4.5/5 (Very Good)
J. G. Ballard’s High-Rise (1975) is a fascinating yet relentlessly mono-thematic novel inspired by the effects of class conflict, urbanization, and overpopulation on society drawing on some ideas explored in earlier SF masterpieces such as John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (1969) and Silverberg’s The World Inside (1971) (both of which I prefer to High-Rise).
The appeal lies more in Ballard’s literary qualities and stylistic choices rather than the novel’s ideas which are dominated (albeit, I’m being overly simplistic) by a virulent strain of “Lord of the Flies syndrome” afflicting adults, instead of children, crammed into an “island-like” building. Wine war paint instead of pig blood… Chowing on Alsatian dog instead of feral pig… etc.
Plot Summary (limited spoilers)
“Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within his huge apartment building during the previous three months.”
And so begins our protagonist’s (antagonist?) relentlessly dark (and relentlessly predictable) apartment wanderings — a crumbling society plagued (in increasing degrees) by flickering electricity, disturbed naked drunken rampages along dog pee filled elevators, rape, suicide, the self-destruction of the upper class.
Laing is one of two thousand occupants of an ultra-modern apartment building for the wealthy which contains entertainment facilities, grocery stores, an endless supply of alcohol (a liquor store), swimming pools, and schools. A few minor inconveniences (a weak electricity supply, malfunctioning elevators) leads to the escalation of tension between the occupants.
Although all the occupants are wealthy, those that live higher up band together against the lower floors and a “class struggle” breaks out. The ultra-wealthy dart down the stairs and allow their dogs to pee in the hallways and swimming pools of those lower in the building. The less wealthy dart upstairs on daring raids stealing items. The highest floors take on a perceived “Eden-like” quality and our main characters aspire to venture to the higher floors.
Soon society devolves into an orgy of rape, extraordinary violence, primal urges, as all the elevators stop working, people stop attending work, and the food runs out. The occupants lose all their social restraint — they lust after siblings, their friends’ wives, etc. No one alerts the police… No one questions what is happening… The architect watching all from his high floor penthouse with his white alsatian…
High-Rise is a beautifully written book. The collapse of society unfolds in a disturbed and occasionally, an achingly beautiful manner. Our characters are objects — archetypal parts of Ballard’s crumbling society — we feel nothing for them. A haunting spectacle — the spectacular suicide (and rebirth?) of a modern society held together by a tenuous facade that snaps under the vaguest tension…
This is the first book by Ballard I’ve read and I’ll definitely seek out more. Highly recommended for those not faint of heart!