In Anticipation of High-Rise


One of the positive outcomes of a bout of Christmas Eve manflu is that it affords the opportunity to lie in bed and tackle a novel from cover to cover. J.G. Ballard's dystopian science-fiction novel High-Rise sat on my 'to read' shelf expectantly for some time and I was determined get to the book before the release of Ben Wheatley's film adaptation in March this year. First published in 1975 High-Rise is a terse and brutal tale of the breakdown of social organisation within the confines of a huge, self-contained luxury apartment building. Rather than a singular sinister force enacting power through surveillance and control however, the book deconstructs the mechanisms of social propriety with the interior of the tower providing both a microcosm of ingrained yet precarious social hierarchies and an arena that frames and amplifies the resultant carnage.

As in most effective sci-fi, the ideas highlighted in the book have an allegorical prescience that still registers even though its tone and setting place it within the 1970s. Certainly there is a pointed critique of an alienated existence resulting from the functional architectural trends of the mid 20th century, along with prophetic allusions to the beginnings of a total saturation of image based culture. It is the interrelationship between physical space and social class that is perhaps the central concern. Ballard sets up the implicit habitus of the three protagonists through their differing positionings within the physical space of the building and, concomitantly, specific social groupings. There is somewhat of an inevitability of the familiar class distinction becoming aligned with the lower, middle and upper sections of the High-Rise. What I found particularly ingenious was the way even the mechanics of the class system disintegrate, firstly into feudally factions and then into a pure and savage individualism. Each apartment, corridor staircase and concorse become symbolic and material battlegrounds in a fight for personal survival. These thematic developments take on a blackly ironic prescience when one thinks of the seemingly inexorable force of neoliberal ideology today. 

There are many obvious comparisons with the dystopian fiction of Orwell, Huxley, Phillip K. Dick. The spectres of Joseph Conrad and William Golding are also apposite with the allusions to the precariousness of civil society and the latent primitivism of the human condition. Knowing a film adaptation has been completed and is shortly to be released, one is drawn into envisaging the cinematic possibilities. Certainly there is a Battle Royal/Hunger Games element to the gladiatorial violence and at times when reading the book one can envisage a more conspiracy/paranoia slant, a la The Conversation or The Parallax view, that plays with the incongruousness of 70s high-life chic with the rigid, utilitarian and oppressive aura of the high-rise tower. The production design possibilities even offer the promise of a more experimental visual approach, something that might be as uniquely memorable as A Clockwork Orange, Brazil, Gattaca or Snowpiercer.

From the short snippet of the film I have watched, along with the fantastic poster by Jay Shaw (right), the film looks to be part of what seems like the current cultural obsession with nostalgia and retro. It not only looks to be set in the 1970s but mimics the formal aesthetics of that cinematic era. I'm wondering as to whether this approach will yield anything more than a flat pastiche. On reading the novel I thought that a film adaptation could potentially be more reflective of present concerns about economics, technology, identitiy politics and cultural geography. The proof, as always will be in the watching. Ben Wheatley is undoubtedly a promising choice as director. His horror credentials - with Down Terrace and Kill List - demonstrate a skill for creating tension building scenarios and gut-churning outcomes and his latest feature A Field in England possesses visual narrative and flair. These creative elements all bode well in a turn to dystopian fiction and the hope for me is that High-Rise Joins Under the Skin and Ex_Machina as part of a highly accomplished cycle of British inflected, 'hard' Science-Fiction.