Tuesday is Soylent Green Day

In the liminal space between holidays, we prepare to say goodbye to another year of unreality. 2022 draws to a close with the world population exceeding 8 billion and our Overshoot Day falling on July 28th, the earliest ever recorded. With major weather events, political misdeeds, and acts of mad science dominating news headlines, our day-to-day lives feel like a dystopian fever dream. The Orwellian issues of censorship and surveillance already permeate modern culture and AI art generators have us all questioning what it means to be human. The subtle renderings of reality have blended into a pulpy sci-fi fantasy.

Director Richard Fleischer, with the help of screenwriter Stanley R. Greenburg, envisioned the year 2022 a little more extreme in the film Soylent Green than we may have experienced it. Yet grappling with widespread poverty, inequality, and environmental degradation…it feels awfully damn close. The novel the film was loosely based on, Make Room! Make Room! uncomfortably fits that mold too.  

So take a break from doom-scrolling your mass extinction memes and prepare for a gripping scenario of where current trends may be leading.

Make Room! Make Room!

The American illustrator turned sci-fi writer, Harry Harrison, is best known to the genre for the Stainless Steel Rat series. But it would be his 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room! that would delve into the consequences of overpopulation, exhausted resources, and corporate entities. Originally serialized in Impulse magazine, his novel inspired Dr. Paul R. Ehrlich’s bestselling nonfiction, The Population Bomb before becoming the basis for Soylent Green.

“This whole country is one big farm and one big appetite.”

Beginning in August of 1999, Make Room! Make Room! sees New York City at a population of 35 million. The United States is plagued with a collapsing water system, dust bowl, and food shortages. Over consumption of natural resources has left society in a housing crisis with many residing in run down cars. Requiring government assistance, citizens receive daily rations of food and water from guarded communal check points. Only the 1% get to enjoy simple pleasures, secured in fortified condos and penthouses. The narrative shifts among 3 people from various walks of life, struggling with the cards they’ve been dealt in the burned-out landscape.  

“The Welfare ration cards took care of everything, everything that kept you alive and just alive enough to hate it.”

When a food shop in the marketplace has a flash sale on “soylent” (soy and lentil) steaks, a small riot breaks out among consumers. In the thick of the melee, an 18-year-old named Billy Chung loots a box of the soylent steaks to help his family survive. Later landing a messenger job at Western Union, his first delivery sends him to an affluent apartment block. Secured to the teeth, the luxury condos are lush with air conditioning and running water for showers. Captivated by the opulent lifestyle and the live-in girlfriend, Billy decides to return later that night. But while breaking into the apartment of “Big Mike” O’Brien, he’s caught red handed and accidentally kills him. Police officer, Andy Rusch, is assigned to O’Brien’s murder case and quickly falls for the girlfriend, Shirl. The two begin a relationship during the investigation and with nowhere else to go, she moves in with Andy and his roommate, Sol. A water crisis begins to unfold within the city, reducing rations, prompting more protests and riots. Andy begins working doubles as crowd control at communal pumps as well as facing pressure to solve Big Mike’s murder by judges and political figures. Shirl soon becomes disappointed with how little time the overworked Andy has for her.

 Billy manages to evade authorities by taking up residence in a Navy scrapyard with a doomsday enthusiast. A former priest, Peter eagerly awaits the new millennium and the end of the world. After a few months, Billy believes it’s safe enough to visit his family but run afoul his pursuing detective. Cornered in his mother’s home, Andy accidentally kills the fugitive and the O’Brien case is closed. But by then the gangsters have lost interest in the murder and Andy’s superiors abjure his actions. Officer Rusch is then demoted about the same time that his girlfriend leaves him. Make Room! Make Room! concludes with Andy patrolling Times Square on New Year’s Eve, where he sees Shirl in passing among rich partygoers. As the clock strikes midnight, Andy encounters Peter, distraught over the aversion of Armageddon and time marching on.

