Soylent Green is…tomorrow!

The Year: 2022
The Place: New York City
Population: 40,000,000

That’s what the title reads at the beginning of Soylent Green (written by Stanley R. Greenberg, based on the novel Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison). I recently watched it beginning-to-end for the first time. As ’70s thrillers go, it’s all too average, though full of pleasures like seeing a bearded Edward G. Robinson play an old cop who keeps dropping Yiddish and dresses like Picasso.

The Rifleman, Ben Hur, and Holly Martin all meet in the future.

The Rifleman, Ben Hur, and Holly Martins all meet in the future.

2022 is of course, coming fast – it will be the year we elect Mayor DeBlasio’s successor, if he serves eight years – and it’s fascinating seeing what the dystopia imagined by New Yorkers in 1973 got right.

The New York of Soylent Green is a place where the rich live in high-rise comfort, and the police have such plebeian incomes they have an easier rapport with the servant class than the owners. The working class rarely sees fresh produce, and the “greenhouse effect” is a phrase thinking people are used to hearing but incapable of doing anything about. So far, so good.

Two things, though, completely date Soylent Green. One is that the lifestyle and aesthetics valued by the rich are all futuristic, like something out of Sleeper. In 1973, cities were hemorrhaging money and middle class people, and porcelain sinks were getting landfilled to make room for brand new faux-formica fixtures. What would become the new juggernaut of “good taste” was already germinating in the artists’ lofts of Soho – exposed brick, faux peasant kitchens, warm interiors, early 20th century artifacts, functionality, etc. – but the extent to which the upper middle class would go for this was apparently hard to fathom back then.

Its vision of working class deprivation is also less than prescient, more a lazy rehash of 1984. The Stalinist bread line where every person, in drab clothes, is merely a number was still the great fear. Huddled masses slept in doorways. That the future poor would live in cheap suburban apartment buildings, or welfare motels outside of Monticello, seemed impossible. And all you have to do is look in the window of any bodega whose LED lights advertise “EBT accepted” to see that the working poor’s environment is full of colorful, attention-grabbing “choices.” Nutritious as Kool-Aid and just as headache-inducing.

Comments

  1. Nice observations. I haven’t seen SOYLENT GREEN since it bored me when I was in the eighth grade (knowing what “Soylent Green” was, I hoped the movie would induce at least a bit of queasiness). Science fiction’s ability to predict the future is vastly overrated, mainly because it’s not what science fiction is interested in–usually, anyhow. But because it is often set in the future, it is seen as being about the future. It’s not dissimilar to how THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE is taught to those in middle school or who are freshman in high school because the protagonist is around that age.

  2. Very insightful comments, professor. I guess the premise of my post was that old science fiction can be illuminating in how it MIS-understands the future. It shows the careless assumptions.

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