Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison

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Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison

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Category: Science Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A reprint of the 1960s sci-fi book, which shows just how brilliant and prescient the creation of its dystopia was, but also how disappointing the second half of the story the book sets in it.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 240 Date: February 2009
Publisher: Penguin Classics
ISBN: 978-0141190235

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A young man practically living on the streets finds a change of fortune with a job as a messenger boy, but will it lead to quite the right kind of luck? A political Mister Big Nasty gets killed, leaving behind a lovely and glamorous moll-type character, Shirl. Andy, the policeman from the incredibly under-resourced police force, while surprised at the amount he is ordered to concentrate on this murder for, falls in love with Shirl. But the biggest character in this book remains the setting.

Written in 1966, the 1999 of this fictional world is very nicely realised. It is a world of massive over-population; the western world has used up all its resources, the farmlands are a dustbowl, everything else green has been built upon, and among the sprawling rickshaw-riddled slums packed to capacity in the megalopolis of New York, poverty, rationing, water shortages, and street crime are all rife.

The world's fuel supply has been used up, and the best the average man can rely on for food is some tasteless fabrication based on seaweed. (Things are never as bad as in the film loosely based on this book, Soylent Green.) It all smacks of a dystopic vision, but on the whole is classically correct sci-fi. The big 'what if?' has been perfectly realised, with what we now see as only one thin remove from the truth.

But does this now-old book deserve a 2009 re-release? Does it deserve to be called a Penguin Classic – and one disguised as a general fiction book, and not at all looking like sci-fi? And does it deserve a RRP which I at first thought was a typo?

Well the book certainly has a lot of merit. There is a literary La Ronde-style opening as we meet the relevant characters, and they fit brilliantly into the enveloping milieu of the struggling city. Setting causes character causes action, for the first half at least. Taken in isolation, it is a lot better than the second half, where things begin to drop by the wayside quite heavily – a minor character becomes a mouthpiece for Malthuserian population theories, the thriller side of things gets stymied by too much other detail, and we often get a poorer balance of what is going on in the world – the water outages are too far upstate, the millenarian hobo not defined sharply enough.

I certainly found a lot to enjoy in the first fifty per cent. The thriller side of things is very tasty – we know exactly what went on and why, and it is only pressure on Andy from above that makes this crime so special, in a force normally worried about mass food riots and having enough paper for their notebooks. Witnessing this all pan out is very nice, and is on a high par alongside the whole creation of this impoverished world.

It is a shame the book dwindles away into the sarcastic, dropping plot strands I enjoyed, cutting between character stories in quite a clumsy way, and not treating the devised setting as brilliantly as the opening chapters.

This then is an expertly realised milieu, and one that does create a world that would engage the non sci-fi fan, but beyond the unusual mystery side, the sterling work at involving us in the world of this over-run slum is undercut by the less than brilliant narratives of later pages.

On the whole it is a little surprising to see this won a Nebula Award upon initial publication. My old copy has a list of recommended reading (now-impossible-to-find titles such as The Challenge of Abundance), which has now been replaced by a brand new one-page afterword by Harrison. It is always nice to see a classic sci-fi book in continued print, but I wouldn't consider this a volume on a par with, say, 1984, which does transcend any genre stylings to become a classic for all.

This is certainly worth a look for the nightmare world within, as it remains on a par with the best devised, but even genre fans will feel a little let down by the plots it carries.

We at the Bookbag are very grateful for Penguin for sending us a review copy.

If this book appeals then you might also enjoy The Pesthouse by Jim Crace.

Buy Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison at Amazon.co.uk


Buy Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison at Amazon.com.

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