Thursday, 12 April 2012

Guest Post | Jason of Kamvision Reviews High Rise by J. G. Ballard

Ladies and gentlemen: welcome once again to The Speculative Scotsman! 

You may or may not know that I’m in America at the moment – if not, yes, it’s true... in fact I’m as far AFK as I’ve ever been before – but never ye fear! For in my absence, a few good men and women have volunteered to make the site their own, albeit only momentarily. They’re bloggers, by and large, but also friends; fine folks one and all that I’ve met on the internet (and occasionally off) in the course of keeping this shared space set aside for burbling about speculative fiction of all shapes and sizes. 

They all have blogs of their own, of course, and I’d urge you to seek them out. I care a lot about what goes on here on The Speculative Scotsman, so let me stress this one thing before I get to giving over the floor: the fact that I’m hosting the work of each of these excellent writers here speaks to my admiration and my respect for every last one among them. 

If you enjoy some or all of these terrific reviews and opinion pieces, do the decent thing and click through the links in the intro and outro of each. Follow a few of my favourite internet critics. :) 

So what do I have to entertain and inform you all today?

Only an incredible review of a brilliant book! An fond old favourite of mine as well, though I suppose I've never had call to mention it here on TSS before.

As to who wrote it... well, if you haven't been formerly introduced, then let me do the honours: everyone, meet Jason Baki, of Kamvision fame. Jason? Meet everyone. :)

I'm tragically short on time today, I'm afraid, so that's going to have to do it for me for the moment, folks, but here: read this review. And then this book.

And then? Well you immediately bookmark Jason's brilliant blog, don't you?


Buy this book from:

"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."


JG Ballard’s often remarkably prescient dystopias, like those of George Orwell and Philip K. Dick have ensured his name is frequently cited among contemporary writers as an influence on their work. My own introduction to Ballard was a late one, I first read Crash shortly after seeing Paul Haggis’s film adaptation in 2004. Like many before, I was immediately struck by the visceral prose and his compelling insight into social dynamics. But in finally getting around to reading High-Rise, it wasn’t so much his fixation with the fragility of civil society that lured me, but rather it was the physical setting for the novel. I myself have spent the largest part of my life so far living at the top of a high-rise tower block, and now I am working on a novel of my own that is inspired in part by my experiences of this environment. So in coming to this work, I was particularly intrigued to see what Ballard had done with the physical space and how he imagined the design of a high-rise tower would impact on those who dwelled there. I have my own direct experience which informs my view, but I was certain Ballard would have some vivid insights of his own. Most certainly, he does.

The first notable feature about the actual physical building is that Ballard imagines it as a high-tech self contained world, complete with gymnasium, swimming pools, restaurant and shops. The second thing is that, as the above indicates, this is a luxury apartment peopled by those with good to high disposable incomes. This is most definitely not any old residential tower block located within an urban wasteland. 

It may not be inhabited by the urban poor, but the first indication of the physical influence of the building on the minds of its inhabitants is very much related to class. Ballard sees the tiered arrangement of the living space in a vertical environment as naturally predisposed to social hierarchy. A little over 50 pages into the novel he writes, “In effect the high-rise had already divided itself into the three classical social groups, its lower, middle and upper classes.” From this hierarchical arrangement stems the fundamental tensions between the residents that drive the narrative. In effect, from the outset the physical space imposes itself on the psychology of its residents, transforming educated, hitherto well-adjusted members of society, into rival clans driven by petty self interest. It’s a fascinating premise and one which instantly places the physical building itself at the centre of the action, which from my own perspective was exactly what I was hoping for. Much more than this, it allows for Ballard’s characteristic insight to run riot (along with most of the buildings occupants) as he explores the ramifications of social fragmentation. 

Ballard does, however, go a step further than just exploring divisions based on perceived social groupings. He also explores the impact of the space on the individual. Here, he suggests that the buildings self-sufficient design has an isolating effect. Many of the inhabitants withdraw from contact with the world outside the building except for work and later even from this. They begin to see themselves as separate not just from those occupying other floors within the building but even from those a few doors away. Ballard it seems is suggesting that apartment living and self-sufficiency are socially isolating. 

