Jonathan Cape U.K. Hc | 1975 | Cover by Craig Dodd
I’d always wished to read J. G. Ballard ever since I had seen Spielberg’s big screen adaptation of his novel Empire of the Sun. I was also aware that he had written a number of science fiction novels, but I still never got around to his works despite being full swing into my second major genre reading phase at the time (late 90’s). Rather than picking up Empire of the Sun or Crash, two of which I have always believed to be his most lauded works (both also having been successfully adapted for the screen), I instead chose High-Rise (1975) on a whim. It’s turned out to be an excellent work; the best I have read this year (so far) by a very large margin.
I expected the novel to be a thriller, and it is. I just didn’t expect the depth. That Ballard can pack so much so well in a very short novel is a testament to his skill. This is a pure, psychological thriller that brings out the horrific qualities of man’s depredations from an unexpected angle, where the setting itself plays a key and active role. Even the first line startles. It sets the tone perfectly, as if the author is intent on enlightening the reader on society’s basest instincts in as off-handed and casual a manner as possible.
The setting is an extremely sophisticated and modern apartment complex, a ‘high rise’ (comprising 40 floors with a full capacity of 2000 tenants) a short way away from the outskirts of London. It is just one building in a massive project consisting of four or five such towers and is the first to be completed. It is completely self-sufficient, giving the tenants access to a concourse filled with: supermarkets and shops; entertainment and recreation facilities such as gyms and swimming pools; and other amenities such as restaurants, a children’s school, parks, playgrounds, etc.
The story begins with the full occupation of the first completed building and is tenanted by educated and cosmopolitan professionals from all walks of life. Through the viewpoints of three characters, the novel charts the life of the community from its vibrant genesis to its eventual moral and ethical degeneration. It’s a change that comes subtly, without any conspicuous demarcation yet one that’s clearly felt by all. The setting turns dystopian, literally apocalyptic in nature, and is marked by the inexorable revelation of old social modes reasserting themselves within a community of modern, mostly middle-class individuals. These roles point to a renascent violence that seems charged by a subconscious compulsion—later, almost wilful—to do away with modern accoutrements and resort to primitive, tribal communes.
Even the nature of this modern setting shapes a new kind of psychology in the individual that might not have been possible in other environments: “a new social type was being created by the apartment building, a cool, unemotional personality impervious to the psychological pressures of high-rise life,” and “living in high rises required a special type of behaviour that was acquiescent, restrained, even perhaps slightly mad. A psychotic would have a ball here.”
Many novels trace the development of characters based on the situations and settings they find themselves in. With this work, there’s also a remarkably surreal, reverse aspect at play: the actions and changing temperaments of characters shaped by the setting themselves end up expounding on the nature of this modern edifice that is the ‘high rise’.
Reading the novel, I was strongly reminded of an observation made in Outram’s The Enlightenment, where she summarises certain remarks by Horkheimer and Adorno from their Dialectic of Enlightenment published near the close of WWII. I quote Outram:
“The Enlightenment relies on ‘rationality’, reasoning which is free from superstition, mythology, fear and revelation, which is often based on mathematical ‘truth’, which calibrates ends to means, which is therefore technological, and expects solutions to problems which are objectively correct.
But it is notorious that human beings often fail to arrive at rational solutions. Having given up non-rational ways of explanations such as mythology or revelation, the only way to resolve such differences was by the use of force. At the heart of the Enlightenment lurks political terror. Horkheimer and Adorno thus argued that the Enlightenment had left no legacy which could resist the technologically assured man-made death of the Holocaust.”
Just as the gas ovens and trains represented one dark facet of the zenith of the Enlightenment ethos that contributed to a Holocaust, the ‘high rise’ in Ballard’s novel can also be seen to represent a paradox in the form of a modern technological triumph that disenfranchises its inhabitants and ultimately gives way to an encroaching barbarity, its own unique brand of “political terror”.
Technology is usually seen as the mark of progress and advancement of civilisation. Yet, Ballard’s ‘high rise’ completely inverts this notion when he places the natural vagaries of human nature in an environment accelerated by technology, an environment to which our primitive psyches have yet to fully adjust.
What is perhaps more disturbing than anything else is the tenants’ near complete acquiescence to this barbarity, as well as the tacit agreement to keep the gradually escalating horrors away from the public sphere, which, strangely, the insidious nature of the complex seems to foster. The novel’s end leaves you with a queasy feeling in your gut and you wonder whether Locke’s appealing sentimentality of Man’s essentially reasonable nature is misguided after all, that it might instead be better to take Hobbes’ lessons on the ‘state of nature’ more to heart. This couldn’t be clearer as one traces the spiralling devolution of a character to an atavistic state so base and primitive that even the need for speech becomes difficult or unnecessary or pointless, or collectively all three.
Ballard writes very well. He narrates this particular story with a detached and clinical precision, detailing the relationship of each point-of-view character with the larger community and approaching their variegated thought processes in relation to their social classes and backgrounds. While his writing may be detached, the characters are not, despite some of them initially feigning nonchalance in the face of deteriorating circumstances. And neither is the mounting sense of unease and dread that will afflict you with the reading as it did me.
I highly recommend High-Rise. It is an intense and exceptionally powerful work that illustrates the clash of modern technological lifestyles on our animalistic dispositions, albeit an extreme scenario that turns into a frightening caricature. As a cautionary tale on the disenfranchisement that our vaunted modernity can affect, it works superbly. That I will be reading more Ballard is also without question.
The only caveat is that if his other works are similarly unsettling and taxing on the emotions, then one might require periods of convalescence between reads. And if this example is anything to go by, then the adage “a little bit goes a long way” couldn’t be more appropriate. Or perhaps I just unknowingly jumped into the deep end of Ballard’s psyche.
© 2015 Nirvan Jain
 Holt. Reinhard & Winston Hc | 1977 | Cover by Carlos Ochagavia
 Triad Granada Pb | 1985 | Cover by James Marsh
 Caroll & Graff Pb |1989 | Cover by Barclay Shaw & Roy Colmer
 Harper Perennial U.K. Pb | 2006 | Cover by David Wardle
From Nebula and Hugo Award–nominated Carolyn Ives Gilman comes Dark Orbit, a compelling novel featuring alien contact, mystery, and murder.
Reports of a strange, new habitable planet have reached the Twenty Planets of human civilization. When a team of scientists is assembled to investigate this world, exoethnologist Sara Callicot is recruited to keep an eye on an unstable crewmate.