Extrapolating the social ramifications of an overpopulated world is a theme in science fiction (especially from the 60s and 70s) which particularly interests me. Not only can an overpopulated world make a fascinating backdrop to a straightforward plot (Robert Silverberg’s The Time Hoppers) but can also serve as the motivating superstructure of an entire novel (John Brunner’s monolithic Stand on Zanzibar).
An overpopulated world is often characterized by a breakdown of existing cultural and moral barriers, the “mechanization” or increasing “programmability” of mankind, societal good increasingly aimed at production or reproduction, landscapes plagued by extreme pollution (disease, extinctions, etc), and of course, a protagonist with traditionalist philosophies (for example, remembering the allure of “working the land” in the past less-populated world).
A few works below concern overpopulation on alien worlds…
I’ve decided to compile a list (updated as I discover more) of SF books and movies (my review linked) which feature overpopulation in some form or another. I’ve listed them by release date.
Science Fiction Novels/Short Stories
C. M. Kornbluth, “The Marching Morons” (1951), 4/5 (Good)
Miriam Allen deFord, “Throwback” (1952), 4/5 (Good)
Isaac Asimov, The Caves of Steel (1954), 4/5 (Good)
Miriam Allen deFord, “One Way” (1955), 4/5 (Good)
Robert A. Heinlein, Tunnel in the Sky (1955), 4/5 (Good)
Frederik Pohl, “The Census Takers” (1956), (unread)
Robert Silverberg, “Why?” (1957), 4/5 (Good)
Robert Silverberg, “Force of Mortality?” (1957), 3.5/5 (Good)
J. G. Ballard, “The Concentration City” (variant titles: “Build-Up” and “The Disaster Area”) (1957), 4.75/5 (Very Good)
Robert Silverberg, Master of Life and Death (1957), .25/5 (horrible)
Robert Sheckley, “The Minimum Man” (1958), 4.25/5 (Good)
C. M. Kornbluth, “Shark Ship” (variant title: “Reap the Dark Tide”) (1958), (unread)
Robert Bloch, This Crowded Earth (1958), (unread)
Alice Glaser, “The Tunnel Ahead” (1961), (unread)
Anthony Burgess, The Wanting Seed (1962), (unread)
J. G. Ballard, “Billenium” (1962), 5/5 (Masterpiece)
Lester Del Rey, The Eleventh Commandment (1962, revised 1970), 3.75/5 (Good)
Frederik Pohl, “The Deadly Mission of Phineas Snodgrass” (1962, revised as “The Deadly Mission of P. Snodgrass”, 1970), (unread)
Rick Raphael, “The Thirst Quenchers” (1963), 3.5/5 (Good)
Jane Roberts, The Rebellers (1963), (unread)
Rick Raphael, “Guttersnipe” (1964), 3.25/5 (Vaguely Good)
Rick Raphael, “Odd Man In” (1965), 2.5/5 (Bad)
Brian W. Aldiss, Earthworks (1965), rating: 3.5/5 (Average)
D. G. Compton, The Quality of Mercy (1965), rating: 4/5 (Good)
Brian W. Aldiss, “Another Little Boy” (1966), rating: 4/5 (Good)
Harry Harrison, Make Room! Make Room! (1966) (unread)
Keith Roberts, “The Deeps” (1966) 4/5 (Good)
Roger Zelazny, The Dream Master (1966), 4/5 (Good)
David I. Masson, “The Transfinite Choice” (1966), 3/5 (Average)
Philip E. High, The Mad Metropolis (1966), (unread)
Kit Reed, “At Central” (1967), 5/5 (Near Masterpiece)
Clifford D. Simak, Why Call Them Back From Heaven? (1967), rating: 4.5/5 (Very Good)
Robert Silverberg, To Open the Sky (1967), rating: 3.5/5 (Good)
Robert Silverberg, The Time Hoppers (1967), rating: 2.5/5 (Average)
Louis Charbonneau, Down to Earth (1967), rating: 2/5 (Bad)
Irving A. Greenfield, Waters of Death (1967), rating: 1/5 (Terrible)
Harry Harrison, “A Criminal Act” (1967), (unread)
James Blish and Norman L. Knight, A Torrent of Faces (1967), (unread)
John Brunner, Stand on Zanibar (1968), rating: 5/5 (Masterpiece — my all time favorite sci-fi novel)
Robert Sheckley, “The People Trap” (1968), rating: 4/5 (Good)
Brian W. Aldiss, “Total Environment” (1968), (unread)
