Make Room! Make Room!
Synopsis: It is 1999. NYC has 35 million people [although the back cover of my copy says it has 40 million people], about 5x times what it has in our time. Even America is suffering under the burden of overpopulation with 350 million people [An excess of 72 million over the actual value in 1999] and all the predictions of Paul Ehrlich [who wrote the introduction for my edition] have come true. This is not terribly surprising, as this book is an exploration of the consequences of those predictions coming true.
There are two main threads in this story. One follows Billy Chung, a young Chinese boy from the floating slums anchored in New York’s harbour. The other follows Andrew Rusch, a NY policeman.
Andrew lives with his friend Sol in a squalid apartment. It’s made clear the police are overworked and underpaid and the ability of the city to support the people in it is pushed to its limits.
Billy, always with his eye on the main chance, lucks into some meat during a riot. He sells this to get the money to become a telegram delivery boy and while delivering a telegram scopes out an apartment which looks like it would be easy to break into and which has stuff worth stealing. In poverty wracked NYC, this is something he can’t pass up and he returns to break in. In the course of the break in, he is surprised by the tenant, “Big” Mike O’Brien. He accidentally kills O’Brien and flees without taking anything.
Andrew is called in. Because O’Brien was connected to high- ranking politicians and organised crime, the Powers That Be want Andrew to assign a high priority to the case, on the off chance it was a hit by a rival mob. There are clues which support this interpretation, although Andrew figures out Billy is likely to be the guilty party early on.
Andrew meets and fall for Shirl, the girlfriend of O’Brien. While working on the case and before O’Brien’s estate is given over to O’Brien’s sister, they use up all the perishables, enjoying a last taste of the high life. Shirl moves in with Andrew and Sol, suffering a huge loss in quality of life as measured by luxuries and necessities.
Andrew and the police track Billy down to his home. Billy escapes and flees to Brooklyn, where he hides with a religious fanatic named Peter. The abandoned building they are in has water, which gives Billy and Peter a significant edge on survival. Eventually other homeless folks notice this and take the water source away from Peter and Billy.
As this is going on, the city continues to decay. Water gets scarcer, especially after the pipelines to upstate are dynamited. Salt invaded the freshwater well due to over pumping. The warehouses run out of food. All of this puts considerable stress on Andrew and Shirl especially after riots begin to break out.
There are various scenes to give local colour: kwashiorkor is a common disorder now in the US and the oil has mostly run out, causing hundreds of cars to be abandoned throughout NYC.
Sol gets sick. The hospitals can’t take him so he dies at home, lingering only to give the obligatory ‘What this book is all about’ speeches old geezer characters like Sol seem to give in books like this one [Sol has analogues in both Stand on Zanzibar and The Sheep Look Up]. People offended by the Catholic bashing by Sol might take heart in the fact that France [specifically targeted as being negatively influenced by Roman Catholicism] has been hovering at or below replacement levels for about a century. How ever that fact was overlooked by Sol I can’t imagine.
There is a lovely quotation in this section:
“Sol, don’t be anti-Catholic. My mother’s family…”
“I’m not being anti-nothing, and I love your mother’s family. Am I being anti-puritan because I say Cotton Mather was a witch-burning bum who helped to cook old ladies?”
[page 188 of the 1973 edition]
Fans of history will note at this point no witches ever got burned as a result of Cotton Mather, not a one. I must say I was absolutely shocked that a historical inaccuracy was found in a Harry Harrison novel.
Having outlived his purpose, Sol dies. Soon after, a particularly odious poor family moves in under NYC’s strict housing laws. Like every family with children shown in this book, the new family is awful, noisy and filthy, bringing the already low level of living in the apartment down to a new low.
Andrew tracks Billy down. After accidentally killing Billy by shooting him in the head, he returns home to find Shirl has left him. He is then given administrative punishment because while he was working on the O’Brien case, the PTB moved the goalposts on him. The book ends with the 2000 New Years celebrations.
It’d would be easy to be unfairly critical of this book. The predictions it uses turned out to be completely out to lunch, but a lot of people were writing books 30 years ago which turned out to wildly wrong, from Haldeman’s FTL drives by the 1990s to Bova’s resource depletion and near-nuclear war. In any case, Harrison is not making a prediction but examining a what-if. Paul Ehrlich was the one making predictions. Harrison is just a patsy of Ehrlich and judging by the historical errors in this and other Harrison books, Harrison does not have the basic competence to judge the truth or falseness of a given model, except to see how closely it matches his personal prejudices.
One point I will give to Harrison is that he used a man-in-the- street POV, something a lot of SF doesn’t do. Nobody in this book is going to change the world. They barely control their own lives and often that control is limited to choosing between unpleasant options. Good for Harrison. More SF should be about non-heroic people, IMO, although I might get very tired of ‘trapped in a world they never made, ground into dust by the mechanisms of history’ story lines. Luckily, that’s not the only option for a story about average people.
On the downside, Harrison certainly dips deeply into the well of ethnic stereotypes for Billy Chung’s family. God forbid he should show prosperous Chinese. Lucky, the Chinese don’t need to feel singled out: Harrison has harsh words about the French, religious people, the Roman Catholic Church in particular and anyone with children. About the only nationality which seems to be doing well in Harrison’s 1999 are the Danes, who live well, despite the rest of the world being crammed to over crowding. They live so well they must machine gun hordes of people trying to share the Danish paradise. One might wonder how Denmark manages to disconnect from the general collapse of civilization. I suspect the Danes just had the author on their side, as I seem to recall Harrison wrote another book, In Our Hands, The Stars , soon after MR,MR, and it commented favourably on the Danes.
There’s a surprising lack of innovation in this 1999. In fact, aside from a new kind of barbed wire, I saw nothing not available in 1966. I expect this is a necessary part of the background: innovative people would have found ways to deal with the problems of this 1999, undermining the book’s premise. Part of the Ehrlich population bomb model is a lip-smacking pleasure at how awful the stupid breeders will have it in the future, with particular delight being found in the unavoidable doom of the non-white peoples of the world, especially the Indians and Chinese.
Oddly, I don’t recall Africa being mentioned as slated for a completely horrid second half of the 20th century and they have certainly gotten the worst of the deal so far.
The introduction by Ehrlich mentions with great horror the growth of world urban population, which leads me to believe he’s never stood with a shovel at the wrong end of a cow or being just a bit too close to the axle of a barn’s conveyer belt.
Make Room, Make Room is a very dated bit of SF from a more ignorant and racist era which despite its flaws does have some authentic virtues. Worth reading if you have an hour to kill. The population models behind it turned out to be deeply flawed but considering where the flaws are adds a spice to this book for me.