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Entry updated 6 February 2023. Tagged: Theme.


In 1798 the UK economist Thomas R Malthus (1766-1834) published his Essay on the Principle of Population as It Affects the Future Improvement of Society, arguing that a Utopian situation of peace and plenty would be impossible to achieve because the tendency of populations, in the absence of the checks of war, famine and plague, to increase exponentially would result in society's continually outgrowing its resources. In the second edition of 1803, replying to criticism, he introduced another hypothetical check: voluntary restriction of population by the exercise of "moral restraint". But Malthus had little faith in the effectiveness of moral restraint, and most modern sf writers agree with him.

Although the amended Malthusian argument was (and is) logically unassailable, it was ignored or even attacked by most speculative writers even after it had become known that world population was indeed increasing exponentially. Richard Whiteing (1840-1928) brought the entire population of the world to the Isle of Wight to prove that anxiety about overpopulation was, as his title stated, All Moonshine (1907). It was not until the 1960s that awareness of the population problem resurfaced, probably as a consequence of an already-widespread Dystopian pessimism (see Optimism and Pessimism), which it then helped to maintain and amplify. The major nonfiction books involved in the popularization of the issue were The Population Bomb (1968) by Paul Ehrlich and The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome's Project on the Predicament of Mankind (1972) by D H Meadows et al.

Although Marvel Science Stories published in its November 1951 issue a "symposium" on the subject of whether the world's population should be strategically limited, the question was at that time unexplored in sf. C M Kornbluth's "The Marching Morons" (April 1951 Galaxy), depicting a future in which the intelligentsia have prudently exercised birth control while the lumpenproletariat have multiplied unrestrainedly, is a black comedy on the theme of Eugenics rather than of overpopulation. In Kurt Vonnegut Jr's equally black comedy, "The Big Trip up Yonder" (January 1954 Galaxy), overpopulation is the result of technologies of longevity rather than ordinary increase. Overpopulated milieux became gradually more evident in 1950s sf. Isaac Asimov, one of the first sf writers to become anxious about the matter, displayed one such in The Caves of Steel (1954). Frederik Pohl produced the first of many ironic fantasies of corrective mass homicide in "The Census Takers" (February 1956 F&SF); Robert Silverberg's Master of Life and Death (1957) takes the notion of institutionalized population control more seriously; and Kornbluth's "Shark Ship" (June 1958 Vanguard as "Reap the Dark Tide"; vt in A Mile Beyond the Moon, coll 1958) is a melodramatic horror story of overpopulation and resultant Pollution. An effectively understated treatment of the theme is J G Ballard's "Billenium" (November 1961 New Worlds), which presents a simple picture of the slow shrinkage of personal space; from the same year and month, Alice Glaser's "The Tunnel Ahead" (November 1961 F&SF) depicts mass liquidation at random intervals of all drivers passing through the titular New York tunnel. A curiously ambivalent approach is adopted in Lester del Rey's The Eleventh Commandment (1962), which begins as a polemic against overfertility but concludes with a Social-Darwinist volte-face. In Richard Wilson's sardonic "The Eight Billion" (July 1965 F&SF), the titular population figure is – thanks to Immortality – that of New York alone. The most powerful attempt to confront the issue squarely and in some detail was Harry Harrison's Make Room! Make Room! (1966), a novel whose thrust was entirely lost when it was filmed as Soylent Green (1973). A major novel from India, The Wind Obeys Lama Toru (1967) by Lee Tung, quickly followed.

