fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsHigh-Rise by J.G. Ballard speculative fiction book reviewsHigh-Rise by J.G. Ballard

If you had the chance, would you live in a massive, 1,000-unit luxury high-rise with its own supermarket, liquor shop, schools, pools, gyms, etc.? Instead of living in some dreary suburb with boring, prosaic neighbors, why not join an elite group of young and successful professionals, like-minded and sophisticated, with immaculate taste and superb social connections? Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to join the elite upper echelons of society? This is the scenario that J.G. Ballard creates in High-Rise (1975), and then proceeds to plunge the reader into a nightmare of barbarity, roving bands of marauding residents, festering piles of garbage and refuse, and a total collapse of social order and morals. It is a deliciously dark fable, one that was spot-on back in 1975, and that remains incredibly relevant today. There are no science-fiction elements to this novel, but it feels as futuristic as the day after tomorrow, and its commentary on the untamed urges that lurk beneath the surface of otherwise civilized, urbane people is a twisted masterpiece of modern social commentary, and one of my favorite Ballard novels from the 1970s.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe collapse of civilization has been done many times before in modern literature. Perhaps the most famous early example is William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies (1954), and who could forget Anthony BurgessA Clockwork Orange (1962) and its brilliant film adaptation in 1971 by Stanley Kubrick. In the film realm, the MAD MAX films have captured filmgoers’ imaginations for several decades, most recently in 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road directed by George Miller. Everyone knows that the minute our energy resources disappear, and our global distribution chains collapse, it will be every person for themselves. If you are faced with death or starvation, the rules of society suddenly seem fairly ephemeral. Looting, roving gangs, rape and pillage: these are all familiar tropes of the post-disaster novel and film.

What distinguishes Ballard’s novel is that society has not collapsed, oil has not dried up, meteors have not pummeled the planet, sea levels have not risen due to global warming; neither has a mysterious virus escaped and turned people into zombies, nor space aliens descended from space to be fought off by Will Smith or the Avengers. Instead, we simply have a luxury high-rise filled with urbane professionals who seek refuge away from the hoi-polloi, the unwashed masses, the gauche proletariat who cannot appreciate sophisticated meals and fine wines. And Ballard gleefully throws all these elites into a massive luxury high-rise block and lets them create their own private hell on earth.

The main character is Robert Laing, a young doctor who moves into the 25th floor of the high-rise. He plays squash occasionally with the chief architect of the building, the visionary Anthony Royal. Initially he is drawn to the wide range of yuppie-types that occupy the building, the attractive men and women who join the endless round of parties in the building, idling seeking out affairs. But then small, inconsequential disputes arise among tenants, and like any story of suburban rivalries, groups begin to form. However, the high-rise is an explicit metaphor for the stratification of social classes, as the book describes in meticulous and chilling detail:

He thought continually about the apartment building, a Pandora’s Box whose thousand lids were one by one, inwardly opening. The dominant tenants of the high-rise, those who had adapted most successfully to life there, were not the unruly airline pilots and film technicians of the lower floors, nor the bad-tempered and aggressive wives of the tax specialists on the upper levels. Although at first sight these people appeared to provoke all the tension and hostility, the people really responsible were the quiet and self-contained residents, like the dental surgeons Steele and his wife. A new social type was being created by the apartment building — a cool, unemotional personality, impervious to the psychological pressures of high-rise life. With minimal needs for privacy, who thrived like an advanced species of machine in the neutral atmosphere. This was the sort of resident who was content to do nothing but sit in his overpriced apartment, watch television with the sound turned down, and wait for his neighbors to make a mistake.

Ballard’s deconstruction of the modern, urban professional in High-Rise is amazing — this doesn’t sound like 1975, it sounds like 2015. “That disaffected personality that revels in the rapid turnover of acquaintances and lack of involvement with others” is a perfect description of hundreds of people I have met in the finance industry in Tokyo over the last decade. With their self-contained ex-pat social circles, high incomes, and frequent moves from one country to the next, they can continually insulate themselves in the elite spaces of their daily existences without having to mingle with anyone outside their spheres. And with the fine foods, luxury apartments, intelligent repartee, and vacations around the world, why would you seek anything else? In the following passage, Ballard describes the new stratified society of the high-rise in detail:

The lower floors housed the proletariat of film technicians, air hostesses and the like, and the middle section formed its middle class, made up of self-centered but basically docile members of the professions, the doctors and lawyers, accountants and tax specialists, who worked not for themselves, but for medical institutions and large corporations. Puritan and self-disciplined, they had all the cohesion of those eager to settle for second-best. Above them was the upper class, the discrete oligarchy of minor tycoons and entrepreneurs, televisions actresses and careerist academics. It was they who set the pace of the building, their complaints which were acted upon first, and it was they who subtly dominated high-rise life. Above all, it was their subtle patronage that kept the middle ranks in line, this constantly dangling carrot of friendship and approval.