“Can the world go on for another thousand years, like this? LIKE THIS?”

Soylent Green

In the early 70’s, MGM Studios purchased the film rights to the novel. Stanley R. Greenberg wrote the screenplay as a loose adaptation with Harrison as a consultant. Although the author was forbidden by contract to make changes in the script, he propagandized everyone on set during filming. Giving copies of the book to every actor and crew member.

With Richard Fleischer directing, Soylent Green was released in 1973. Starring veteran of dystopian action films, Charlton Heston, and Edward G. Robinson in his final film role. The ecological thriller imagines 2022 as a human-congested and polluted nightmare. Grainy aerial views of dense smog and burning ash from year-round heatwaves and mass extinction of flora and fauna. The severe depletion of natural resources has caused worldwide shortages of food, water, and housing. New York City’s population of 40 million keeps the poor in squalor. Hauling water from communal spigots and sustained by highly processed crackers provided by the Soylent Corporation. A food staple coming in flavors like red, yellow, and the most popular, green, which is manufactured from oceanic plankton.

Soylent Green follows Detective Thorn as he investigates the murder of William Simonson, a board member of the Soylent Corporation. During initial procedures, he loots Simonson’s apartment, bewitched by air conditioning and bars of soap. He even enjoys the services of the concubine who comes with the apartment. In one of the more memorable scenes, Thorn and his roommate Sol savor the food stuffs ransacked from the crime scene. A scraggly steak, an apple to the core, and a leaf of lettuce. This humbling meal was not originally in the script but ad-libbed by Heston and Robinson at the director’s request. An effective scene that sticks with you, of 2 friends enjoying real food. 

Detective Thorn’s investigation leads him to a priest that Simonson had visited shortly before his murder. The visibly exhausted priest struggles to tend his flock with paper-thin faith caused by Simonson’s revelations. Due to the sanctity of the confessional, the priest can only hint to Thorn what Simonson had told him. Under orders from Governor Santini, Thorn’s superiors insist he end the investigation. But this is a Charlton Heston film, naturally he refuses and dangerously treads closer to the truth. 

With books no longer published due to paper shortages, few could read outside of elderly archivists called “Books”. Thorn had swiped the title Soylent Oceanographic Survey Report 2015–2019 from Simonson’s apartment and gave it to Sol. Considered a “Book” himself, he takes the publication to a team at the Supreme Exchange. They conclude that the oceans are dying and can no longer produce the plankton from which Soylent Green is made. Confirming suspicions that Simonson’s murder was ordered by fellow Soylent board members to keep him silent. Disturbed by this knowledge, Sol decides to “return home” and seeks a euthanasia clinic (with the most immaculate customer service.) Thorn rushes to stop him but arrives too late and becomes aware of the awful truth. Moving to uncover proof of crimes against humanity, he is ambushed by Soylent operatives and finds refuge in the church where Simonson confessed. Wounded in battle, he urges his Lieutenant to spread the horrible truth while swallowed up by the despondent crowd.

“Soylent Green is made out of people. They’re making our food out of people. Next thing they’ll be breeding us like cattle for food. You’ve gotta tell them. You’ve gotta tell them!”

Art Predicting Life or Life Imitating Art?

While Harrison’s novel and Fleischer’s film differ greatly, themes from both cast dystopian shadows on the final week of 2022. Peter, the former priest in Make Room! Make Room! often droned on to Billy Chung about the end of the world. Believing that 1999 would bring on the Armageddon. By the end of the novel, he’s met with disappointment and anxiety as life carries on in the way it always had. Fears of a computer error apocalypse were rampant with the Y2K problem. While there were some isolated incidents of computer systems experiencing problems, these were largely minor and quickly resolved. Ultimately, the Y2K problem did not turn out to be as severe as many people had feared. Personally, being denied a grand ending to all things was a massive disappointment.

