Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard (1984)

Empire of the Sun is by far J.G. Ballard’s best known and most accessible book and was, of course, made into a major motion picture by Steven Spielberg. Cultural success doesn’t come much bigger than that. And, as a result, there are thousands of scholarly essays, as well as Brodie’s Notes and Wikipedia articles about Empire of the Sun, giving you the book’s plot and a standard account of its ‘themes’.

To avoid duplication, the aim of this review is to read the book as it sheds light on the nearly thirty years of Ballard’s science fiction novels and short stories which preceded it.


Empire of the Sun gave the game away. If you’d been reading Ballard’s novels and short stories during the 1960s and 70s you would have been bewildered by the intensity and weirdness of his imaginary world and the obsessive repetitiveness of his basic plot, in which a handful of people experience a catastrophic social collapse – either in a dystopian future or in an alienated present – becoming steadily more isolated from each other, pursuing their own psychotic fantasies in a derelict landscape of abandoned cities and empty hotels and drifting sand dunes, where maniacs try to turn themselves into birds or paint mandalas on the bottom of drained swimming pools in order to channel the voices of the universe, or try to fly microlight planes into the sun.

For nearly thirty years, from his first short story published in 1956 until Empire of The Sun was published in 1984, readers and critics had wondered where it came from, this unique, twisted and fiercely compelling psychic landscape which is the subject of most of Ballard’s best stories.

Then Empire of the Sun gave the game away. It describes how 11-year-old Jim, along with his mum and dad, a successful English businessman, experienced just such a social collapse and psychological extremes.

Jim and his family were living in Japanese-occupied Shanghai in December 1941 when the Japanese launched their surprise attack on America at Pearl Harbour, simultaneously attacking all the allied shipping in Shanghai harbour and moving swiftly to arrest all foreign nationals.

In the book, Jim escapes the initial roundup and lives for four months on the run in abandoned houses, eking a living from stagnant water and whatever dry food he can find in the empty larders of the once-rich International Settlement. He has weird encounters with a range of characters whose roles and identities have been turned upside down by the sudden collapse of Western values. Jim is finally caught by the Japanese authorities and spends the next three years in the living hell of Lunghua internment camp, just a few miles south-west of Shanghai, but a million miles from the pampered expatriate life he had grown up in.

So this is where it came from, the deep enduring and viscerally intense mood of world turned upside down and people starving in ruined hotels and abandoning themselves to psychotic fantasies, this is the origin of Ballard’s dazzling and distinctive subject and style!

Part one

Background The Sino-Japanese War broke out in 1937 and the Japanese army quickly overran the Chinese Nationalist army of Chiang Kai-Shek whose government retreated far into western China. Meanwhile, China’s coastal regions and ports were taken over and administered by the Japanese who treated the defeated Chinese with great brutality but allowed European and American merchants and officials to carry on their businesses, but with a growing sense of unease.

The narrative starts as 11-year-old Jim watches his parents and their European friends in the International Settlement trying to keep their spirits up with fancy dress parties, tennis tournaments and bridge at the club, and gives us just enough of a description for us to realise the grotesque contrast between the anyone-for-tennis cocktail parties of the pampered westerners and the filthy, teeming, squalid world of the Shanghai slums.

Until one day the disaster they all knew was coming arrives and the bottom falls out of their world. Timed to coincide with the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour (8am on Sunday morning, December 7, 1941) the Japanese ships in Shanghai harbour open devastating fire on the British ships moored nearby, sinking them and shooting the sailors who try to flee (to be precise, the Japanese cruiser Izumo, the gunboat Toba and Japanese shore batteries in the French Concession opened fire at point-blank range on HMS Peterel which returned fire until it capsized and drifted from its mooring while the crew abandoned ship.)

At the same time Japanese soldiers are sent to the luxury houses of the International Settlement, and rounded up all nationals of the countries Japan was now at war with, starting with the British and Americans. Germans and White Russians were left alone for the time being, though traumatised by watching their friends and neighbours be hustled out of their nice big houses and loaded up into army trucks and driven off to God knows where.

Jim and his dad happen to be on the quayside when the Japanese ships start shelling the British ones, and Jim watches his dad jump into the water, along with some other Brits, to try to help the survivors from the sunk British battleship stagger ashore onto the harbour’s stinking mud. Jim jumps in to help. The survivors are taken to Shanghai hospital, with Jim being put in a children’s ward by himself. A few days later, when Japanese lorries arrive and the walking wounded are hustled into them and driven off, Jim escapes from the hospital and makes his way through the teeming streets, dodging a Chinese teenager who tries to mug him, walking all the way back to the International Settlement.

