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Yesterday I finished "Make Room! Make Room!" by Harry Harrison and then I watched Soylent Green for the first time. My expectations were not met with regard to either.
The novel was ok. I was expecting a lot more, and I *like* dystopias. The Handmaid's Tale and It Can't Happen Here are two of my favorite novels ever so I had high hopes for this one. For those who haven't read it, the book takes place in a super crowded New York City where Police Detective Andy Rusch is sent to investigate the murder of Big Mike, a known gangster. Big Mike was killed during a botched robbery by scrappy Billy Chung, a poor kid who's family are immigrants from Taiwan. However, due to his connections the powers that be have reason to suspect that there was more to it than a botched robbery. Rusch falls in love with Big Mike's girlfriend, Shirl Greene, who eventually moves in with Rusch and his crotchety but loveable roommate Sol. As the plot unfolds, we witness an unbearable heat wave and the grinding poverty the people of New York live in as they struggle with food and water rations, substandard housing and no hope of the situation improving.
The first thing that bothered me was that Andy Rusch was kind of wishy washy and not very likeable as a protagonist. He whined *A LOT*.
Shirl was such a sexist caricature that I wanted to pull my hair out. Sure, she was a kept woman and fairly stupid but she didn't have to be so two dimensional. I have no idea what she saw in Andy or what her hopes and dreams were. In the first part of the book Harrison used her to titillate readers, repeatedly describing her perfect breasts and beautiful body. OK, we get it! Thanks. Then she and Andy hook up for no apparent reason and she stays in the story gawking at everything and not really seeming to understand the world around her. She has little personality and I think she was underused as a character. We do learn some about her history but I would have liked to know more and to have read more scenes from her point of view. What we get isn't nearly enough.
Billy Chung was my favorite character and he was the most developed one of the bunch. I really felt for the kid and just wanted to hug him. I don't know if we are supposed to sympathize with him though, he's a murderer, theif and drug addict. Is he a bad guy that we feel sorry for, or are my sympathies misplaced because he whines the least of the characters?
Many reviews I have read of this book praise it because it's not "preachy." I want to know what they were reading, because my copy had a Sol giving a six page rant about how all the problems would be solved if people had access to and education about birth control. I happen to agree that birth control is a good thing, and I think this book was very topical at the time because it was written before Griswold v Connecticut was decided. But some hinting at this earlier in the book would have been great. It would have made more sense as a thematic element instead of just grumpy old man talk. Shirl, as we know has had at least four or five lovers, and it's hinted at many more. But she is against Birth Control, and has never gotten pregnant. She is healthy and 23 years of age. How is this possible? Women with far poorer nutrition have eleven babies in the apartments next door and upstairs. But Shirl-of-many-boyfriends has none? Also, you would think that Shirl has had a few friends who suffered with an unplanned pregnancy and would therefore be in favor of birth control. But no, she calls it "baby killing" and when Sol asks her "How is preventing a sperm from meeting an egg baby killing? The sperm isn't a baby!" She just says "GOSH! I never thought about it like that before." Her naivete was beyond my suspension of disbelief. If she was not sexually active, I would have bought it.
Finally, Harrison's numbers are way off. The book ends by telling us that there are 344 million people in the USA in January 2000. We have more than that now and things are just fine thanks. We have more than that now and birth control was made widely available only a few years after the book was published. So I'm not sure where his math came from.
A few thoughts on the movie. I thought Andy Rusch was really annoying and then I met Robert Thorn of "Soylent Green is people!" fame. I think the movie was worse than the book and didn't know that was possible. The plot was totally different - Big Mike becomes Mr.Samuelson and is not murdered during a botched robbery. He is murdered in a way to make it look like a botched robbery but it was really to cover up the fact that Solyent Green is made of people. (I've been walking around all week yelling that at people. It never gets old.) So my favorite part about the book - Billy Chung was completely removed. The casting was pretty crappy, and the characters were totally different. Whiny but ultimately good-hearted Any becomes the crooked cop Thorn (He steals from Saumelson and pretty much forces himself of Shirl. He's lucky that his Lieutenant thinks it's funny and she grows to love him). Crotchety and loveable Sol who dies from an injury sustained in a pro-birth control rally becomes librarian Sol who cowardly kills himself because Solyent Green is made of people. (Two questions - where did he get the money to pay for euthanasia? That could not have been cheap. Where did that movie footage come from? It makes no sense.) Sexist caricature Shirl becomes even more of a sex object - she's now a prostitute - which creates yet another plot hole.
Birth Control is not mentioned in the movie at all. The movie was made in 1974 when it was legal and the movie takes place in 2022. But no explanation is made for why there are so many people. If birth control is legal in this universe, the population would not grow that fast. So I am forced to assume that it is not. In the movie, Chelsea Park West has changed from a swanky apartment complex for rich people to a brothel for rich men. One of the questions I had about the book was "Why didn't Shirl get a job?" I thought maybe there weren't any jobs, and no make-work programs (Which seems silly given the success of the New Deal. CCC anyone?) But still she could be a stripper or prostitute - better than starving, right?. After finishing the book though I realized that in a society where Birth Control is illegal, sex work was probably dangerous not only because of the risks of pregnancy and STI's but because of the stigma attached. So in the movie Shirl is a prostitute, and there are LOTS of prostitutes. But no children. and no birth control. How is this possible? Ever seen "Born into Brothels" or "The Day My God Died"? In countries where there are prostitutes and no condoms, brothels are filled with children. It's ugly, but it makes sense. This movie made no sense.
Finally - if Soylent Green is made of people, why is there so little of it? People are dying in riots and of starvation all the time. One person could make a lot of crackers. I don't really understand the scale or population model here.
Am I being nit-picky? Yes. But mostly because I thought both the film and movie had a tremendous amount of potential. A little statistics, a few bones to those of us who hate plot holes, and a smidge enough of feminism to remember that women are people - and we might have gotten there. Also there's probably something to be said for the racial stereotypes of Asian and Black people in the book. But I really think of all the hot button issues Harrison tackled he was the most sensitive to race. It was far from perfect, but would not be the first thing that comes to mind when you ask what I find problematic about the book.
Last Edited on: 11/18/08 12:24 PM ET - Total times edited: 2
I think you're being a little vague here. Tell us how you really feel.
edited to add an LOL and a j/k just in case they weren't apparent.
btw, US population's estimated at about 305 million give or take about 10 million illegals.
Last Edited on: 11/19/08 2:23 AM ET - Total times edited: 2
I think your review was great - and sometimes I think movie makers decide that "its only science fiction after all" so who cares about all the holes in the plot or in "their" heads.