High Rise by J G Ballard. Published in 1975. For a novel about a huge luxury apartment building descending into violent anarchy, High Rise is a surprisingly dull book. The entire plot is in the premise. There’s a huge luxury apartment building and it descends into violent anarchy. The end. You don’t read Ballard for the story though, or the characters (they are all residents of the apartment building, and they all become violent anarchists). You read his work for the prescience. The unique insight into society and the human condition. How does that stand up forty years after publication?
Ballard did what literary novelists are supposed to do – he looked at an important social trend: the unrest and rise of violent crime in the 1970s and he decided it was linked to modernity: increased urbanism and the intrusion of technology into our lives. As these things increase so will the savagery, High Rise predicts. Fortunately Ballard was completely wrong. Violent crime peaked in the 1970s and has been trending down ever since, even as technology becomes more ubiquitous and all that modernity Ballard feared became all-encompassing. There’s nothing quite as obsolete as a book that gambles everything on being ‘prescient’ and loses the bet.
Also, I like this Zadie Smith column about Ballard.
The Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin. A Chinese science fiction novel – first in a trilogy – that won the Nebula prize this year. I think this is the first novel I’ve ever read by a Chinese author, which is a bit embarrassing. I thought (a) that the modern history of China makes it an awesome setting for paranoid sci-fi novels, (b) I struggled with the Chinese names, and found it impossible to distinguish between three primary characters called Yang, Ding and Wang. (c) The writing is very poor. Not sure if that’s a problem with the translation or the original text, but it was so shoddy I abandoned the book half way through, which is very rare for me.
Submission by Michel Houellebecq: Gained notoriety when Houellebecq featured on the cover of Charlie Hebdo the day the magazine staff were murdered by Islamic terrorists. The premise is that a mainstream Muslim political party wins power in France in the early 2020s and the country converts to Sharia law. The spectre of an Islamic France haunts that nation’s politics, particularly on the far right, but Houellebecq’s joke is that the conversion process is actually a painless, pleasant experience for the country in general and France’s intellectual elite especially. Mostly they are all delighted at the prospect of having polygamous marriages with multiple submissive teenage wives. (There is a funny book to be written about a polygymous marriage in which the participants are all as selfish and hateful as Houellebecq characters, but it would require strong female characters so Houellebecq is not the person to write it.)
But the book is only about this in a very peripheral way. Mostly it’s about a middle-aged academic having a mid-life crisis. The academic specialises in Huysmans, a 19th century French novelist I’ve never read, and know nothing about (except that his masterpiece A Rebours is supposedly the unnamed scandalous novel in Dorian Gray). That book obviously means a lot to Houellebecq – his very first publication was a study of Lovecraft called ‘Against the world’. Much of Submission is about Huysmans and A Rebours, and assumes knowledge of and a pre-existing interest in him, and the rest of it is the usual Houellebecq misanthropy: rants against feminism and capitalism and socialism and ‘the suicide of the west.’ I’m not sure if this is the worst Houellebecq novel I’ve read, or that I’ve read too many of them and I’m basically just tired of his bullshit?