Vicarious Vertigo: The Social Experience of Height in the Science-Fiction City
‘He looks up the mighty helix and sees the levels stretching toward infinity, with banks of lights glittering above him ... a dizzying vortex; a monstrous well through which the light from a million globes drifts from above like snowflakes.’ Robert Silverberg, The World Inside (1971).
In the entirely self-contained tower-cities of 1970s science fiction, where social stratification is literally translated into floor plates, what significance is placed on the experience or absence of vertigo? This paper will examine the fictional representation of vertigo as a result of vertical urbanism, focusing on three science fiction novels that range from popular to pulp; JG Ballard’s High Rise (1976), Robert Silverberg’s The World Inside (1971), and James Blish and Norman L. Knight’s A Torrent of Faces (1968).
These authors explore a fear for the future of the city, the untrammelled proliferation of the high-rise, and the unknown environmentally deterministic repercussions. The correlation between power and height is so rigidly established it is embedded into the fundamental psychological make-up of the inhabitants.These narratives follow the individual power struggles of literal social climbers, and as our protagonists ascend they confront an inescapable vertigo provoked by unfathomable urban scale. But for those born to the penthouse floors, the view down 100 or 1000 storeys to the ground below is so commonplace as to be disregarded: fear is numbed by exposure and repressed through repetition.
As readers we are prompted to experience vicarious vertigo, either empathising with characters who encounter this for the first time, or on behalf of characters who have had such human frailty bred out of them. Vertigo, then, is not just a device for social stratification in the novels, but its absence provokes the reader to regard it as something integral to urban experience. To lose it might be to lose a sense of awe and proportion, an awareness of our place in a vertical world.
Amy Butt is an independent researcher and practising architect. As Associate Director at BPR Architects, she specialises in education buildings and is a founding member of architecture collective Involve. Her current projects include the Forum North Science and Technology centre at Middlesex University. As an independent researcher, Amy is interested in the way in which the fictional worlds we construct influence and reflect the world we inhabit. She is a regular guest lecturer and invited critic, speaking about utopian thought and the imaginary in architecture through science fiction literature and film.
She is developing her Master’s thesis 'The View from Below' into a book examining 1970s science fiction and its relationship to public perception of the high rise. Amy was a guest speaker at the recent Building Brave New Worlds event hosted by the BFI and Design Council (2014) and has written 'Control Towers: Life and Limitations in The World Inside' for LO-RES journal (forthcoming, www.lo-res.se).
The Urbmon by Charlotte Knox-Williams (March 2015)