As science fiction writers we are called upon to predict the future in any number of ways, to stare into our creative crystal balls and look upon a hopeful universe of space travel and plentiful resources or a bleak dystopia of devastation and despair. As readers we have the luxury of sitting in our comfy armchairs and smiling indulgently at what past writers have envisioned, or perhaps shivering in recognition at their prescience.
After all, George Orwell might have had the date wrong, but was he too far off in predicting the political and commercial doublespeak of our own era? Will it even be necessary for a repressive government to call out Vonnegut’s firemen when our seductive wall screens (and hand screens) already capture our attention so thoroughly?
I came across an old movie on my own equivalent of the wall screen the other night and was horrified to discover just how close we are to the vision of the future the film represented. Based on a novel by Harry Harrison, SOYLENT GREEN is a classic of science fiction so well-known that most people are more familiar with the final moments of the film than they are with any of its plot or characters. If you don’t know the line “Soylent Green is people! It’s people!!” you’re either below the age of twelve or you’ve been living under a rock somewhere. In a way that’s a shame, because the essential mystery of the film has been destroyed long before we’ve had a chance to learn what it has to teach us.
Okay, I know what you’re going to say. Charleton Heston, really? And those awful ‘70’s styles that just seem to permeate everything like a stain, as if we’d cling to our bell bottoms and bad hair, our polyester and rotary phones no matter what else had changed by the year 2022. Heston, who plays a police detective in the film, even pulls out a revolver and has to reload on the fly, ejecting the shells and pushing in the cartridges laboriously one-by-one as the bad guy chases him down an alley. Surely they had semi-automatics and magazines even in 1973?
But let’s ignore all that for a moment and take a look at the world Heston’s Detective Thorn inhabits. It’s hot, overcrowded, polluted. The rich have gotten richer, the poor much poorer. The economy is barely limping along—at one point, Thorn comments that there are thousands of unemployed just waiting to take his job. Agriculture has collapsed, along with any semblance of a working ecology. New York City’s “tree preserve” consists of about three living specimens in a dome.
Real food—the kind you and I eat—is priced out of reach of all but the very rich. Everyone else subsists on rations of the vegetable protein bars called Soylent, the most recently introduced variety being Soylent Green, made from plankton. Even this foodstuff is limited, however, and there are regular food riots, which are violently put down by the police.
Is any of this sounding familiar? No? Global warming, economic disruption, deforestation, drought, bread riots in Egypt and Russia, perhaps? But wait, there’s more.
Thorn goes to a church, looking for clues to the murder he’s been assigned to solve. He finds it full to the rafters with homeless people. The priest is too exhausted and shell-shocked to help him. (The church is the setting of the film’s final scene, as well.)
Thorn’s old partner, Sol (Edward G. Robinson in his final role), manages to get his hands on some real food. They share a “feast” of a lettuce leaf, a spoonful of beans, an apple each, while Sol reminisces about the world as it used to be.
Later, Sol is the first to discover the truth about Soylent Green, and his response is to “go home” to one of the city’s planned-euthanasia centers. He chooses his “ceremony”—the colors, the music—in a place of space, peace and cool beauty. While he is enjoying his guaranteed 20 minutes of serenity watching large-screen scenes of Earth as it used to be, Thorn arrives to try and stop him. But Sol convinces him he is at peace with a simple line: “See? I told you. Isn’t it beautiful?”
Even Charlton Heston can’t kill the emotional impact of Thorn’s reaction when he sees what Sol has been talking about all these years. There really was a world of beauty and life once upon a time on an Earth now irretrievably dead.
We felt that loss watching Thorn’s face in the theaters in 1973. The real outrage expressed in that film was enough to fuel the environmental movement and lead to legislation to clean up the air and the water, to protect endangered species and to support efforts to slow population growth around the globe.
And yet here we are. The planet is warming, with consequences no one could have predicted in 1973. The human population continues to expand. Non-human species continue to disappear at an accelerating rate. The oceans are at risk and with them the global ecology. Climate change may cause not only food shortages, but more critical water shortages, and sooner, rather than later.
Watching SOYLENT GREEN used to be almost laughable, an experience worthy of the boys from Mystery Science Theater 3000. These days I don’t feel much like laughing. If it weren’t for all that polyester, I could be watching CNN.
Welcome Aboard, Pippa!
So happy to welcome our newest blog partner, Pippa Jay, who has already stepped up with her inaugural post. Glad to have you with us, Pippa!