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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.