J.G. Ballard is a strange writer at the best of times. In the vein of Neal Stephenson, he is not easy to categorize (though he had some solid works in the “New Wave” era of science fiction). Like Empire of the Sun and Crash (I’ve read/seen the former, not the latter), High-Rise is a book that doesn’t fit easily into any genre. (I can’t speak to the movie, as I’ve not seen it.)
Which isn’t to say it’s a complicated book. As the the title suggests, the book takes place in a large apartment complex. This particular complex is newly completed and built upon the most scientific modern principles. It contains everything the residents need, including pools, grocery stores, schools, amusement facilities, and so on. It is also having a sinister psychological effect on those same residents. Now that the building is completed, the people who live there increasingly isolate themselves from the outside world and begin to sort themselves into castes, then tribes, then eventually small groups in a war of all against all.
Through the course of the novel, we follow Wilder (from the poorer, “bottom” apartments), Laing (a psychologist from the middle ranks of the apartment building), and Royal (the architect of the structure and the owner of the top floor penthouse) as they descend into individual bestiality and group savagery. The softening restraints of civilization are left behind at the door as the Hobbesean principle of might makes right begins to rule all things.This book is effective, and I’m happy to encourage you to read it. But it’s not a happy book. Like Lord of the Flies it gives us a picture of mankind with fallen human nature run amok. Unlike Lord of the Flies, the setting provides a sharp contrast to the behavior of the characters. If human beings are to run wild, we expect it to happen in a place like a deserted island (though that expectation itself may have been constructed by books like Lord of the Flies). An apartment complex provides a jarring counter-note, if nothing else because the sort of civilization necessary to construct such a thing requires the kind of civilized behaviour that would raise us above the level of barbarism on display here.
And I think at this point Ballard’s book misfires a bit. His point seems to be that our civilization isn’t really as “civilized” as we like to think, and that technology and modern life can bring out the worse aspects of human nature as much as being stranded on a desert island can. And while I agree that technology and the modern world can contribute to barbarism, I’m not convinced that Ballard has explained exactly how they do so. In High-Rise, technology and modernity reinforce existing class divisions, to the point where open warfare erupts between the classes. That warfare rages on without end, until even the class distinctions have collapsed and all that’s left is a state of nature in which every one is at war with everyone.
I would argue, by contrast, that technology and modernity are dangerous not just because they reinforce divisions, but rather because their primary effect is to obliterate traditional restraints on human behavior and action. (And that’s not the point Ballard wanted to make, but I think it can be read that way.) This isn’t the place to develop my differences with what Ballard was aiming at, just to point out that we’re coming from different perspectives on the relationship between technology/modernity and human nature.
In either case, this book is useful for the Christian as a way to meditate on human nature and the ongoing need for God’s common grace in restraining sin and its effects in the world.
Dr. Coyle Neal is co-host of the City of Man Podcast and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO. He lives in a low-rise.