High-Rise: Lord of the Flies in an urban luxury high-rise

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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.

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.

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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff since March 2015, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he has lived in Tokyo, Japan for the last 13 years with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart’s reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle’s 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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17 comments

  1. This is a beautiful review and a great essay on modern First World life — for some of us, anyway. I love the way you wove your own experiences and observations into it. The book sounds like a cautionary tale for today, even though it was written 40 years ago. Thanks for sharing this. I think you should look for a second market (like a print or online magazine — The Sun maybe?) to reprint it.

    • Agreed! Mixing in your own experiences (and intense desire to avoid high-rise living) helps to illustrate Ballard’s point in a real, accessible way. Well done, Stuart!

  2. sandy ferber /

    Another great review, Stuart! Thanks for reminding me just why I had such fond memories of this book! And mucho congrats on your newish home. One question: Did you have to purchase Gojira insurance?

  3. Thanks guys for your compliments! I really put some time into writing this review, and kept running into passages so deliciously dark I felt obligated to transcribe and quote them. As I listened to the story, I couldn’t help thinking of my own experiences renting and house-hunting in Tokyo, so I added that part.

    As for Gojira insurance, they stopped offering that decades ago after excessive damage claims~

  4. Very nice review, Stuart! It’s got me pumped for the film. I’m very curious how the director will handle the absurdity of Ballard’s premise. I’m hoping for the same abstract realism of the novel. Overt satire might lean too close to comedy – and the novel, as you point out, is certainly not comedy.

    If I remember, in your review of The Crystal World the distance to the characters was a tripping point for you. In High-Rise we also have abstract characterization, so I’m curious what the turning point was that made you like this book more than The Crystal World?

    For me “good characterization” is important only if pure storytelling is the aim. It complements plot and allows the overall narrative to gel. Otherwise, “good characterization” is not on my checklist of to-dos for a novel. Characters can be tools, study material, placeholders within a concept, explorers of an idea, or as is largely the case with Ballard, symbolic. The most important thing is that they are complementary to the author’s larger goals and tone of the writing. The classic example is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. It’s impossible to relate to the characters. From strictly a realist point of view, they are as absurd as a feathered turtle. They do, however, fit Marquez’s magic-realism bill perfectly, and thus become representative of the elements of his historical critique. Thus sometimes it can be a little confusing reading a person remark negatively about how little they relate to an author’s characters when it was never the author’s intent to create likable/unlikable characters. Anyway, I ramble unnecessarily as I’m not trying to accuse you of the practice.

    Do you know when the film hits cinemas? Based on concept alone it’s got to be better than The Martian.

  5. High-Rise debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, and the response has been varied. We’ll just have to see it, won’t we? I’m hoping I can rent in online since I’m in Japan. Aren’t you located in Poland?

    http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-et-mn-toronto-high-rise-20150912-story.html

    http://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/sep/14/high-rise-review-tom-hiddleston-ben-wheatley-jg-ballard-film-toronto-tiff

    As for my understanding of Ballard’s use of characters, it’s been an evolution after reading 4 books and 50 short stories consecutively. Drowned World and Crystal World were the first two, and I had to listen to them twice to really appreciate what he was doing. As you said, his characters are vehicles for his ideas and aren’t meant to be appealing or sympathetic. For some reason I connected more with Drowned World than Crystal World, particularly the idea of traveling back into the prehistoric past of our own racial memories. Once I got to his short stories, I knew what not to expect from his characters, and immersed myself in his languid and melancholy worlds quite comfortably. I hardly bothered to remember their names, as they all served similar functions.

    As for High-Rise, I actually liked the characterization (as opposed to the characters) and found Dr. Laing, Wilder, and Royal very interesting indeed. In part that may be because I know reptilian and predatory ex-pats with big expense accounts who aren’t far from the denizens of High-Rise, so it rang true for me.

    • I’m laughing at the last paragraph. Be sure to smile when you see the materialistic ex-pats. I guess their miserable lives can use all the cheer they can get.

      50 short stories!! That’s a lot to digest in a short time, let alone by one author. And with Ballard, the stories inevitably have more than one layer needing puzzling out. You must have an iron will. I love Ballard, and read most of what he’s written. But to tackle so much at once, I would burn out. Are you reading them as part of the two-volume Collected Stories, or in the individual, previously published collections?

    • I thought the film did not have a US distribution deal yet.

