It’s an advanced, technology-saturated city not too different from one you might be living in right now. The streets are safe, people have well-paying jobs, the economy is doing well, and if you’re smart, diligent and law-abiding, you have a reasonable chance of moving up in life. The poor, the homeless, and the unemployed have been banished, of course, so that no-one can be bothered by them, and there are plenty of things with which you can distract yourself from the void at the centre of your life: bars, clubs, restaurants, shiny new devices, drugs, reality TV … and if those aren’t enough for you, then there’s also high-rise diving! Picture this: nubile young athletes, highly-trained from childhood to leap off skyscrapers and dive gracefully like swans to perform death-defying aerial stunts, before switching on their jetpacks moments away from death to fly back up and perform dances in the skies. People adore them, and while not everyone survives their jump, the thrill of courting death makes everyone feel alive …
So in a society where no-one’s talents are wasted, and where everything functions like clockwork, what happens when Riva Karnovsky, the city’s most adored high-rise diver—and the very epitome of cultural compliance and physical perfection—suddenly refuses to train or perform, and the masses begin to grow restless? Enter Hitomi Yoshida, star psychiatrist in the employ of Riva’s investors and an ambitious apparatchik eager to make her mark. Her mission: “revive” Riva and “coax” her out of her misery before the masses grow unruly (p. 110), or risk being expelled from the city and banished to its filthy, crime-ridden outskirts. What follows is a battle of wills in which Hitomi, armed with total surveillance access to nearly every corner of Riva’s life, does her best to coerce, cajole, and coax the athlete back into action, with devastating consequences for both of them.
Published in March this year, screenwriter Julia von Loucadou’s debut novel paints a picture of a world not unlike our own—obsessed with efficiency and perfection—but with the intensity turned up, and so serves as a reminder of the perils of techno-utopianism at a time when our world is marked by disorder and chaos. Challenging the assumption that the spread of data-driven reasoning and mass digital technologies will inevitably lead to a more open, transparent, and stable world, The High-Rise Diver in fact argues the exact opposite: that the quest for perfection and optimization using data and technology may just as easily lead to corporatism (or proto-fascism), and so a world as oppressive and as opaque as the one it seeks to reform. Transparency and inclusion can all be features of a subtle and sophisticated tyranny as much as of a liberal democracy, by taking advantage of the distinction between providing more information, and being more truthful. Despite the tedium of its prose, what The High-Rise Diver does is update Orwellianism for our digital era by painting a portrait of a manic, digitized dystopia eerily similar to our own, inviting comparisons with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), and George Orwell’s 1984 (1949).
In the world of this novel, the wealthy and privileged live in a vast and unnamed megacity stretching out in all directions like “an infinite sea,” with “delicate-looking skyscrapers” arranged “geometrically in rectangular and star formations.” The poor, homeless, unemployed, and exiled, meanwhile, live in "the peripheries" (p. 10), the impoverished outskirts which bring together all the delights of a penal colony, Mad Max-style rust belt, and sprawling slum. Furnished with a rudimentary infrastructure, the peripheries are filled with “sticky people” (p. 71), “swarms of children, like wasps” (p. 132), “adults … in an uncontrolled mob” (p. 71), and plagued by earthquakes, pollution, industrial accidents, heat waves, squalor, crime, and socio-economic hierarchies “not easily recognized by outsiders” (p. 195). In effect, city elites are operating a highly-developed city-state with a failed state grafted onto its borders to provide a steady supply of labour for their industries, with cutting-edge modernity abutting abject backwardness.
Economically, the city appears to have a mix of state-managed organizations and a robust private sector, but with economic opportunities and housing distributed firmly on the basis of merit-based indices against which every citizen is measured to help them arrive at their natural place in a socioeconomic hierarchy (movement along which is occasionally bent for the benefit of the privileged). A welfare state also exists, but only serves employed city-dwellers, and is presumably paid for by taxes levied on all citizens. Even common words and phrases, such as okay™ or life-changing-moment™, are trademarked, which means that when they’re used the city automatically collects additional revenues. A citizen who performs any number of disapproved activities, from eating poorly to not answering their text messages quickly enough, risks losing their job, and with it their housing, social standing, financial creditworthiness and identity. In any normal setting, such an appalling arrangement might have triggered a popular revolt, were it not for the careful manipulation of the media and the establishment of a system of incentives by which the masses are kept distracted and disunited from imagining a better life for themselves.