Kurt Vonnegut, ‘Welcome to the Monkey House’ (1968), (unread)
James Blish, “We All Die Naked” (1969), rating: 4/5 (Good)
Raul R. Ehrlich, “Eco-Catastrophe!” (1969), (unread)
Roger Zelazny, “The Eve of RUMOKO” (1969), rating: 3/5 (Average)
Joanna Russ, And Chaos Died (1970), rating 4.5/5 (Very Good)
Keith Laumer, “The Lawgiver” (1970), (unread)
Dean R. Koontz, Anti-Man (1970), (unread)
James Blish, “Statistician’s Day” (1970), (unread)
Don Pendleton, 1989: Population Doomsday (variant title: Population Doomsday) (1970), (unread)
Michael G. Coney, “The Sharks of Pentreath” (1971), 4.5/5 (Very Good)
Kate Wilhelm, “Where Have You Been, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?” (1971), 3.5/5 (Good)
Mark Adlard, Interface (1971), 3.25/5 (Vaguely Good)
Maggie Nadler, “The Secret” (1971), (unread)
Philip José Farmer, “The Sliced-Crosswise Only-On-Tuesday World” (1971), unread
T. J. Bass, Half Past Human (1971), rating: 2.5/5 (Average)
Harry Harrison, “Roommates” (1971), (unread)
Gordon R. Dickson, The Outposter (1971), (unread)
Robert Silverberg, The World Inside (1971), rating: 5/5 (Masterpiece)
Max Ehrlich, The Edict (1971), (unread)
Ursula Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven (1971), (unread)
Dan Morgan, Inside (1971), 3/5 (Average)
Frank M. Robinson, “East Wind, West Wind” (1972), (unread)
Kurt Vonnegut, “The Big Space Fuck” (1972), (unread)
Marion Zimmer Bradley, Darkover Landfall (1972), 3/5 (Average)
Andrew J. Offutt, The Castle Keeps (1972), (unread)
Thomas M. Disch, 334 (1972), (unread)
Michael Elder, Nowhere on Earth (1972), (unread)
Edmund Cooper, The Tenth Planet (1973), (unread)
Colin Free, Soft Kill (1973), (unread)
John Jakes, On Wheels (1973), 3/5 (Average)
Michael G. Coney, Friends Come in Boxes (1973), 4.25/5 (Good)
Stanislaw Lem, The Futurological Congress (1974), 4.5/5 (Very Good)
John Hershey, My Petition for More Space (1974), 4/5 (Good)
Alan E. Nourse, The Bladerunner (1974), (unread)
J. G. Ballard, High-Rise (1975), rating: 4.5/5 (Very Good)
Arthur C. Clarke, Imperial Earth (1975), 4.5/5 (Very Good)
Algis Budrys, “A Scraping at the Bones” (1975), (unread)
Evelyn E. Smith, Unpopular Planet (1975), (unread)
Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Time of the Fourth Horseman (1976), (unread)
George Guthridge, “Dolls Demise” (1976), (unread)
William Walding, “Triage” (1976), (unread)
Mark Adlard, Interface (1977), 3.25/5 (Vaguely Good)
Colin Kapp, Manalone (1977), (unread)
Axel Madsen, Unisave (1980), (unread)
Joe Haldeman, Worlds: A Novel of the Near Future (1981), (unread)
Philip José Farmer, Dayworld (1985), (unread)
Philip José Farmer, Dayworld Rebel (1987), (unread)
Michael Kurland, Star Griffin (1987), unread
Barry B. Longyear, Sea of Glass (1987), (unread)
David Brin and Gregory Benford, Heart of the Comet (1987), (unread)
Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle and Stephen Barnes, Legacy of Heorot (1987), (unread)
Philip José Farmer, Dayworld Breakup (1990), (unread)
David Brin, Earth (1990), (unread)
Charles Harness, Lunar Justice (1991), (unread)
George Turner, The Destiny Makers (1993), (unread)
Charles Stross, Accelerando (2005), (unread)
Brian Aldiss, Finches of Mars (2013), (unread)
Science Fiction Anthologies
Future City (1972), ed. Roger Elwood, rating: 3.25/5 (Average)
No Room For Man (1979), ed. Joseph D. Olander, Martin Harry Greenberg, Ralf S. Clem, (unread)
Science Fiction Movies
Michael Campus, Z.P.G (1972), (unseen)
Richard Fleischer, Soylent Green (1973), rating: 6.75/10 (Average)
Neill Blomkomp, Elysium (2013), (unseen)
51 thoughts on “Science Fiction Novels/Short Stories about Overpopulation”
Amazing List! All on the tbr list now.