Soylent Green was one of the first mainstream films to bring climate change into public consciousness. Envisioning hazy cityscapes and grimy backdrops which aren’t that far out of the realm of possibility. Ever see a sunrise over the expressway on a still summer morning? In the film, Sol and the other “Books” at the Supreme Exchange uncover the truth about the oceans dying. In the real world, many calcifying life-forms, plankton, and other delicate ecosystems are in real danger from ocean acidification. Increasing levels of carbon dioxide are being absorbed by oceans and dissolving in the sea water as carbonic acid.Threatening the fundamental chemical balance of ocean and coastal waters from pole to pole.

In both novel and film, indoor plumbing was a thing of the past (unless you were rich). Andy Rusch often stands guard at communal water pumps while his roommate and girlfriend stand in line with jugs for their daily ration. Heston as Thorn, gapes in sweaty awe at a working bathroom sink. Even becoming emotional over the concept of a hot shower. Society has been watching one water crisis after another unfold over the last several years. 2022 saw Keystone, the “safest pipeline ever built”, have its third major spill in five years, contaminating waterways in Kansas. Jackson, Mississippi’s largest water treatment facility failed in August of this year, leaving 150,000 without drinking water. As of this month, about 45% of the United States are experiencing drought like conditions

In spite of all the spiraling chaos in the background of Make Room! Make Room! the media only provides round the clock coverage of an Emergency Bill that would legalize birth control. Mandatory information and options provided for free, in a too-late attempt to get a grasp on population control. The character Sol serves as a mouthpiece for the author to air some opinions, arguing with Shirl who refers to it as, “The Baby-Killer Bill”. Both parroting outdated talking points that were more controversial in 1966. Harrison’s novel had been published one year after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Griswold v. Connecticut, which set the foundation for Roe v. Wade in 1973. Sol decides to join a march in protest of the overturning of the Emergency Bill and is severely injured in a resulting riot. Political events from this past summer parallel this turn in the book a little too well. 

“We’re all winners in the ovarian derby, yet I never heard anyone crying about the sperm who were the losers in the race.”

Among the shiftless crowds standing in welfare lines in Soylent Green, many individuals (but definitely not all) are seen wearing hospital masks. A familiar sight in 2022 just about anywhere in the world. When Sol is injured in Make Room! Make Room! he’s denied proper care. Every hospital is overcapacity and there’s a shortage of antibiotics due to a flu epidemic. In our reality, Europe and North America are about to ring in the New Year with amoxicillin and other medication shortages. Meanwhile, hospitals in the United States are the fullest they’ve been since the pandemic began in 2020.

In Make Room! Make Room! a brown granular food supplement called Ener-G is rationed out to the public. The latest wonder of science that is processed from bricks of dried plankton. In Soylent Green, the titular corporation sold nutritional wafers in various color flavors like popsicles or Gatorade. I’m personally reminded of the Super Donuts from public school cafeterias. Made with vitamin fortified Nutri-Dough, they were slathered in frosting by lunch ladies to make them palatable.   

“The world is experiencing a food revolution and the (FDA) is committed to supporting innovation in the food supply.”

FDA Commissioner Robert M. Califf

Driven by concerns of agricultural impact on the environment, in recent years, there has been a significant rise in the popularity of food alternatives. Plant-based companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have exploded across casual dining menus with a variety of products. Just this past November, the FDA approved of Upside Foods’ lab grown meat for human consumption. There’s also Soylent, a crowdfunded tech company selling meal replacements. The company name was specifically inspired by Harrison’s novel and the website even has a cute animation about how Soylent is plants—NOT PEOPLE! Though they released a limited-offer Soylent Green Bar online, describing the flavor as “unique and mysterious for the complex taste of humanity.” I tried a chocolate-mint drink, and its flavor profile was exactly what you expect; a pukey sweet chalk-shake.