Traditional family structures have been abolished in the city, with most citizens raised in childcare institutes and receiving mandatory sterilizations to ensure population control. Regular families (biofamilies) can be found in the peripheries, where children are born and raised naturally, but additional children are also mass-raised in breeder facilities to ensure an adequate supply of labour, especially when the age of adulthood has been conveniently lowered to fourteen. Once every six months, all children in the peripheries participate in “required castings” (p. 46) in various subjects—from math to high-rise diving—to allow the state to detect early aptitude in economically viable talent, with the most promising taken into state-run institutes for further grooming. The rest are left to languish in their lot. (This whole process is broadcast as a reality TV show.) Meanwhile, lonely city-dwellers can ease their emotional needs by taking drugs, talking to a “motherbot” app (p. 179), dating partners matched for them by a “partnering agency” (p. 41), seeking free psychiatric counselling, or by renting relatives from “the Family Services Agency™” (p. 63).
With its overly-digitized society and culture of celebrity obsession, what the city lacks is a charismatic central leader to hold it all together. What it has instead is the mass propaganda, coordinated disinformation, surveillance technology, and economic incentives of the state: the Skycam system that monitors and optimizes the movement of all people and traffic in the city; the ubiquitous security cameras; the health monitoring devices and apps that all citizens are required to wear and use, which feed into various scores and ranking systems (adaptation, credit, healthcare, workplace) that keep them compliant and docile; the restrictions on movement from the peripheries which help maintain a certain quality of life in the city; the ever-present threat of expulsion; the use of reality television and media spectacles to keep the population distracted and spellbound—the list goes on. This is a system designed to cater to every whim and emotion in order to keep citizens docile, compliant, and integrated, while also reducing them to the level of termites.
Right from the novel’s opening lines, then, the reader is drawn into a world perched on the edge of a carefully-controlled mania, a dark and unsettling world where an outwardly careful order belies an underlying anxiety that is as exhausting to comprehend as it is overwhelming. Displaying the self-organizing complexity of a technium, the cultural dreariness of a McWorld and the “totalitarian technocracy” of a technopoly (to quote Neil Postman), this is an over-organized society whose timbre is depressingly familiar—if extreme by our standards—but somehow also incredibly resilient. Traditional dystopias of the kind seen in Atwood and Orwell’s works rely on a large police or military force to keep the population in order. Instead, the world of The High Rise Diver seeks inspiration from the works of Aldous Huxley, in which a public keeps itself in a state of stupor through sensory overload, while living in a malleable, digitized para-reality reminiscent of William Gibson’s or Philip K. Dick’s works. City-dwellers find so little in themselves that they manically and constantly seek stimulation on the internet to feel alive, and so turn the city into a kind of digital prison where they themselves give the city authorities the information needed to keep them oppressed, through being constantly fed a diet of what they wish to see, rather than the truth. Something similar has been observed and discussed at length in our world. “The entire logic of the Web,” writes Robert Kaplan in The Washington Post, “works toward popularity, not quality, and certainly not toward truth … the digital age, originally sold to us as empowering, could yet become the greatest threat to free thought and democracy in history. The very idea of something going viral is an expression of the mob more than of the individual. If a government or a company knows the destination and sequence of all of your searches, it is virtually inside your mind.”
The city is a system which appears to have emerged organically, from combining the technological maxim of providing ever-greater personalization with the goal of supporting the human imperative for order, stability, security, and prosperity. What results has the sociological potency of a chocolate-covered cyanide pill. Technology can be used to connect, empower, and enlighten, but it can also be a path to dehumanization, even when built around human behaviour and with human well-being in mind. Radical openness and transparency can be just as stifling and restricting as radical restrictions on the truth; being given too much information can disarm, overwhelm, and oppress just as much as being given too little.
The ubiquity of screens bombarding residents with information from all directions, at all times, helps keep them off-kilter with an overabundance of digital video content that—again to quote Kaplan—“precisely because it is given to manipulation, [it] is inherently controlling.” Thus, tech accouterments and the veneer of a socially progressive and inclusive society, overlaid atop a totalitarian order, mask the truth of the system from itself, presenting its inhabitants with a vision of perfection, order and efficiency, but the reader with a dark vision of autocratic capitalism and techno-surveillance that feels hyper-real.
Data-driven optimization in the service of ever-greater personalization, and informational ubiquity in the pursuit of greater transparency and access actually creates a system that stifles and represses as much as a formal totalitarian regime. In fact, the regime in this novel is more subtle and sophisticated precisely because it dresses itself up with the ornaments of a more open and liberal society (e.g. freely available media technology, mass-personalized content made around the needs and desires of users, tech innovation to support improved material living conditions for those who can afford them), when in fact it merely employs them as spolia to legitimize itself while it pursues a more rigidly controlling order. Such regimes draw their power not from the suppression of the truth, nor from restricting access to it, but by drowning it in a deluge of information that discourages people from seeking it, and therefore losing interest in knowing and upholding it, creating fertile ground for such phenomena as fake news, alternative facts, and post-truth.
