Revisiting doomsday

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Times Staff Writer

Pity the dystopian. No matter how far-reaching his or her imagination, reality always trumps it in the end.

Take “Make Room! Make Room!,” Harry Harrison’s novel of New York collapsing beneath the strain of overpopulation, 35 million citizens competing for housing, water, food. Originally published in 1966, it takes place at what must have then appeared a safe distance -- the final months of 1999.

The New York of the book is broken, crumbling, with squatters camped in buildings as upstate farmers dynamite aqueducts to disrupt water supplies. There is no meat, except on the black market, just soylent steaks, made from soy and lentils, so scarce there are riots whenever they are for sale.


In its day, Harrison’s book was on the vanguard of a kind of doomsday futurism, in which cities were portrayed as prisons, trapping us in their degraded infrastructures.

A similar vision infuses Thomas M. Disch’s 1974 novel “334,” which unfolds in a bleak 21st century Manhattan, as well as countless films, including John Carpenter’s “Escape From New York” and, of course, the 1973 sci-fi classic “Soylent Green,” which is based on “Make Room! Make Room!”

A cautionary tale

“Make Room! Make Room!” is far less grim than “Soylent Green,” more a tale of entropy than malevolence. There are no suicide parlors, no vaguely fascistic government, and the film’s most famous line -- “Soylent Green is people!” -- is a screenwriter’s invention, since in the novel, soylent is what it’s said to be.

Rather, Harrison’s novel, which has just been reissued after more than a quarter century out of print, is an allegory, a cautionary tale of what might happen if American consumption goes unchecked.

“In 1950,” the author notes in a brief prologue, “the United States -- with just 9.5 per cent of the world’s population -- was consuming 50 per cent of the world’s raw materials. This percentage keeps getting bigger. . . . 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 of the raw materials too. . . . In which case, what will the world be like?”

That prologue sets the tone of the book, which tells the story of a cop named Andy Rusch (the role played by Charlton Heston in the movie). It begins in the dog days of summer, as the city suffers a heat wave and drought, and civil unrest threatens to upset whatever tenuous order remains.


But Harrison does not mean that chaos is what awaits us -- he’s got something subtler in mind. For him, the future is not so much a catastrophe as a degradation, with resources drying up so slowly that our expectations diminish incrementally.

In such a world, overcrowding is normal, not something to lament but to muddle through. People take glimmers of grace where they find them, like Andy’s friend, 75-year-old Sol Kahn, who grows cocktail onions in a window box and has rigged a wheelless bicycle to a generator so he can have electricity when the grid goes down.

Sol and Andy are survivors, and the best parts of the book detail their endurance, their determination to retain some sense of humanity.

“[I]f you think you got problems,” Sol says, “you should see the other guy. All of England is just one big city and I saw on TV where the last Tory got shot defending the last grouse woods when they came to plow it up. Or you want to go to Russia maybe? China? They been having a border war for fifteen years now, which is one way of keeping the population down.” “Make Room! Make Room!” is in many ways a crime novel: The main thread involves Andy’s investigation of the murder of a politically connected racketeer, although in the end this plot line peters out, much like everything else in the book’s deteriorating world: In a city so overrun, even the powerful are just statistics, their influence meaningless in the face of the human mass.

It’s a brilliant notion, and if it sidetracks some of the narrative momentum -- the murder is resolved almost as an afterthought, since overconsumption is the real villain here -- it allows Harrison to turn “Make Room! Make Room!” into a popular novel of ideas.

One of his main agendas is to lobby for environmentalism and birth control as forces of social regeneration. “So mankind gobbled in a century all the world’s resources that had taken millions of years to store up,” Sol rages, “and . . . now the oil is gone, the topsoil depleted and washed away, the trees chopped down, the animals extinct, the earth poisoned, and all we have to show for this is seven billion people fighting over the scraps that are left, living a miserable existence -- and still breeding without control.”


If this sounds like a particularly dire extrapolation of our own potential future, in “Make Room! Make Room!,” we have crossed that Rubicon already and, in the words of the late great Townes Van Zandt, are “just waitin’ around to die.”

Absence of technology

Here, unfortunately, is where “Make Room! Make Room!” starts to show its age, to reveal the cracks in its world. Harrison’s New York is marked (like the real one) by deep divisions of class and economics: The rich live in guarded apartment complexes and travel the streets with bodyguards, while everyone else is on their own.

And yet, the culture he portrays is far too beaten, far too apathetic in the face of everything that’s come. Even the authorities are tapped out, unable to do much besides maintain the status quo. And the mechanics of the future -- computers, telecommunications -- are nearly nonexistent.

That’s an interesting choice, since at the time the book was written, authors such as Philip K. Dick were framing technological dystopias in which computers and other simulacra took us from ourselves. There are problems with this type of vision, the way it minimizes the resilience of humanity. But if “Make Room! Make Room!” does not make that error, it does remind us that even the most prescient look into the future is only fantasy, and cannot help but evaporate with time.



David L. Ulin is book editor of The Times.