Book Review: High-Rise, J. G. Ballard (1975)

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…

Final Thoughts

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!

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28 thoughts on “Book Review: High-Rise, J. G. Ballard (1975)”

  1. Bruce Robinson wrote a screenplay in 1979. He’s the suthor of the screenplay for “The Killing Fields.” “High Rise” was scrapped since he never thought it would get made.

    The latest attempt is being made in England for next year. This time the screenplay is by Vincenzo Natali who wrote the horror movie “Cube” in 1997. The co-writer is Richard Stanley. He wrote the screenplays for “Hardware” in 1990 and “The Island Of Dr.Moreau” in 1996. No word on who will be in the film.

  2. I have to admit, Vincenzo (who recently made the dismal film Splice) and Stanley do not sound like a winning formula for a film version of this book — at all… hmm…

  3. Cool review of one of my favorite Ballard novels. Definitely read Crash, The Unlimited Dream Company, and the utterly unique The Atrocity Exhibition.

  4. I think my next Ballard novel will be The Concrete Island. I tend to arrive at an author’s famous novels by a rather circuitous route through their lesser known works. But yes, they are definitely on my radar — The Atrocity Exhibition especially.

    Thanks for the kind words!

    1. “Concrete Island” is far more memorable than “High Rise”……the images are far more potent and entrancing…..I think there’s less straining for effect and it just flows out.

        1. Those “short stories” of “The Atrocity Exhibition”,are achingly morbid and somewhat dull in their allusion,and are recommended for hard core Ballardites only.As experiments in condensed,linear narrative though,I suppose they are admirable,despite what I said.

          1. ?

            I would call myself a hard-core Ballard fan. Although, I have mostly read his early stuff (which makes sense considering my interests). But I’m intrigued by The Atrocity Exhibition less because Ballard wrote and more because it’s one of the more radical products of the New Wave which I am a fan of.

            1. Yes I can understand….he was the leading exponent of the British “New Wave”.But like a lot of experimental stuff,it often fails,and I think it did,although I have to admit I didn’t get the gist of it at the time.

              Sorry,I later thought you were referring to something else.

  5. But you don’t ask why all this apparent mayhem happens… nor do you consider the high-rise as a “character”… yes, there is an obvious class system of antagonism that Ballard uses, but what if you think of each main character as a symbol of Freud’s classification of Id, Ego and Superego, where Wilder is the Id, Laing the Ego and Royal the Superego. Note how Ballard handles their various fates as they clash along psychopathological lines…

    1. The high-rise is most definitely a character! — And no, I had not considered applying Freud’s theories — however, I’m in no way trying to give a comprehensive or detailed analysis of the work so please excuse the shortcomings of the blurb review… I’m just trying to convey a *few of the work’s tantalizing threads…

      Thanks for stopping by!

  6. Yeah… a complex book for just a short blurb… but it is a great read and raises many questions about our so-called civilized society… and how being uncivilized is, ironically, perhaps the best way to feel truly alive. I disagree with your idea that H-R is a story about overpopulation (for the best of that genre, read Ballard’s “Billennium”)… it’s a story of how a totally technological environment frees a certain type of person from their habits of culture… anyway, good stuff and let’s see more!

    1. It definitely raises fascinating questions about our society. I still think John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar is by far the best novel about overpopulation…. But, I haven’t read “Billennium” — I’ll definitely put it on my list.

    2. Perhaps “overpopulation” is the incorrect word — however, the High-rise with its self-sufficient nature, close quarters, break-down of individual space etc does help facilitate the collapse of order….

  7. High Rise was my first J G Ballard book too! I can recommend Concrete Island. Whist studying Sculpture at Winchester In 1998 I took a chance and wrote to him about my dissertation, just addressed to him at Shepperton, no more than that. Only a week later I recieved a beautifully handwritten letter from him. He was very interested on my influences, Francis Bacon and David Lynch. He was so inspirational.

    1. Thanks for stopping by! Concrete Island has been on my radar for a while. I might pick up a copy in the next few days…. I really enjoyed High-Rise…

      Wow, he seems like a nice guy…

      (by the way, the two pieces of art you have on your blog are fascinating!)