Similar Flavors

For fans of science fiction food chains and dystopian diet fads, Agustina Bazterrica’s novel, Tender is the Flesh, portrays a society in which a virus has contaminated all animal meat and cannibalism is now legal. Marcos, a human meat supplier, is conflicted by this new society, and tortured by his own personal losses. In the Oddworld gaming series, the player’s character goes on a quest to defend the alien ecosystem from endangerment by industrial corporations. Specifically in the game, Abe’s Oddysee, the planet’s terrestrial race of Mudikons, is enslaved and processed into food products at Rupture Farms. Image Comics’ Chew, ran from 2009-16 following Tony Chu, an FDA detective with a unique palate. Set in a world where all poultry is outlawed following a bird flu pandemic, Chu and others like him investigate food related crimes. Breaking up egg cults, chicken speakeasies, and government conspiracies of space produce.

That’s the Way the Human Wafer Crumbles

Make Room! Make Room! and Soylent Green present the audience with a grim portrait of the inevitable, at the rate we’re going. The consequences of over mining natural resources and ruling corporate entities will catch up with us eventually. On the inside cover of his novel, Harry Harrison dedicates his book to his two children.

“For your sakes…I hope this proves to be a work of fiction.”

Further Reading 

Dr. Bloodmoney or: The Post-Apocalyptic Novel To Begin Your New Year With

Do Androids Dream of Cronenberg? Philip K Dick’s Influence on the Baron of Blood

Canadian director, David Cronenberg, is best known to cinephiles for body horror of a particular kind of yuck. Whether it’s a parasitic relationship or a medical kink, his use of practical effects could make any gore-hound squirm. Others are drawn to Cronenberg’s cerebral adaptations of unfilmable literature. The not-too-distant dystopian unrealities of J.G. Ballard and Burroughs were brought to the big screen with Crash and Naked Lunch. Yet David Cronenberg’s amalgamation of technological unrest and quivering gristle may yet best envision the fictional worlds of Sci-Fi guru, Philip K. Dick.

Everybody’s a mad scientist, and life is their lab.

The producers of Alien had been trying to adapt a short story of sci-fi guru Phillip K. Dick since the 70s. “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” became the basis for Total Recall with David Cronenberg as the first director considered. Spending a year working on 12 different drafts, Cronenberg kept the script as close to Dick’s novel as he could. Remaining dark and paranoid, he contributed the concept of mutants and his own on-brand yonic imagery. But studio executives were looking for “Raiders of The Lost Ark goes to Mars”. Something much different than what he was willing to give and eventually left the project. Though the stories of Philip K. Dick would always have an influence over David Cronenberg. His pessimistic futures of isolation and counterfeit realities blended well with the director’s affinity for perversions of science. The foundations of Dick’s novels continue to manifest within the films of Cronenberg. Here we examine the similitude of their three most popular novels and films.


Hollywood continues to try and develop a film version of Philip K. Dick’s Ubik. David Cronenberg was at one point involved in discussions of an adaptation, even directly contacting the writer’s daughters. Though the director’s idea fell through, themes from the novel remained prevalent in another film. Through a combination of Cronenberg’s scripts for The Sensitives and Telepathy 2000 came the movie, Scanners in 1981. It’s a story of a mentally ill vagrant named Vale, captured by a private military company. They cure him of the voices in his head with their drug, Ephemerol, and then inform him of his super mind powers. As a “scanner”, he is recruited to stop an underground ring of rogue scanners through infiltration. Uncovering a plot of mass distributing Ephemerol to pregnant women and mutating the unborn. Transforming a new generation of scanners to overthrow the world. Philip K. Dick’s Ubik gave us the same gritty timeline where psychic powers are used for corporate espionage. Another downtrodden protagonist is employed by a company managing “precogs”. Cyberpathically securing their clients’ private information from telepathic hackers. A rival organization of psychics engage in guerilla style combat to eliminate business competition resulting in a liminal plot of time travel. Between life and half-life, the present or 1939, the characters become trapped Schrodinger cats. Doomed to deteriorate without the widely accessible store-bought product, Ubik. Both Scanners and Ubik would broadcast a faint warning of warring corporate entities and their disregard of consumer casualties.