Some are quite terrible — for example, Silverberg’s Master of Life and Death. I highly recommend Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, Ballard’s High-Rise, Silverberg’s The World Inside Compton’s The Quality of Mercy, and Joanna Russ’ And Chaos Died…
Thanks for stopping by!
Silverberg’s The World Inside is brilliant, isn’t it? I’d also add Burgess’s The Wanting Seed.
Thanks! I loved The World Inside as well…. still a somewhat controversial book for the gender dynamics it proposes….
Well that tears it, I need to get a copy of Stand on Zanzibar! And I realize this is a douchey thing to do (soliciting opinions) but I wrote a dystopian story based on overpopulation and water depletion (Source). Any interest in taking a look at it?
I’m trying to locate a short story I read 30 years ago about a public relations guy who is hired to help the government develop a program to reduce the population. He comes up with several ideas promoting sterility, suicide, etc. but the program works a little too well & things spiral out of control with mass suicides, death-cults & the like. In the end he’s left with the last group of people on earth who are counting on him to mate with the last females to repopulate the earth. I remember the last line of the story was “I don’t have the heart to tell them I’m sterile”. I also remember that the President of the USA now dresses up like Uncle Sam (lol). It was a fantastic story & I wish I could find it again. Any help would be greatly appreciated.
Billennium is pretty good if I remember correctly. I read it in college a few years back.
Definitely. Ballard has long been one of my favorites.
I’ve one to add — the short story “The Tunnel Ahead” by Alice Glaser. Think an alternative version of “The Lottery” in an extremely overpopulated earth.
Cool, I’ve never heard of it or the author. Sounds intriguing.
I was a bit flummoxed by the date notated for that one – it WAS on the list but listed as “unread” – because I read a story decades ago myself – but further back than that I thought – and never forgot it. It was in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction which my dad always brought home and I loved reading. I always read the shortest stories first. This was one of the shortest ever. And it turned out to be one of my two favorites of all time. The scene: everyone is on the road in their cars coming back from the beach (didn’t we all?) and the traffic would back up, coming to a complete stop every so often, with some regularity. When that happened, it was something everyone rather expected, and they all seemed to have some concept of a time frame that would occur while they waited for the traffic to begin moving again. It was normal and standard for folks to get out of their cars, and strike up conversations with the folks behind or in front of them, as they got out of their cars as well…..waiting…..for the traffic to resume its pace. There was a tunnel ahead. Everyone knew about the tunnel. Talk often centered around the problems with overpopulation, the density in the city, the small, low ceilinged apartments, the difficulties endured, and then, the traffic would proceed again. A group of cars would make it through the tunnel, but just behind them, the tunnel would be shut off, and apparently–at each end. And that would be that society’s way of handling the problem with overpopulation. And every one knew. And every one still went to the beach every weekend. When I finished reading it, I remembered stories about the Lemmings and their yearly journey, their yearly – dispatch – to control Lemming Overpopulation.
I wonder – was Alice Glaser’s story the one I just reframed. It was a great short story and I would love to see it again.
Thanks for your comment! I realized that I do have a copy of her story in an unread collection I have on the shelf… Voyages: Scenarios for a Ship Called Earth (1971). It has appeared in quite a few collections over the years (her only story!).