What a brutally honest and clinical deconstruction of the petty pretentions of our modern bourgeoisie. And the particular genius of Ballard’s urban fable is that all the residents of the building choose to segregate themselves without any prompting from the outside. As conditions steadily worsen, nobody seeks to contact the police or external authorities. Instead, they seem to revel in the new breakdown in civilized veneer, deliberately degenerating into barbaric behavior to fulfill their suppressed obsessions.

Many of the cars had not been moved for weeks, windscreens broken by falling bottles, cabins filled with garbage, they sat on flattening tires, surrounded by a sea of rubbish that spread outwards from the building like an enlarging stain. This visible index of the block’s decline at the same time measured the extent to which its tenants accepted this process of erosion. At times, Royal suspected that his neighbors unconsciously hoped that things would decline even further. Royal had noticed that the manager’s office was no longer besieged by indignant residents. Even his top-floor neighbors, who initially had been only too quick to complain, now never criticized anything about the building.

Ballard doesn’t hold back in his withering contempt for the empty aspirations of the elite class in High-Rise, either. I couldn’t help thinking of how much our modern society idolizes a beautifully-designed modern space with sophisticated decorations, but is less concerned with the spiritual health of the occupants of the house. Speaking only for the Tokyo social elite (though I’m sure the principal is universal), I often feel that people have subsumed their spiritual lives for the sake of external environments, and that modern urbanite identities are largely defined by their jobs, apartments, favorite restaurants, brand-name clothes, and carefully-groomed appearances. It’s quite frightening when you stop to think about it.

As for the story, the final parts are devoted to showing us exactly how far these sophisticates can degenerate into barbarity entirely of their own volition. It may not seem plausible, but this story is a metaphor of excess, and works very well in that way. Here we see the logical extremes to which the residents could reach in the absence of any inhibitions on behavior.

For all the building’s derelict state — almost no water was flowing, the air-conditioning vents were blocked with garbage and excrement, rails ripped off staircase balustrades — the behavior of the residents during the daylight hours remained relatively restrained. Wilder stopped and relieved himself against the steps. During the brawls and running battles of the night, he took a distinct and unguilty pleasure in urinating wherever he cared, defecating in abandoned apartments. The previous night he had enjoyed pushing around a terrified woman who remonstrated him for relieving himself on her bathroom floor. Nonetheless, Wilder welcomed and understood the night — only in the darkness could one become sufficiently obsessive, deliberately play on all one’s repressed instincts. He welcomed this forced conscription of the deviant strains of his character. Happily, this free and degenerate behavior became easier as he moved higher up the building, as if encouraged by the secret logic of the high-rise. 

So there you have High-Rise, a polemic and warning disguised as a slim thriller. I thought it was a brilliant novel and highly recommend it, but it depends on your temperament. Of note, a film version was released at several film festivals this year, starring Tom Hiddleston (who expertly narrated the audiobook) and Jeremy Irons, directed by British director Ben Wheatley. It may have taken 40 years for the novel to make it to film, but I doubt they needed to update the story much at all. I am very much looking forward to seeing Ballard’s dark vision on the big screen.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsFinally, as an aside, my family and I live in Tokyo, and the vast majority of people here live in condos and apartments of varying size. When my wife and I began to entertain the idea of buying a place instead of renting, we visited dozens of properties in different neighborhoods, each with their own magic pricing formulas that factored in proximity to major train lines, average income levels, neighborhood infrastructure (schools, hospitals, etc.), age of building and reputability of the builder, earthquake-proofing, direction of windows (south-facing is most desirable for sunlight and hanging laundry), corner rooms, higher floors, room layout, homeowners’ associations, number of units, etc. After months of research, the amount of info was overwhelming, and co-workers and friends gave us reams of advice on every possible pro and con. It was endless and exhausting.

So one day I suggested we look at detached houses instead, which are harder to come by in ultra-densely populated Tokyo. And yet the thought of being packed into a massive building with over 1,000 other residents, making greetings to a steady stream of people you barely know, being forced to joined the owner’s associations and arguing over the timing of repairs, complaints about noise, trash disposal, parking lots, air-conditioners, etc., just made us want to run screaming. So we opted to buy a 1,000 square foot 3-story house with neighbors so near that we can reach out a window on either side and touch their houses. But it is our space, not shared with anyone, and that was the deciding factor. After reading Ballard’s High-Rise, I feel like we made the right choice.

~Stuart Starosta (2015)

High-Rise by J.G. Ballard speculative fiction book reviewsStuart’s review is wonderful and I don’t feel the need to say anything except that, gosh, I hated every character in this book so much. The descent into barbarism was so compelling, though I had a hard time always believing it, I found it thought-provoking and even considered it to be a warning. It also made me think of the Stanford Prison Experiment and Milgram’s Obedience studies

I’m glad I read High Rise (an ironic title) but I can’t say I enjoyed the experience.

~Kat Hooper (2018)

Published in 1975. When a class war erupts inside a luxurious apartment block, modern elevators become violent battlegrounds and cocktail parties degenerate into marauding attacks on “enemy” floors. In this visionary tale, human society slips into violent reverse as once-peaceful residents, driven by primal urges, re-create a world ruled by the laws of the jungle.