Videodrome/Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner is an acclaimed 1982 film adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Though an excellent piece of cinema, the1968 novel contained more complexities than a single film could possibly capture. David Cronenberg would expand on Philip K. Dick’s story beyond android bounty hunters with 1983’s Videodrome. A retro portrait of post humanism, the movie pokes fun at the idiot box and media identity. A sleazy cable-TV president becomes obsessed with a snuff channel broadcast out of Pittsburg. The addictive signal induces a brain tumor that causes hallucinations. These visuals are recorded and marketed as television programming. All under the guise of a false media prophet, Brian O’Blivion, founder of the Cathode Ray Mission. Existing only within video tape recordings, humans are reprogrammed into an analog hell-LIVE! Dick’s novel, Electric Sheep, gives us another society of stifling technology mimicking the organic. Literally dictating every human emotion with Penfield Mood Organs and a tech-based religion called Mercerism. Utilizing “empathy boxes” to simultaneously link users to a virtual reality of collective suffering. Centered on a Sisyphus martyr-like character who eternally climbs up a hill while being hit with crashing stones.

eXistenZ/The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

The David Cronenberg film most referenced in regard to Philip K. Dick, is 1999’s eXistenZ. A film that takes gaming beyond hobby or addiction and into a complete lifestyle alignment. Popular on the market in eXistenZ are fleshy VR pods that connect on a bio level with consumers. Gamers are surgically fitted with a spinal port that plugs into the console. Dueling game companies compete for control of the market while fending off an underground movement of “Realists”. Domestic terrorists that disapprove of these games distorting reality. A failed assassination on a game-developer’s life has her on the run with the only copy of her latest game creation. To ensure it isn’t corrupted she plays through with her bodyguard, only to enter a deeper level of virtual reality filled with assassins and spies. The addiction to escapism reflects Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. A novel about the miserable existence of manual labor where citizens are drafted to colonize other planets. Draftees self-medicate with the illegal drug, Can-D. A hallucinogen allowing a controlled simulation of a Barbie doll figure, “Perky Pat”. Continuing with the element of opposing business giants, a famed bio-modified merchant has discovered a better alternative called “Chew-Z”. Double agents fall through the looking glass into their own hallucinations as the battle of drug patents ensues. Both Cronenberg’s eXistenZ and Dick’s Three Stigmata have ambiguous endings that leave the audience wanting more.

 Brandon Cronenberg: Like Father Like Son

David Cronenberg’s son, Brandon, follows in his footsteps as a director and screenplay writer. Deriving inspiration from alternate consciousness and the universes created by Philip K. Dick. His debut, Antiviral, takes celebrity worship and his father’s signature “venereal horror” to another plane. Familiar tropes of misuse of medical technology and quarreling corporate giants,the movie reveals a black market of genetic souvenirs from celebrities. Reminiscent of Ubik by way of a manufactured afterlife wrapped around the consumer market. Brandon’s 2020 film, Possessor, references Dick’s frequent use of imposters and multiple identities. An assassin tale where public persona meets shadow, and all sense of identity is lost in a role. Similar themes arise in Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said and The Simulacra.

Long Live The New Flesh

Philip K. Dick was afraid of how technology would transform humanity, and that fear aroused something within David Cronenberg. He is the grimy lens of our mind’s eye that shows us a broken-society closer than not-too-distant. Where body horror is loss of autonomy when flesh melds with tech. Where humans become fake versions of themselves living in fake storylines. Philip K. Dick warned that this was going to happen, and David Cronenberg rubs our faces in it.

There are about a hundred movies that could be made from Dick’s stuff, but I think people are afraid of it still, which is a testament to the power his work has.


Further Reading

Behold! The Unfilmable: The Literary Adaptations of David Cronenberg  

Every Warning Sci-Fi Writer Philip K. Dick Gave Us About Technology is Coming True

Never-Been-Seen Concept Art for David Cronenberg’s Total Recall