Ballard, J.G. High-Rise London: Fourth Estate, 1975
Ballard describes the dystopian descend of life in a ‘High-Rise’ apartment block. A thousand apartments over forty levels comprise the luxury apartment block which stands two miles from the city centre of London. The tenth floor is taken over completely by a supermarket, bank, hair salon, junior school, swimming pool and gymnasium. There is a further restaurant, sauna and smaller swimming pool on the thirty-fifth floor. We begin with one of the three main male heroes, Dr. Laing. He has recently moved in to a studio apartment on the 25th floor of a forty-storey apartment block recently completed. Life in the apartment block chosen for its progressive nature and the anonymity. The glut of conveniences created a contained world with no need to leave its environs. A microcosm onto itself. The block quickly asserts its stratification of social classes according to the levels. The lower storeys occupied by families, the middle to the professional classes, and the upper levels to the privileged upper classes with their pet dogs rather than children. Another of the heroes Royal, the architect of the building lives on the top floor with his wife. The third hero, Wilder, represents the lower levels and the attempt at social progression as signified by progression to the upper echelons of the block.
Petty grievances among inhabitants and the definite stratification of the block leads to divisions which quickly degenerate into anarchy. Life is corrupted as the inhabitants of the High-Rise stray away from civilised society towards the satiation of base desires. Ballard highlights the fragility of civilisation and how quickly it can be torn asunder from a network of innocuous sources. The quick spiral and broad nature of the descent appears to illustrate have these thoughts and feelings are common to all of us. At any time they may be brought to the fore if the conditions are ripe and the veneer of civilisation falls away.
Ballard was born in Shanghai in 1930. Following the attack on Pearl Harbour, Ballard and his family were placed in a civilian concentration camp. The descent of humanity to levels of depravity described in High-Rise is be drawn from his personal experience. He describes his experience,
“Anyone who has experienced a war first hand knows that it completely overturns every conventional idea that makes up day-to-day reality. It’s like walking away from a plane crash.”
Ballard describes how this incident during his formative years has given him a unique insight into human behaviour. Seeing his parents stripped of all authority and people experiencing humiliation and fear with no end in sight.
The book presents a difficult image of apartment living and the devolution of civilised society. The 1970’s was coloured by social unrest and disillusionment, coupled with a populist individualism and capitalist consumerism. The oil embargo and fuel shortages of 1973, followed by blackouts and looting in New York in the summer of 1977 echo the happenings in High-Rise. Bloody Sunday in 1972 saw the start of the Troubles in Northern of Ireland. Meanwhile the Vietnam War was continuing with increased public opposition to United States involvement. The social and political turmoil of the period marks Ballard’s novel not as science fiction but as a latent future for society. Began as an optimistic new world the cosmos of the High-Rise descends quickly to a primordial brutalism. A potential prognosis for the future.
Forty years after its publication, the book has been adapted for film under the direction of Ben Wheatley and was released in Ireland on 18th March 2016.