Here is the publication listing — perhaps you can track down one of the collections to give it a reread! (if you haven’t used The Internet Speculative Fiction Database I highly recommend it. It has the best publication histories for the genre on the web). http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/title.cgi?74591
That was the story, exactly. Extremely overpopulated future. Buildings made of recycled cans. “Zoos” made up of a cat, a dog, and maybe goldfish on certain complex floors. Birthing pods at supermarkets. The description was just nightmarish. I have my LIT1000 students read it sometimes just to stir up discussion about the issue of overpopulation, government “interferences” vs. individuals’ “freedoms.” It really stirs up the pot.
Sometimes make SF references in my econ blogs. Need help recalling author/title of a short story plot I remember. In an overpopulated world parents take kids to a fair and they pay by taking a random chance on death. Kids keep asking for more stuff.
This is really vague — do you have any idea about the publication date?
What was the title of the SF short story with this scenario?
Humankind had split into a seafaring group that lived by fishing and never returned to the land, and a land-bound group that had developed a culture of murder and mayhem to deal with a massive overpopulation problem, with its seminal figure presented as a kind of anti-Hugh Hefner.
Seems to have been inspired by Calhoun’s experiments on overpopulation in artificial rat and mouse colonies.
I’m sorry — I can’t remember a story along those lines… do you happen to know what decade it was written in?
A spectacularly belated reply – this story is “Shark Ship” aka “Reap the Dark Tide” by Cyril Kornbluth. The survivors on the land evolve a death cult from a porn publisher’s discovery that pain and death sell better than plain sex. Of course Kornbluth stories like “The Marching Morons” and “The Education of Tigress McCardle” are also about schemes to combat overpopulation.
This story was probably the last thing Kornbluth sold before he died as it was published after his death but the author’s note describes him as still writing.
The original magazine publication is scanned online at:
Thank you, Mr. Davis. I knew that many others would remember any story I remembered so vividly. In addition, thanks for the link.
Can anyone recall the short story (I think) where the planet was so crowded, only part of the population could be awake at any given time. People shared living space (and the entire world) during waking hours while other slept in the same apartment.
“The Sliced-Crosswise Only-On-Tuesday World” by PJ Farmer, 1971 which he would expand into the Dayworld series of novels
You have Robert Bloch’s THIS CROWDED EARTH (1958) as unread. I remember it as quite readable, but the imagined effects of overpopulation were strange. Making apartment hallways narrower seems to me to be way past the point when food, air, and water would really have been the problems. The “solution” is the “horrifying” (author pushes this opinion) modification of the next generation into only 3 feet tall, with not unpleasant childlike proportions. My reaction was “meh”, and that it would only be postponing a reckoning. Love the title, though.
I think a little of Bloch’s true talent (horror fiction) seeps through, leaving the reader scratching his head.
By who? when?
Michael Fedo. I’m trying to find the name of one I read in the mid-70s with the same theme..
Ah, it was a very common theme in the 70s — and I my list is far from complete!
This is a great list and what is particularly interesting to me about it is the breakdown by decades. I realize its not exhaustive, but I’m at a plant biologist and looking at this I see a rough correlation here with events that occurred in my plant biology and Agriculture. Prior to the 60s-70s, famine was quite common and a growing issue in the developing world. Non-fiction books in the 60s like the “The Population Bomb” or “Famine 1975” were making dire predictions that there would be world-wide food shortages and starvation, particularly in places like India. At this same point, the work of Norman Borlaug and other plant breeders and agronomists were kick-starting the Green Revolution in Asia and Latin America, eventually leading to food independence for many of these nations. So that by the time the 70s come around, a lot of the predictions regarding mass starvation were rendered mute. I wonder if that is why you see such a huge drop-off of this genre then in the 1980s from its peak in the 1970s, to where it seems like there is almost non of this genre being written about anymore?
Your comment that a few works indexed here concerned overpopulation on alien worlds had me looking for Niven and Pournelle’s “The Mote in God’s Eye” (1974), to no avail. You may object that the story doesn’t apply to humans because of the unfortunate alien physiology assumed as background. Human overpopulation cycles will just take longer, that’s all. The effects of conscious choices will average out like noise, leaving the Malthusian constant in control. Take-home: the Moties are us.
