Whatever your politics or view of the world, mankind has a rough road ahead. We will all eventually have to face some difficult issues that at the moment we are just too scared (or lazy) to think about. Thankfully, Science Fiction authors have already warned us and told us how to solve it (or not, as the case may be).
But first some background…
If you remember Maslow’s famous Hierarchy of Needs (and you do, don’t you?) you’ll hopefully remember that the first needs are physiological requirements for human survival: air, water, food, clothing, shelter etc.
Without meeting these needs then other (more complex) ones cannot be met – safety (personal, financial, health etc), love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.
The big problem is that with dwindling natural resources and a global population swelling from 188 million in 1AD to the current 7 Billion+ (and estimated by the UN to reach nearly 11 Billion by the end of the century) whatever our current problems are, they will only get worse. Air, food, water, shelter etc will all become scarce. As even the most conscientious of us have a negative impact on the environment (and wildlife) it is not surprising that the respected broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough described mankind as a plague.
Will overpopulation result in an ever-worsening quality of life? Are we all doomed? Here are five classic SF books that think we may be whatever we do:
#1 – Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison (1966)
Famously made into the 1973 movie Soylent Green starring Charlton Heston, the earth is overcrowded, polluted and heading for destruction (Harrison estimated the world population to have hit 7 Billion in 1999). Even New York City – the epitome of “advanced culture”and technological advancement – is depicted as full-to-the-brim and unemployment is rife. The only food that the masses can get is the questionable Soylent Green from the Soylent Corporation: a green foodstuff supposedly made from soya and lentils (plankton in the movie). The book has many characters and POVs, the main one being Police Detective Andy Rusch who struggles to come to terms with his impoverished existence (losing his girlfriend in the process), and the story ends when hermit Peter believes that the population growth announcement of New year’s Eve will result in the end of the world.
In the movie Rusch is renamed Frank Thorn (Heston) and becomes the main character, who famously discovers that “Soylent Green is people!” So whilst the book is somewhat depressing in its premonition of population overload and how “humanity” is lessened and demeaned by the inability to feed and house itself (remember Maslow?), the film goes one step further to ask if it is morally acceptable to reprocess human remains to provide food and protein for a population that would otherwise starve.
Fancy a Soylent steak?
#2 – The World Inside by Robert Silverberg (1971)
“The ultimate answer to the population explosion – let it explode!” The book describes life in the year 2381 through a variety of points of view of individuals living in Urban Monad 116 of the Chippitts (Chicago + Pittsburgh) constellation of super-massive one-thousand storey vertical worlds containing over 800,000 people each. It outlines what life would be like if nothing is done to limit population and where the creation of life is blessworthy and sexual fulfillment of others is a legal requirement in order to avoid the evil of frustration (frustration causes “flippos” – crazy people who don’t fit the system). The story investigates what it is like for the various inhabitants, many of whom seek such perverse desires as privacy, interaction with people from other floors and social classes, and finally sees what it would be like to walk on the earth again and live outside in the vast farming areas that provide for the Urban Monads. And if you don’t agree? All “flippos” are erased in summary executions and go “down the chute”. There is no happy ending.
Coming soon to a city near you…
#3 – Logan’s Run by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson (1967)
In the future, getting old is no longer an option. In the year 2000 the world reached “critical mass” so in order to maintain the population and resources, death is legally required of everyone reaching the ripe old age of 21. The story follows Logan 3 – a Sandman, tasked with enforcing the rule and killing anyone who reaches their 21st birthday. Those who refuse are called Runners and hunted down but when Logan also reaches 21 he rebels and ends up on the run, trying to reach a mysterious place called Sanctuary before he is caught and killed. The book asks the simple question – is the only fair way to manage the population (and resources) a draconian enforcement of enforced euthanasia? Is it more human to rebel against it or embrace the limitation of a fixed date of death? Is euthanasia more ethical than allowing us to age and succumb to the horrors of disease and decay?
There were several follow-on novels and it was also made into a series of movies starring Michael York, as well as long-running TV series. A movie remake is currently in process.
Would you run?
#4 – I Am Legend by Richard Matheson (1954)
Seen as the start of the Zombie horror genre (after all, it inspired the 1968 classic Night of the living dead), Matheson’s depiction of society wiped-out by pandemic and replaced by zombie-vampires is now a classic warning of the fragility of society in the face of disease. Hero Robert Neville survives the disease and the story shows his life in the empty city, trying to work on a cure for the disease that leaves victims like the undead. He scavenges for supplies, befriends a dog and has to fight-off attacks from the zombie-vamps led by his former neighbour. When the infected (led by survivor Ruth) learn to overcome their disease and become a new world order, Neville’s days are numbered and he has to die. The book challenges the concept of humanity and what it is to be human, whilst also showing how a pandemic can rapidly bring down society in an over-populated world. We are all equal when faced with disease.
It was made into several movies – the most famous being The Omega Man (1971 – starring Charlton Heston again) and it was also remade as I am Legend starring Will Smith (2007).
Forget the Soylent Green, do you have anything with more bite?
#5 – The Running Man by Richard Bachman (1982)
Richard Bachman was the pseudonym of horror writer Stephen King. His dystopian novel depicts the USA in 2025, with rampant violence and a ruined economy. With no hope and in desperate need of medicine for his sick daughter, blacklisted worker Ben Richards participates in a TV game-show where participants are hunted down and killed for entertainment. The book counts down in chapters (ominously ending at “000”) as Richards turns from merely trying to survive the gameshow and take the money to an altruistic attempt to overthrow the show’s corrupt presenter Dan Killian and the Games Network (the government-owned TV station that runs sick and violent TV shows). Richards learns how the Network is just a propaganda machine to pacify the public, even resorting to the murder of Richards’ wife and daughter. It ends with Richards mortally wounded and crashing an aircraft into the Games Network skyscraper. The book asks whether TV and media (particularly state-run media) are bad for society and also questions how far a corrupt and failing government would go to shore-up the system by perverting the truth and murdering innocents.
In 1987 it was made into a movie of the same name and starred Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“I’ll be back.”
So is mankind doomed? Probably. Some might argue that maybe it deserves to be doomed if it can’t find a way to make the system work for everybody. Whatever your thoughts, uncontrolled population growth is clearly a threat to us all and the essence of what it is to be human. If you think things are bad now, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!