There are three aspects to the population problem: the exhaustion of resources; the destruction of the environment by pollution; and the social problems of living in crowded conditions. The first two aspects form the basis of most extrapolations of the problem, including A Torrent of Faces (1968) by James Blish and Norman L Knight and The Sheep Look Up (1972) by John Brunner, and such black comedies as "The People Trap" (June 1968 F&SF) by Robert Sheckley and "The Big Space Fuck" (in Again, Dangerous Visions, anth 1972, ed Harlan Ellison) by Vonnegut. The third aspect comes into sharper focus in Stand on Zanzibar (1968) by Brunner, The World Inside (1972) by Silverberg, 334 (1972) by Thomas M Disch and My Petition for More Space (1974) by John Hersey. Because sf writers had not considered the problem until it was imminent, the quest for hypothetical solutions was difficult, and many stories hysterically allege that it is already too late to act effectively. Such traditional sf myths as the escape into space lack plausibility in the context of a problem so immediate, as demonstrated by such stories as Blish's "We All Die Naked" (in Three for Tomorrow, anth 1969, ed Robert Silverberg). Confidence in moral restraint, even aided by birth control (which Malthus forbore to propose), was so low that sf stories exploring possible solutions almost always concern themselves with the setting up of Draconian prohibitions or with various forms of overt and covert culling. Stories of grotesque mass homicide include, in addition to those cited above, D G Compton's The Quality of Mercy (1965), William F Nolan's and George Clayton Johnson's Logan's Run (1967), Leonard C Lewin's Triage (1972), Piers Anthony's Triple Detente (March 1968 Analog as "The Alien Rulers"; exp 1974), Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's Time of the Fourth Horseman (1976) and Snoo Wilson's Spaceache (1984). Vonnegut's "Welcome to the Monkey House" (January 1968 Playboy) mockingly envisages a future in which reproduction is discouraged by the use of bromides, but most speculations in this vein are more gruesomely inclined. Suggested solutions not involving mass murder are rare, and not usually to be taken seriously; one notable example is that featured in Philip José Farmer's Dayworld (1985) and its sequels, in which every person is conscious only one day a week, spending the remaining six in suspended animation, thus effectively packing seven people into one person's space. Another is a systematic reduction in human stature (see Miniaturization) – more or less plausibly through Eugenics in Colin Kapp's Manalone (1977), or unbelievably, via "hormones", to quarter-inch (6mm) size in Lindsay Gutteridge's Cold War in a Country Garden (1971). A rare application of Malthusian thinking to an Alien situation is employed in The Mote in God's Eye (1974) by Larry Niven and Jerry E Pournelle, in which a species for whom birth control is impossible has drastic negative checks built in at the biological level; a somewhat anticlimactic revelation in the same authors' sequel The Gripping Hand (1993; vt The Moat Around Murcheson's Eye 1993) is that given a little Earth-human ingenuity, the impossible is possible after all. There are relatively few more recent tales devoted to the topic, perhaps in part because – unlike more contemporary concerns (see below) – overpopulation most directly affects not the first world but the third. A novel like Augustina Bazterrica's Cadáver exquisito (2017; trans Sarah Moses as Tender Is the Flesh 2020), though its setting is not explicit, seems clearly to be set outside the zones of privilege.

Artificial overpopulation, deliberately contrived, has occasionally been explored. Examples include Brian Aldiss's "Total Environment" (February 1968 Galaxy), featuring fantastic population pressure in a kind of Keep called the Ultra-High Density Research Establishment, and Rod Rees's Demi-Monde series beginning with The Demi-Monde: Winter (2011), set in a heavily overcrowded Virtual Reality.

Amusing sf tales of animal population booms, in which fecund Alien creatures reproduce wantonly and uncontrollably, include Robert A Heinlein's The Rolling Stones (September-December 1952 Boys' Life as "Tramp Space Ship"; 1952; vt Space Family Stone 1969), with cute Martian "flat Cats"; Robert Sheckley's AAA Ace story "Milk Run" (September 1954 Galaxy), with a Spaceship cargo of Queels that "reproduce feemishly"; and David Gerrold's comic Star Trek (1966-1969) episode "The Trouble with Tribbles" (1967), with its famous cute balls of fur. Although Gerrold's tribbles could have been unconsciously inspired by Heinlein's flat cats, both may well share a common ancestor in "Pigs is Pigs" (September 1905 The American Magazine) by Ellis Parker Butler (1869-1937), featuring a similarly unexpected population explosion of mundane guinea-pigs. Another huge population spike, among ordinary cats speeded up by radiation effects (see Time Distortion), features in W E Bowman's The Cruise of the Talking Fish (1957).

Although the real-world human situation grows worse each passing day, the fashionability of overpopulation stories in sf has waned dramatically since 1980, partly in accordance with a general tendency to skip over the most frightening problems of the Near Future and partly because of the absorption of the population problem into a more general sense of impending ecocatastrophe (see Ecology; Climate Change; Pandemic). Perhaps, though, the problem does not really deserve to be considered urgent on the same scale as these other current foci for alarm. As Malthus pointed out, the situation is self-correcting; when there are more people than the world can accommodate, the surplus will inevitably die – one way, or another. The main cost might be no more than the starvation in penury and anguish of hundred of millions of people.

An interesting Anthology, now overtaken by the complexities of the world environmental crisis but accurately reflecting the mood at the height of the panic is Voyages: Scenarios for a Ship Called Earth (anth 1971) edited by Rob Sauer, published by Ballantine Books for the Zero Population Growth movement; its nonfiction interjections have become dated, but the fiction is well selected. [BS/DRL]

see also: Politics; Prediction; Sociology.

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