien, but the police are no longer interested, as the rival racketeer theory proved incorrect. Rusch is eventually busted for disobeying orders, and as the book ends he is a uniform policeman out on the streets as the 20th century draws to a close.

That's the actual story in a nutshell, but it isn't really what the novel is about. The murder investigation is what Alfred Hitchcock called the maguffin, something which sets the action in motion and gets the characters in trouble so that we can observe their reactions. In Harrison's story, what the characters actually do isn't of any major consequence: what goes on around them, in the background, is what is significant. Behind the action, Harrison paints a vivid picture of what the world is like when it has to support such a massive population. And his story allows the reader to experience what living in this world is like for ordinary people.

Harry Harrison worked very hard to provide readers of 1969 with reference points so that they could see that this book was about their world, about people like them. There is a familiar 'father-son' relationship between Rusch and Kahn; there is a simple romance between Rusch and Shirl which disintegrates as a result of external pressures; there is New York City, which is probably the most familiar city to people across the world; there is a detective story, a type of story known to anyone with a tv set; and the story was set only thirty years in the future, a future which most of the readers would live to see. Make Room! Make Room! makes every effort to try and show people that overpopulation is a problem which will directly affect them, that their own lives will be adversely affected if they do not take steps to do something about it now.

Make Room! Make Room! opens in August 1999 – about the time this website came into being – and ends on New Year's eve the same year, coincidentally about the time that these words will be posted on the site. So does that mean that Harry Harrison's vision of an overcrowded dystopian future has failed to materialise as predicted? The birth rate in many wealthy Western nations has levelled off to the point where we are approaching 'zero population growth,' that is, the number of people is remaining stable as births and deaths occur at similar rates. But in many poorer nations, the population continues to grow at an alarming rate. And the richer Western nations are still continuing to consume a disproportionate amount of the planet's resources. So the causes of Harrison's dystopia have not actually been tackled. Nowhere in the world are there effective birth control policies, or effective environmental policies. People continue to believe that even if there is a problem, it will not become an issue in their lifetime.

So the problem which Harrison's novel highlights is as valid today as it was thirty years ago, probably more so. And the novel was never really about 1999, it was only about the near future; and it was never really about New York City, but it was about our world, our Western cities generally. Make Room! Make Room! is about overpopulation, overconsumption, and the very real need for people to take a responsible attitude over birth control. It is also a warning which few people seem to have heeded.

Make Room! Make Room! has been widely praised both inside and beyond the sf genre: John Brunner listed it as one of 'Ten Novels Every Politician Should Read' (see The Illustrated Book of Science Fiction Lists, edited by Mike Ashley). David Pringle included the novel in his book SF: The 100 Best Novels. While Paul Ehrlich wrote an introduction which appeared in some American editions of the novel.

Make Room! Make Room! was used as the basis for the movie Soylent Green, which you can read about here.



© Paul Tomlinson, December 1999