Book Review: This Crowded Earth, by Robert Bloch
Posted on January 14, 2015
I don’t usually give one-star ratings, for the simple reason that I rarely finish a book that I dislike enough to rate that low. I stuck with this one, because I was interested in the premise and because this is the fellow who wrote Psycho. (I never read Psycho but, of course, it was a brilliant Hitchcock film.) For reasons I cannot explain even to myself, I kept expecting this book to get better.
The premise of this book is interesting. In each chapter of This Crowded Earth, Bloch illustrates a list of stupendous social ills caused by humans, in an effort to improve their lot. Each attempted solution creates yet another nightmare problem that threatens their survival as a species. For instance, there is overcrowding because there are no more wars (the result of a shared fear of nuclear annihilation), and because of advances in medical science that rid the world of disease. So, humanity has achieved a kind of utopia in that way, only to end up living like rats in a cage because there is no longer enough room for everyone.
The story opens with a protagonist named Harry, who is getting more anxious by the day, living in a flat the size of a walk-in closet, while holding down a mind-numbing job as an “agency man” and reminiscing about a better life. He dates women who he says want to marry him only to upgrade the size of their own living quarters. Having a child qualifies a couple for a full two rooms, rather than one to share.
The plot takes off in the first chapter or two when Harry thrillingly tumbles out his office window one morning but fails to plummet to his death. So far, so good. Harry gets sent off somewhere to recover for a while, and that’s where we meet a woman who seems to be a potential love interest. This is good, too, because up until this point, women have only been mentioned briefly but not made an appearance, and Harry is starting to grate on the nerves a bit. But no, this one’s a red herring! Our love interest, for reasons I won’t disclose here, is just making a cameo appearance and will soon be gone. In fact, as I began to realise a few chapters in, none of the female characters in this book stick around for any length of time. They are used only to move the plot forward in regard to Harry.
The role of women in This Crowded Earth is appalling, even by 1958 standards. (At least in Pyscho, we have a reason for that: Norman Bates is a pathological serial killer.) Here, women are merely ciphers, used by men for distraction, sex, and reproduction. They have no other identity or function in Bloch’s narrative. I know you might be thinking “Oh, you mean like in The Handmaid’s Tale? But that was a great book!” and you would be right; but no, I don’t mean that. Atwood is saying, “Look at what’s happening to women in this dystopian society,” and we read with bated breath, looking forward to the revolution (or at least subversion) that we expect is coming.
I did not expect a female uprising in Bloch’s book, necessarily. But I did expect him, through his characters, to at least notice and comment in some meaningful way upon women’s role in society, mean and minimal as it is, beyond that of pushing out genetically-modified babies. While it is true that this is not a character-driven novel, but an ideologically-driven one (which means that Harry is not a fully-realised character, either), it is also true that Bloch fails to note the dehumanization of women as one of the social ills that need healing. I thought he was taking us there, at one point, as we listened to a conversation between a husband and wife who are worried about her taking the pills that they know will alter forever the size of their child. But the last we hear of that couple, and that woman, she’s decided it’s all good; so what about the alterations, it still means some kind of baby and a bigger flat, right?
All of the recurring significant characters in Bloch’s book are male, and the focus is entirely upon them. They are the ones who grasp the enormity of the problem the world is facing, and they are the ones who are destined to solve it, to whatever extent that is possible. At one point, several hundred of them take off into the desert together to live a kind of monastic life while they plan for their future victorious return to civilization. It’s very like Exodus, this bit, only without God, temples, idols, sacrifices, or women. Harry remains our main guy, and we follow him everywhere, listening in on his man-to-man chats about quotidian conspiracy theories and ideas for solving the world’s crises. Eventually, he even meets the son he’d helped to produce years earlier, but of course, he never asks after the boy’s mother.
At the end of the book, despite his having spoken only to other guys for something like twenty or thirty years, Harry somehow remembers that women exist and that they have ovaries and other useful bits. Thus, Harry’s genius-hero “solution” to the current problem of a dying population is all about women … Well, their reproductive organs, anyway. Isn’t that great? Women get to be the saviors of the world, after all. And all this time, I’d been thinking they did not matter.
Specifically, Harry’s plan involves the female of the species, whose average height is now something like two and a half feet (due to the aforementioned genetic manipulation), carrying non-modified, full-sized human babies, who would presumably grow in-utero to seven or more pounds, and then delivering them by C-section. To get an idea of just what this would look like, and the havoc it would wreak on such a tiny woman’s body, imagine a toddler (or at best, a kindergarten-aged girl) nine-months pregnant. Let’s think this through … No, never mind. Let’s not bother going any further into what’s wrong with this plan or this book. I am moving on to better reads.