Why JG Ballard’s High-Rise takes dystopian science fiction to a new level

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Why JG Ballard’s High-Rise takes dystopian science fiction to a new level
Ballard was inspired by Balfron Tower in east London
Why JG Ballard’s High-Rise takes dystopian science fiction to a new level
Ballard was inspired by Balfron Tower in east London

Whether mazes, blocks or bunkers, Ballard was drawn to the psychology of enclosed, brutal environments. This inner space, rather than outer space, was his SF realm

JG Ballard’s High-Rise, published 40 years ago and soon to be seen on cinema screens in a film adaptation directed by Ben Wheatley, begins with one of the most arresting first sentences in 20th-century literature: “Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.”

High-Rise is the final part of a quartet of novels – the first three are The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), Crash (1973) and Concrete Island (1974) – with each book seeded in the previous one. Thematically High-Rise follows on from Concrete Island with its typically Ballardian hypothesis: “Can we overcome fear, hunger, isolation, and find the courage and cunning to defeat anything that the elements can throw at us?” What links all of them is the exploration of gated communities, physical and psychological, a theme that is suggestive of Ballard’s childhood experiences interned by the Japanese in a prisoner-of-war camp on the outskirts of Shanghai in the 1940s. It was, he always claimed, an experience he enjoyed.

The built environment is not a backdrop, rather it is integral and distinctive in its recurring imagery – from abandoned runways, to curvilinear flyovers and those endlessly mysterious drained swimming pools. Perhaps more than any other writer, he focused on his characters’ physical surroundings and the effects they had on their psyches. Ballard, who died in 2009, was also interested in the latent content of buildings, what they represented psychologically. Or, as he once obliquely put it, “does the angle between two walls have a happy ending?” – by which he meant that we project narrative on to external reality, that the imagination remakes the world. In Ballard’s fiction, nothing is taken at face value. []

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