Empire of the Sun

‘How do you convey the casual surrealism of war, the deep silence of abandoned villages and paddy fields, the strange normality of a dead Japanese soldier lying by the road like an unwanted piece of luggage?’ (Ballard, 2006)

Empire of the Sun (1984) is a semi-autobiographical novel by the British writer J G Ballard. Set during the Second World War, the novel draws on Ballard’s childhood experience in the Japanese-controlled Lunghua civilian internment camp in China: Ballard had been born to British expatriate parents in the Shanghai International Settlement. The main protagonist of the novel is a boy called Jamie (Jim) Graham, following Ballard’s first and middle names. Jim’s experience of the war is distinctly different to that of the adults around him: in many ways he enjoys the apocalyptic landscapes he inhabits, using them as a space for play; despite the horrors of war, he’s energised by his fascination with military airplanes, cinema, advertising and magazines; and his survival techniques and ability to mix with both prison guards and prisoners provide him with comparative freedom.

In the novel, Jim is separated from his parents, although in reality Ballard was interned with his family. The decision to make Jim ‘a sort of orphan’ allowed Ballard to make the breakthrough into beginning the novel, ending what he described as:

one of the longest periods a professional writer has put off describing the most formative events in his life. 20 years to forget, and then 20 years to remember … Once I separated Jim from his parents the novel unrolled itself at my feet like a bullet-ridden carpet.

Ballard’s work had hitherto often been ghettoised as science fiction, or caused widespread controversy in the case of Crash (1973). Empire of the Sun, however, was warmly received by a literary mainstream Ballard described as ‘the enemy’, to the extent that it won both the Guardian fiction prize and the James Tait Black memorial prize. Having been adapted by the playwright Tom Stoppard, it was subsequently made into a big-budget Hollywood film in 1987; an experience that Ballard welcomed and largely enjoyed. By Ballard’s own estimate, he made £500,000 in royalties from the novel.

Despite the apparent sense of a thematic break within Ballard’s work, the way he later described the novel suggests that it seemed to him to be very much of a piece with his thoroughgoing dystopian, futuristic vision: ‘During the 1960s, the Shanghai of my childhood seemed a portent of the media cities of the future, dominated by advertising and mass circulation newspapers and swept by unpredictable violence.’

J G Ballard

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