Not a huge fan of the book personally — although I read it more than a decade ago and remember little. That said, I definitely did not suggest that the list is comprehensive but rather something I’ve slowly put together over the years so some are bound to be missing. I’ll go ahead and add it soon….
Hey, I’m trying to remember a short concerning overpopulation. Believe it was in an Asimov collection but he didn’t write it. In the story animals were outlawed so that all resources might be used for humans. Specifically pets, the main character had some outlaw pets in his apartment. I remember some great statistics about the inevitability of overpopulation.
Do you have any idea which decade it was published? He edited so many anthologies….
I asked my twitter followers if they might know of the story — someone suggested “Asimov’s ‘2430 AD’, which is in his collection ‘Buy Jupiter’.”
A favorite theme of mine as well! Funny how the genre missed the importance of Enovid… You might try Theodore L. Thomas’ “The Good Work:” http://galacticjourney.org/if-only-the-good-news-1-29-1959/
Also, I see you have the Snodgrass listed as unread. It’s fun and very short: http://galacticjourney.org/may-4-1962-cleft-in-twain-june-1962-galaxy-part-1/
Finally, try Jack Vance’s “Ulward’s Retreat:” http://galacticjourney.org/make-room-make-room-musings-on-overpopulation-10-29-58/
Thank you. I suspect you’ve encountered even more overpopulation stories in the magazines you and your reviewers post? I’ll have to browse a bit… Thanks again.
There’s also Algis Budry’s “A Scraping at the Bones” from 1975. I also hope to soon have a post up about an overpopulation novel still much talked about: Jean Raspail’s The Camp of the Saints from 1972.
Thanks! Is Budrys’ story any good? (not had the best luck with him in the past).
I suspect I’m missing hundreds…..
It’s basically a murder mystery with the motivation being extra apartment space in an overpopulated world.
Great list! I noted that you have Harrison’s “Make Room, Make Room” which was the basis for the film “Soylent Green” and yet you have a separate “Soylent Green” book listed under the film’s producer Richard Fleischer. I was wondering if that second one was a novelization based on the script/filmed version. The film and the original novel are quite different. Curious since in all my 35+ years of used book hunting I’ve never come across a novelization.
Thanks for the comment!
Check the heading — I placed the film under “Science Fiction Movies”
Yes but I wanted to know if the contents was indeed a novelization or a retitled reprint of the Harrison source material.
I’m super confused. It’s in the movie list section.
There isn’t a novelization. I simply have a subsection with a list of overpopulation-themed SF films.
I see what you mean now, but it was listing Fleischer that threw me off. As the books are listed by author (and your blog is about written material) I would have thought that even in your movie list either the screenplay writer (Stanley R. Greenberg in this case) or Harrison would have been listed even for the movie.
My blog had substantial movie and even music content in the past. And yes, I listed the director…. hence his name. The list has clear headings to prevent confusion.
Here is my film review list (note many are more than half a decade old) — 50 films…
Movies are cited by including the movie name and then the director — I guess I could put “dir.” The screenwriter etc is not included in a standard citation (although mine are more abbreviated than standard MLA).
I feel like you are nitpicking… and trying to explain your way out of simply missing my headings.
One of the most expansive population explosion books/series I have read is the Chung-Kuo serioes by David Wingrove http://davidwingrove.com/series/chung-kuo/
Thanks for stopping by and adding to the list! (I’ll add it when I do an update)
It’s a great list, coupled with other great comments. I see it’s been a while since a new comment has occured. I hope this finds an audience.
I’m looking for a short story that I probably read in the mid 70s. I was a voracious reader, so can’t even suggest an author.
It dealt with government’s promise of new beginnings on paradise islands. However, the ships were unpresserized and everyone was killed. This next part may well be me conflating two separate stories, but I remember some had the job of hosing the ships out to prepare for the next journey to a new life
Thank you for the kinds words. Unfortunately, nothing is coming to mind. Hopefully someone will see your comment and have an idea!