For your sakes, children, I hope this proves to be a work of fiction."
It's set in the Crapsack World of New York City in the (then) far-future year of 1999, a world beset by severe overpopulation and environmental collapse, where a bland artificial food called soylent (made from soy and lentils) is the best thing most people ever get to eat.
When wealthy racketeer "Big Mike" O'Brien is killed, NYPD detective Andy Rusch is assigned to investigate the murder – a daunting task, in a city of 35 million inhabitants. Rusch finds himself getting romantically involved with the murdered man's concubine, Shirl. Meanwhile, the killer – a poor, teenage petty criminal named Billy Chung – attempts to elude capture.
It is now best-known as the inspiration for the film Soylent Green. (The famous secret of Soylent Green was invented for the movie, and isn't in the book.)
This novel provides examples of:
- 20 Minutes into the Future: The book was written in 1966 and set in 1999.
- An Aesop: The Aesop of the novel is that birth control should be legalized. It's easy to forget how controversial a statement this once was. In the United States, it had only been legalized nationally by the Supreme Court's decision in Griswold v. Connecticut, just one year before the novel was published. Even then, it would remain illegal for unmarried couples to use birth control until 1972 (Eisenstadt v. Baird). Since then, along with abortion, better agricultural techniques, medicine, etc. global population growth rates have dropped increasingly, especially in the most developed countries.
- Break Out the Museum Piece: A crowd riot gets so out of hand that the police have to use weapons from a museum to break up the fight.
- Crapsack World: In addition to the everything crapsack-y about the movie, the transportation system has completely broken down. In other words, everyone is trapped in the city; the only non-human-powered vehicles mentioned are old buses taken from a history museum, used by the police and running on extremely low grade fuel.
- "Double, Double" Title: The title is formed by duplicating "Make Room!"
- Downer Ending: The story doesn't end happily for any of the principle characters. Billy and Sol are dead. Andy has been temporarily demoted to being a patrolman and Shirl has left him. On top of it all, the population is still increasing with no end in sight.
- Eat the Dog: "Leg of dog" is one of the rare delicacies offered at a black-market butcher shop.
- The End Is Nigh: A secondary character is Peter, a defrocked priest turned hermit who's eagerly awaiting the Turn of the Millennium, which he assumes will bring the end of the world. He's sorely despondent when it doesn't.
- Elder Abuse: "Eldsters" are forcibly retired from work so younger people can have their position.
- Failed Future Forecast: The novel's "overpopulated" dystopia has a world population of around seven billion – a number surpassed in Real Life in the early 2010s. The final line of the novel describes the United States as having 344 million people, only 16 million more than the real-word total in 2019. Meanwhile, New York City has yet to pass the nine million mark even two decades past the novel's setting, never mind thirty five million.
- Future Food Is Artificial: Soylent steaks made of soy and lentils are an expensive item.
- Gaia's Lament: Earth's fate as a whole.
- Global Warming: Barely a page goes by without someone complaining about the ever-present humidity... in New York at winter time.
- Gold Digger: Shirl, Big Mike's former mistress, who hooks up with Andy only to leave him for someone wealtier.
- Lighter and Softer: Surprisingly yes, compared to the movie, if only mariginally, since things aren't quite as bad in the novel as they are there. At least not yet, since the movie is set about 20 years later.
- New Year Has Come: The novel ends shortly after midnight on January 1, 2000.
- Not His Sled: An unusual inversion, thanks to Adaptation Displacement. Unlike the movie, and it's infamous Twist Ending about the true nature of Soylent Green, there's no such twist here; Soylent Green doesn't exist, and the product it was based on, Soylent Soy, really is just made from soy and lentils.
- Only Electric Sheep Are Cheap: Even soy-based faux steak is expensive and worth practically rioting over.
- Overpopulation Crisis: The central issue which is destroying society in the book.
- Post-Peak Oil: Cities effectively become their own totally isolated city states when the oil becomes too rare to use. The only form of long-distance transport mentioned are large freighters (shipping food to the millions effectively trapped in cities); on the local level, motorized transit has been replaced with human-powered "pedicabs" and "tugtrucks".
- Sci-Fi Writers Have No Sense of Scale: As previously mentioned, apparently Harrison couldn't imagine a world with 7 billion people (more than double the world population of 3.4 billion at time of writing) not having all the problems his book shows.
- Soylent Soy: Played straight, unlike the film adaptation.
- Used Future: We never get to see how the wealthy live, other than that they have access to "luxuries" like running water and fresh food, but everyone else is stuck using decades-old tech that's falling apart, if it works at all. Andy's apartment has an old TV and a refrigerator hooked up to a bicycle generator.
- We Will Use Manual Labour in the Future: The few people who even have jobs anyway, there doesn't appear to be any sort of automation anymore.
- We Will Use WikiWords in the Future: Soylent, which is a portmanteau of "soy" and "lentil".