Now a great deal has already been written on the effect of architecture on human behaviour, and numerous reports have looked into the relationship between urban design and criminal activity. My own estate, heavily blighted by crime, was demolished and then entirely rebuilt as low-rise housing, due in no small part to the findings of such research. But in reading High-Rise I don’t think Ballard’s intention is solely to suggest that flawed urban design and modern physical living arrangements (the book was written in 1975) promote a breakdown of social cohesion. It seems to me that Ballard sees such divisions already in place across wider society irrespective of environment per se and constructs his high-rise as a microcosm. 

Why do I say this? Ballard makes reference throughout the book to the internal processes of his key characters and their relationship to the physical space in a manner that increasingly blurs the boundaries between their thoughts and their environment. There are three principal characters, Laing, Wilder, and Royal, who are each representative of one the primary hierarchical divisions mentioned earlier. Each of them comes to see themselves as somehow inseparable from their status within the building. Every little fissure and fragment in the block, serves only to reinforce this identity. Eventually the building no longer even functions effectively, yet the characters are so entrenched in their respective positions they scarcely notice what is happening around them. They choose to remain in the building, living in torrid conditions, largely by choice. So either they have massively internalised their environment or they are the architects of it. The narrative suggests both to a degree. In fact one of the key characters, Royal, a member of the upper tier of the social system, is actually an architect involved in the building’s design. But the social psychology that the novel explores in exaggerated form is indicative of widespread real world social hierarchies as exemplified by the class references. Surely Ballard isn’t suggested that class based hierarchies are primarily a product of urban design? Although he may be suggesting they are reinforced by such. Yet if we consider that all of the buildings occupants were initially drawn from similar comfortable social classes, in other words they were to a greater or lesser extent equals, then it seems to me the tiered living arrangements of the high-rise in the novel serves to illustrate the fragmentary effect of imposing hierarchies on those who would otherwise be equal. It is this that I think underpins the novels thematic focus much more than a simple critique of architectural form. Further evidence of this type of wider social commentary occurs later in the novel when a character from the upper tier seeks to use those in the middle tier to suppress those from the lower tier, “...Once we’ve gained a foothold there we can play these people off against those lower down – in short balkanize the centre section and then begin the colonization of the entire building…” A pretty good summation of divide and rule, I would say.

The novel also states on several occasions that those in the middle tier are naturally the most at home with life in the high-rise. The text describes how those dwelling in the central section of the building seem most content to isolate themselves, being both comfortable enough not to require too much from the outside and yet preoccupied with gaining access to the upper levels. I think Ballard’s intent here is fairly plain to see.

Back to my original interest in this novel, wondering how Ballard would use the physical space of a high-rise building, I found his approach fascinating. The high-rise described here isn’t just a physical entity: it’s also a psychological and psychosocial space. I have long been fascinated by the relationship between design, environment and psychology, perhaps because of my earliest influences. In High-Rise, Ballard demonstrates how these elements can combine to great effect within a novel. 

Away from these considerations, I found the book to be highly visual (it’s currently being filmed by Canadian Director, Vincenzo Natali), at times brutal, and possessed of an almost obsessive quality. The frequent comparisons to Lord of the Flies are not without merit. The narrative structure follows a form of ever increasing tension as the building descends into greater disarray, but with little variance. The female characters are also presented in a way that could be deconstructed along a number of interesting lines. The greatest strength of this novel by far is the expert twinning of theme to environment, which is then used to drive every aspect of the narrative - fine by me, because that’s what attracted me to it in the first place. High-Rise is an evocative novel, insightful if a little single-minded, but ultimately one which deserves its place as a classic of socially relevant hyper-real literature.


Everyone say thank you, Jason. 

Thank you, Jason!

Seriously: Kamvision is where it's at. Now go on and follow this fellow. :)

Tomorrow on The Speculative Scotsman, well... more awesomeness, obviously. More specifically, sex, courtesy of Staffer's Musings.

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