  8. For me – Ballard is one of THE greatest ever writers, in any genre, never mind just science fiction.

    High Rise is one of his best novels (although I haven’t read all of them yet). High Rise forms a kind of loose ‘Techno-Dystopian’ trilogy, along with the aforementioned Concrete Island, and Crash, which is undoubtedly his masterpiece (be warned, though, it’s not for the squeamish, and has been – wrongly in my opinion – accused of being perverse in the extreme). Forget the highly flawed David Cronenberg film version of Crash; it doesn’t get anywhere near the luminescent, sophisticated, multi-levelled, radical, visceral yet beautiful poetry of the original. Concrete Island is another fabulous – simple – idea, but fleshed out in myriad ways, and is more of a sister piece to High Rise, than Crash, I think. Crash is unique.

    And of course his 60’s ‘Eco-Apocalypse’ novels, like The Drowned World, The Crystal World and The Drought (one of his best) make up another loose trilogy. I too, have heard that The Unlimited Dream Company is brilliant, though it is on my ‘must read asap’ list at the moment! Out of Ballard’s later ‘Bourgeois Depravity’ novels of the 90’s and 2000’s, I have only so far read Cocaine Nights, and I was quite disappointed – it seemed to be re-hashing old ideas, but in a less intense, or phantasmagorical, more mundane manner. If I were you, go for anything from the mid-60’s up the late 70’s and you can’t go wrong.

    Oh, yes, Ballard – along with Poe, Bradbury and Kafka – is one of the worlds pre-eminent short story writers. They are – usually – pristine gems of glistening beauty and resonance. As attested to, above, Billennium is a superb over-population story, and brilliantly captures the sense of hysteria, terror and bizarreness such a predicament would entail.

    Cheers,

    James

    1. I agree. I’ve read The Drowned World — one of my all time favorite sci-fi novels — unfortunately I’ve not been able to gather the courage to review it. And I read it months and months ago…. As a rule, I generally stay away from sci-fi written after 1980. A personal preference I guess….

      I have the complete collection of Ballard’s stories and have read 10 or so — but not Billennium yet. I’ll have to disagree with you on the Bradbury count though — hehe. Not a fan, never have been…

  9. Cool! Try Concrete Island and maybe Crash – I am sure you will like them – or at the very least find something good and intriguing in them. Well, I think Bradbury’s short stories CAN be inconsistent in terms of quality and he has written some duds – but perhaps you have just read the wrong ones! The Day it Rained Forever is probably his best collection (and they aren’t all necessarily SF – more fantasy, a lot of the time).

    Like you, my SF reading tends to focus on the old classics, pre-the 80’s, when the over-all quality of science fiction gradually diminished. And of course, lots of third-rate fantasy took over!

    One 80’s SF novel I would highly recommend, though, is William Gibsons Neuromancer – it’s a barnstorming Cyberpunk masterpiece, replete with fascinating ideas and Noir-ish style in spades….

    1. Hehe, that isn’t to say I haven’t read post-80s works! I’ve read 43 or so of the 55 or so Hugo Award winners for best novel… Neuromancer included. Not a fan of cyberpunk (although Neuromancer is the best of the bunch) — perhaps that’s why I dislike the 80s….

    2. I also read at least four more of Gibson’s novels — they are progressively worse… And works like Idoru and Mona Lisa Overdrive are painful imitations of his earlier works….

  10. Yes, I heard that, too about Gibson’s later novels.

    Well, you are doing much better than me, in terms of reading more up-to-date SF. I don’t have much time, at the moment, whilst I produce and present my weekly radio show (which covers SF, as well as much else). I am also not the fastest of readers, unfortunately!

    Have you read China Mieville? He is meant to be amazing. I haven’t got around to him yet. I read my first Banks – Consider Phlebas – a few years ago, and found it quite simplistic and flabby, for what is supposedly a Post Modern Space Opera. The denouement in the last few chapters is interminable and gets very tiresome! But I started his second novel The Player of Games a few years before that (out of sequence) and thoroughly enjoyed it. I ended up putting it down for other reasons, though, after about 100 pages, so plan to re-read and finish that soon. Maybe it was just his first book, that wasn’t very good…

    1. No, I haven’t read any of Mieville or Banks yet — I quite post-1980 sci-fi 3 or so years ago.

      Oh, my favorite new fantasy work — Jeff VanderMeer’s Shirek: An Afterword.

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