“This is a dystopic novel about what happens when the amount of people far outnumber the resources available. I went in expecting a freaky-ass horror book and found it to be more of a screed about the importance of birth control and resource management. (It was the basis of the movie Soylent Green, but the ingredients of soylent green in the book and the movie are quite different. In the book, soylent is just “soy” and “lentil.” The fact that I kept waiting for it to be made of something else based on my limited knowledge of the movie led to my disappointment with the book.)
THE BASIC STORY
New York City in 1999 (which was quite far in the future when the book was written in 1966) is miserable and overcrowded, with more than 35 million people competing for scarce resources. The plot focuses on a handful of characters: Andy Rusch, an overworked police officer trying to solve the murder of a rich man (the only kind of murder that gets investigated); Billy Chung, a desperately poor boy who has resorted to robbery to feed himself; Shirl, the attractive, young mistress of the murdered rich man who uses her looks and sex to survive; and Sol, Andy’s roommate and “eldster” (senior citizen) who rants about why society has degenerated The narrative switches between these four main characters—showing how they must struggle to survive in a world where there are too many people and not enough food, water and space.
I’m sure this book was more shocking and futuristic when it was written in 1966. Today, it feels a bit dated. Yet I think the message—humans must be careful with their management of the planet’s limited resources—is still timely. I suspect that a future world where we’ve exhausted our natural resources would be as miserable and horrible as the one described in the book. However, since I went in expecting more of a horror kind of read, I was disappointed when what I got was more of a political statement disguised as a novel.
The social commentary is not subtle. Sol exists solely to rant about the government and the need for birth control. Shirl represents how the rich will still live well despite the rest of the world barely having enough to eat. Andy is the “regular” guy who works hard and barely catches a break despite doing everything right. Billy represents the lengths people will go to when pushed to their limits. The writing is serviceable and plain; the author’s intent is to get his message across, not to create lovely sentences.
I think my expectations definitely affected my opinion of this book. And, after seeing the previews for Soylent Green, I suspect I won’t be watching it. (It looked incredibly cheesy.) Still, I admire Harrison’s environmental views and foresight; the world he imagined might still come to pass one day, and we’ll all be sorry if it does.”