  6. Yes, my secret weapon was The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard on Audible for 1 credit, 65 hrs and 98 stories. Basically I selected the stories that make up Terminal Beach, Vermilion Sands, Best of, and Memories of the Space Age and listened to them in the proper order. It took two weeks, but just a few stories each day, on the train, at the gym, walking the dog, at the doctor’s office, etc. I’m surprised I didn’t regress into the Triassic age, start obsessing about dead astronauts, or just crystallize in place.

    • I think you went about it the right way – to break the collected edition into its original pieces. Otherwise, indeed you may be racing breakneck speed along a highway lusting after Marilyn Monroe…

  7. Stuart: Excellent review. I’ve always loved this novel and was shocked by how much I didn’t like the few other books I tried by Ballard. However, I’m going to read some of his short stories and some of the novels you recommend most highly. By the way, I also really appreciated your comments about your house-hunting in Tokyo. We need to talk more via email about Tokyo. I’d like to ask you some questions about it. I HATE to travel. Beyond 1 hour from my house or going to the beach I grew up going to, i’d prefer not to, as a character once remarked. However, if I got up the energy (and the money and time) to go to ONE place in the world, it would be Tokyo. Every time I get interested in something, from poetry to novels to comics to music to movies to religion and philosophy, I find Japan coming up in some way. It’s eerie. But the one place I like to read about more than any other is Japan.

  8. Jesse: You wrote:

    For me “good characterization” is important only if pure storytelling is the aim. It complements plot and allows the overall narrative to gel. Otherwise, “good characterization” is not on my checklist of to-dos for a novel. Characters can be tools, study material, placeholders within a concept, explorers of an idea, or as is largely the case with Ballard, symbolic. The most important thing is that they are complementary to the author’s larger goals and tone of the writing.

    Thank you for writing such a concise explanation of how we should all evaluate books, at least on some level, even if we don’t “like” a book. For me, any aspect of a novel, from characters to symbolism, is good only if it helps meet the (implied) author’s larger goals and tone of writing in a particular work. This approach allows me to say both, “I didn’t enjoy reading that book” AND “the book seems to meet perfectly the implied aims of the novel and is perfectly crafted.”

    I often think of the movie Short Cuts, based on Raymond Carver’s short stories. PERFECT movie. But my god, I’d never watch it again. I was an emotional wreck for weeks after seeing it.

    I don’t like it when people apply criteria to multiple books when the criteria changes. A romance novel better have romance in it to be good, but I’d be wrong to fault a horror novel for not having enough romance in it.

    And my comments apply to any aspect of the novel. Are the characters flat? Is that bad? Only if the book was attempting to NOT have flat characters to meet its goals. Is there no symbolism? If it’s a crime fiction novel, there might not be any symbolism. Sometimes gun is just a gun.

    Anyway, I really appreciate what you wrote here. I use it as a basis of discussion in class, so that we don’t have pointless conversations about “liking” and “disliking” the book. You can’t convince somebody to like a book, but you can convince somebody that a book is saying something (theme) that another person hasn’t figured out yet, or you can convince another that the book is better crafted than it seems at first. (That the “flat” characters, perhaps, are necessary to the goals of the particular book). I don’t try to convince my students to like the books we read, though I hope they do. However, they must learn to make some attempt at understanding the meaning conveyed via the fictional narrative and the specific techniques employed as craft to convey these meanings.

  9. This is at today’s Audible sale!!!! (3 books for 2 credits sale, you have to have 2 credits to see the sale). I’m buying!!!

  10. Yes, go for it Kat! Tom Higgleston is a brilliant narrator, and I didn’t realize he is Loki from The Avengers as well. Gotta see the movie too when it becomes available~

  11. Update: I finally got around to watching the 2015 film version of High Rise, directly by Ben Wheatley and starring Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Siena Miller, Luke Evans, and Elizabeth Moss. How to assess? Well, it is a valiant attempt to replicate Ballard’s bizarre and surrealistic story of social elites battling the lower classes in a fancy new high-rise and willfully descending into barbarism and hedonism. Visually it’s very distinctive, a series of disturbing set pieces of depravity set to classical music, often in slow motion without dialogue, and artistically-staged mayhem and decay. Overall I’d say it would be pretty hard to understand the underlying points Ballard was trying to make without the benefit of reading the book, which is generally the case. My wife absolutely hated it – couldn’t understand a bit of it. I’m more ambivalent – I respect the effort, but prefer the ruthless social critiques of the novel.

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