Despite being the centerpiece of the novel, the origins of the socio-technological structure of the city don’t appear to be well-developed. A city over-engineered to enshrine order, efficiency and perfection to such an extent that its authorities react with ruthlessness and panic should even one piece of its careful arrangement go awry—how did such a society come to be? What caused it to develop this way? Alas, the novel falls short on such details. While Brave New World rationalized the inevitable over-organization of society as a natural consequence of its increasing economic organization, and The Handmaid’s Tale analyzed the re-emergence of oppressive patriarchy and state paternalism in response to the excesses of social liberalism, this novel does neither. It has neither the penetrating sociological analysis of the former nor the incisive feminist analyses of the latter, but merely relies on its similarity to our current world to justify the dark vision that can result from the increasing digitization and corporatization of society even within the ambit of liberal democracy.
Compounding the problem of analyzing this novel is the plodding nature of the prose. The first half of the book is slow-moving and consists of little more than a dull recitation of Hitomi’s daily routines, workplace insecurities, and a few scattered reflections thrown in for good measure to create the illusion of profundity. But perhaps that’s the point: it serves to establish the pedantic, oppressive tedium of the world in which a shallow, self-serving and emotionally bonsaied Hitomi dwells. After painstakingly boring us to death with a stream of details from Hitomi’s unremarkable work and personal life, the action picks up dramatically in the novel’s second half—in which, after having failed to drug Riva into submission, Hitomi recruits an actor to masquerade as the athlete’s new roommate and deceive her into diving again, only to see him launch a rebellion. At this point, our meticulous and risk-averse protagonist experiences a nervous breakdown, and in quick succession has a one-night stand with a bartender, loses her job, loses her home, and is expelled to the peripheries, where she chooses to end her life at a state-run assisted suicide institute. Quite the shift. But the pacing alone isn't the issue here.
Reading about the tedium of life in the city would have been more tolerable had Hitomi been filled with murderous rage like Patrick Bateman from American Psycho , or quirkily out of step with the world around her, like a character from a Charlie Kaufman film. But the combination of a breathless recollection of sheer tedium with the neediness of the eager apparatchik to fit in with the world around her makes for an eye-glazingly, mind-numbingly boring read. For a novel titled The High Rise Diver, it does little to rise above the mundane and the forgettable to leave its stamp in the heavens of our imaginations. While the drudgery of having to follow Hitomi reading every email, watching every video and recounting every insecurity she's ever had might be off-putting enough, the reality is she cuts little more than a barely interesting figure for all of it, which is damning indeed. None of the main characters are interesting or compelling enough to hold one’s attention with the exception of Andorra, a free-spirited childhood friend whom Hitomi recalls denouncing to the authorities to save herself.
Moreover, dystopian novels generally succeed in making their point when they furnish themselves with a captivating and iconic villain who personifies the philosophy of a system, and therefore its benefits and drawbacks. Whether it’s Mustafa Mond (Brave New World), O’Brien (1984) or the Commander (A Handmaid’s Tale), the more convincing the villain, the more convincing the system. Hitomi Yoshida works for one Hugo M. Masters, who singularly lacks the arresting insights of Mond, the chilling authority of O’Brien, or the inner conflicts of the Commander—any of which might have made him more convincing. Instead, Masters flits from being a seething, mercurial bureaucrat who can barely hold himself together in one scene to a calculating manipulator in the next, in an awkward transition which feels entirely appropriate given how mutable the system he embodies.
Ultimately, The High Rise Diver suffers not from the problem of being a bad novel, but from simply not being well-developed enough for discerning readers. While it does have sufficient depth to satirize the digital self-promotion and mass surveillance culture of the 2010s, it lacks the subtlety of the works to which it has been compared, or which have tackled similar themes with more wit and pathos (recall Black Mirror’s “Nosedive” ). At best, it's a run-of-the-mill dystopian novel which tries to be more profound and thought-provoking than it is, and might have done better as a script or a treatment ready for adaptation to the screen (which was perhaps the point). There is a cinematic, visual quality which pervades it, and it reads more like a screenplay in prose format than a prose novel (unsurprising given the author’s background), and so is likely to appeal more to watchers of content than serious readers looking for meaningful stories.