Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Zombie Summer Reading: It's People! PEOPLE!

I'll admit it: Almost nothing makes me happier than the literary equivalent of an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. If Tom Servo and the gang ever started recording commentary on audio books, I'd probably keel over from sheer joy.

Mary knows of my addiction, and from time to time she picks up some truly sublime crap for my amusement. A couple of weeks ago, she emailed me from work - indecently pleased with herself - to tell me that she'd be bringing home Harry Harrison's Make Room! Make Room!, perhaps better known as the book upon which they based that most often mocked entry in the Charlton Heston oeuvre, Soylent Green.*

Oh happy day.

So imagine my surprise and consternation when I finish the book and nowhere in it has anyone screamed "It's people!!" In fact, there is no sinister plot in which people are ground up and pressed into tasty wafers at all. The titular green crackers are made from seaweed, and "It's made of Kelp! KEEEEELLLLLLP!!" just isn't very likely to inspire much dread or revulsion.

In fact, the only soylent in Make Room! Make Room! comes in the form of soylent steaks (soylent = soy + lentil). I can get those at the Ralph's down the street; again, not so scary unless you count the price of corn these days. (Zing!)

All griping aside, it may turn out that the price of corn actually is the scariest thing about Harrison's novel. Written at a time when the population explosion was the apocalypse du jour, the book's dystopian vision of the U.S. in 1999 - overcrowded, starving, and Hobbesian in the extreme - is certainly unnerving: homeless families crowded into abandoned parking garages to live in abandoned cars, water shortages, food shortages, utterly overwhelmed civic institutions, refugees living on fleets of cargo ships permanently converted into floating cities in the NY harbor, etc.

The plot - your basic cop-on-a-murder-case story - is pretty unremarkable and serves mostly an excuse to explore Harrison's starved new world. Likewise, the characterization is also fairly underwhelming. Our Hero is a bit of a cipher and the rest of the players relentlessly conform to stock types: fallen woman with a heart of tarnished gold, honorable mob bodyguard, crotchety old man sidekick, impoverished kid in over his head. Like a lot of third-tier science fiction, this is a novel written at the intersection of "pretty great idea for a book" and "not the world's greatest writer."

Still, it's worth taking on the bus if sci-fi dystopia is your thing. For one, it makes for an interesting noir companion to Issac Asimov's trio of Elijah Bailey novels. Harrison has a far more bleak vision of a terminally overcrowded Earth than Asimov, but it's interesting to see what the two writers do with the same basic premise.

And of course, given that the book and the film part ways around page 50 you can go into it without knowing the ending, which - sadly - is not this:

*Also, oddly enough, this makes another movie adaptation of the work of a Zombie Summer Reading author that stars Edward G. Robinson as a cop. He's the Kevin Bacon of the golden age of cinema, apparently. I think that we must schedule a Soylent Green/Harness Bull double feature.


Julie said...

Heh heh, sounds great. You might also like Oryx & Crake (by Margaret Atwood). It has some pretty gross dystopia food descriptions too. :)

Brady said...

Oryx & Crake you say...interesting.

Great is one way to put it. I think we need a new adjective for "So Bad It's Good." Were we in Germany, I'd merely suggest "Sobaditsgood".