Given the opportunity, many people would prefer to live in a self-sufficient fortress within a skull-shaped mountain that’s:
- powered by a semi-active volcano,
- surrounded by a verdant tropical wilderness,
- the wilderness populated by carnivorous plants and genetically engineered terror-birds,
- ringed by a border charmingly decorated with the imaginatively bedazzled skulls of trespassers.
Sadly, this is not always practical. Sometimes one has to optimize land use by maximizing the number of people per unit area. Since humans are made of incompressible water, the most practical way to accomplish this is to build up (or down). A tower block or its equivalent can house a thousand people on the same footprint as a few freestanding homes. Its larger cousin, the arcology, uses land even more efficiently.
While living surrounded by legions of people may not be to everyone’s taste, such a setting is attractive to authors. Plot, after all, benefits from human interaction. If there’s one thing a building housing hundreds, thousands, or hundreds of thousands of people offers, it’s human interaction. Don’t believe me? Consider these five works.
High-Rise by J. G. Ballard (1975)
Divorced Dr. Laing is persuaded by his sister to embrace modernity and move into a modern high-rise. Forty stories tall, the tower block houses one thousand well-to-do Britons. The edifice offers every amenity residents could want, from movie theatres to grocery stores. The only absence is any sense of community.
What follows is a glorious process of social distillation. Neighborhoods within the building instinctively sort themselves by class. Having done so, residents within each social stratum turn on each other. Violence and worse abound. The survivors might hope for rescue from the outside… but the world does not notice when phone lines are cut and the building falls silent. The dwindling population within the tower is on its own.
Readers might want to draw parallels between Grenfell Tower or Ronan Point and Ballard’s tower. There is a crucial difference. Grenfell and Ronan Point’s tragedies were inflicted on them by an indifferent, callous society. Ballard’s characters have nobody but themselves to blame for their situation.
Attack the Block, written and directed by Joe Cornish (2011)
Moses and his gang of bored teens make two errors, one embarrassing and one catastrophic. Firstly, they mug nurse Samantha Adams, a fellow Wyndham Tower resident. Secondly, when attacked by an unfamiliar creature, they kill it. The first is an egregious social faux pas. The second amounts to collective suicide.
The unfamiliar animal is the first and by far smallest of its kind to appear. For reasons unclear to the teens, the burly carnivores are obsessed with the gang. The creatures have no trouble tracking the kids. Equipped with an abundance of natural weapons, the beasts being picking off the teens one by one. Having gotten his friends into fatal trouble, it’s up to Moses to save them.
Viewer will recognize Moses as Star Wars actor John Boyega in his first film role. Doctor Who fans may also recognize the actor who plays Samantha Adams as Jodie Whittaker, who is perhaps better known for her portrayal of the Thirteenth Doctor. For some reason, this well-praised, taut science fiction thriller tanked at the box office. Personally, I blame David Cameron. That’s always an option.
Dredd (2012), written by Alex Garland, directed by Pete Travis
With most of North America reduced to toxic desolation, Mega-City One’s eight hundred million citizens live in densely-packed two-hundred-story towers. Rampant crime demands a forthright response. Accordingly, heavily armed Judges are given virtually unlimited authority to dole out justice—or at least punishment—as they see fit.
Judges Dredd (Karl Urban) and Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) enter slum-town block Peach Trees to investigate what appear to be unremarkable violent murders. By doing so, they inadvertently threaten local gang lord Ma-Ma Madrigal (Lena Headey) with exposure and arrest. The solution? Kill both Judges and Ma-Ma’s problems will vanish. Killing Judges proves much harder than it first appears.
Like most movie viewers (I assume), I am easily distracted by the implications of demographic data tossed off in a passing infodump. In this case, we’re told that Mega-City residents commit 17,000 serious crimes a day. That sounds like a lot but that’s the work of eight hundred million people. I think it’s 800 serious crimes per hundred thousand residents per year, which seems to be roughly equal to Alaska’s crime rate. It’s possible the Judges are an overreaction. Of course, in law and order, perception matters more than facts.
This Time of Darkness by H. M. Hoover (1980)
The city is vast, decaying, and dystopian. Its numb inhabitants focus on consumption; adults like Amy’s mother have to be bribed into having children, and the whole apparatus is slowly running down. Eleven-year-old Amy might flee to a better neighborhood were she not (falsely) assured that all neighborhoods are equally squalid. Leaving the city entirely does not occur to her because as far as she knows, the city is all that there is.
Enter Axel, a strange boy with a wild tale. Axel claims to be from outside. A wild tale, but…Axel is clearly unsuited to life in the city. He is also manifestly incapable of escaping on his own. Amy resolves to accompany Axel in a bid to reach the mythical 80th floor…and escape.
The plots of many dystopic tales of this era were driven by catastrophic resource depletion: too many people for the resources available. In this case, the fatal error appears to be the calculation by the ruling classes that to provide the masses with the knowledge and skills needed to maintain the city would provide the masses with the knowledge and skill needed to overthrow their rulers. Safer, therefore, to let things slowly run down and hope that the deluge holds off until the current generation dies of old age.
The Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge (1980)
Tiamat is an underdeveloped planet, its primary community the arcology known as Carbuncle. This is a scheme by the off-world Hegemony that dominates Tiamat. Tiamat is the sole source of Water of Life, on which immortality depends. To forestall the rise of a planetary government able to resist the Hegemony, the Hegemony encourages a highly centralized economy focused on one arcology dependent on off-world technology. During those periods when access to Tiamat is impossible, the Hegemony shuts off all advanced technology on the planet.
Arienrhod has ruled as Snow Queen for a century and a half. When the star gate linking Tiamat to the Hegemony closes, she will be sacrificed, all advanced technology will stop working, and Tiamat will fall into another dark age until the Galactics return. Arienrhod loves her world as much as she enjoys living. She has a cunning plan to save herself and Tiamat, one demanding only the death of an unremarkable rustic girl named Moon. Alas for the Snow Queen, intended victim Moon proves to have a prodigious capacity for screwing up perfectly good plans.
Given the events of this novel and its sequels, one could easily make the case that while Moon is the protagonist, Arienrhod is the hero. Between Moon and supporting character BZ Gundhalinu, they not only sabotage Arienrhod’s bid for Tiamatan independence, they provide the Hegemony with the means to spread far beyond its current borders.
Buildings of Unusual Size can be found throughout science fiction and fantasy. The five mentioned above are just a small taste. Feel free to mention outstanding examples in comments below.
In the words of fanfiction author Musty181, four-time Hugo finalist, prolific book reviewer, and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll “looks like a default mii with glasses.” His work has appeared in Interzone, Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis) and the 2021, 2022, and 2023 Aurora Award finalist Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by web person Adrienne L. Travis). His Patreon can be found here.