And what does he find? A world in ruins. A dystopian landscape of empty houses, all power and lights disconnected, defrosting fridges, draining swimming pools and gardens rapidly becoming overgrown. In a key scene, Jim approaches one of the many mute and submissive Chinese servants who had worked in his parents’ house and is now looting a sofa from it, and the man simply punches Jim in the face.

Too stunned to speak or think, Jim retreats and hides, finding refuge in these abandoned, dark and dangerous places, formerly the scene of so much jollity. The narrative shows Jim hiding out for weeks, initially enjoying himself riding his bicycle indoors, up and down the empty hall and into all the empty rooms, until the weeks become leaden, eventually turning – we are told – into four months, scraping a living on cocktail olives and cheese biscuits, drinking increasingly rancid water from brackish water tanks, growing thinner and more feverish.

Aha! So this is where it comes from. Ballard’s lifelong obsession with the ruins of the contemporary world, with abandoned hotels and empty cities and derelict shopping centres and the obsessive, recurring image of The Drained Swimming Pool.

In a flash all his many fans and critics realised that – although many of his novels and stories are set in the future and feature futuristic plot paraphernalia – environmental catastrophe or strange new ‘space sicknesses’ – in fact Ballard’s fiction was always about the past, that like any victim of severe trauma, he was obsessively revisiting the shock, ordeal and suffering of those crucial, decisive boyhood years.

Towards the end of the 160 pages of part one, Jim falls in with a couple of American chancers, Basie, a confident rat-faced man, formerly a steward on passenger liners, who’s made a base in a ruined tanker in Shanghai harbour and sends bigger, tougher Frank out on chores. Jim gets co-opted into their eerie and often pointless survivor lifestyle. Basie makes Frank collect and polish ship’s porthole brasses, though they never manage to sell one. In one scene they go to busy Hongkew market where, Jim realises, they are trying to sell him to the Chinese, but he is by this stage so obviously malnourished, skinny and covered in running sores, that no-one is buying.

Part one ends when they take Jim out for a drive in their truck and he realises they’re simply want to find somewhere to dump him. Jim persuades them to drive to the abandoned houses of the International Settlement, luring them with the fact that one of Jim’s neighbours was a dentist who kept lots of equipment in his house. Maybe there’ll be some gold teeth somewhere in it. But they are caught by Japanese soldiers who are camping out in the abandoned houses and quickly surround the truck, pulling Jim out onto the road, while they surround and batter Frank, and beat Basie with their bamboo staves.

Part two

Part two opens three and a half years later. Jim, who was 11 in part one, is now 14 (p.165). To be more precise, the events of part one were kicked off by Pearl Harbour (December 1941), whereas when part two opens, not only has Victory in Europe day happened (May 1945, p.174) but the Japanese have surrendered at Okinawa (late June 1945) and this section ends with the detonation of the second atom bomb at Nagasaki on 9 August 1945. So it covers a few weeks in July and August 1945.

Anyway, part two (pp.163-260) finds a Jim who has survived three and a half long years in the Lunghua internment camp and been utterly changed by it. It describes in excruciating detail the permanent malnutrition and thirst, the obsession with food, and the countless petty humiliations the internees are prey to. Everyone is thin and emaciated, most can barely be bothered to walk or talk, Jim helps Dr Ransome (another in a long line of doctors in Ballard’s fiction) who not only tends the sick (with no medicine and barely even any water), who also uses the contents of the septic tank to try and grow a few sparse vegetables.

If part one – Jim’s experience of camping out and searching for half-rotten food in the abandoned houses of the rich – lies behind all those Ballard protagonists who camp out and scrape an existence in the derelict buildings of abandoned civilisations, then part two – where Jim watches all the rich and powerful and impressive English ex-pats he’d known from the Settlement slowly decline into malnutrition, fever and mania – lies behind the countless protagonists of his novels and short stories who deteriorate into mumbling psychotics.

Jim lives in a quarter of a bedroom in an abandoned training college which e shares with Mr and Mrs Vincent and their permanently ill six-year-old son. For three years there has been psychological warfare as Mrs Vincent tries to force him out or, at the very least, pushes the sheet they’ve hung as a partition between their three-quarters and his quarter of the space nearer to him.

Beyond the wire perimeter fence is the Lunghua airport and Jim venerates the beautiful fighter planes he watches taking off and landing, and admires the spirit of the steady stream of suicide fighter pilots who carry out their brief ritual of dedication to the Emperor before flying off to fly their planes with their huge bombs directly into the American navy ships in the South China Sea.

In the latter part of this long gruelling section, the Japanese soldiers round up all the internees and organise them for a march. It is quite clear that many of the camp’s 2,000 or so inhabitants are in no fit state to move, but the Japes move them out anyway, a crowd of pitifully thin scarecrows clutching on to their hurriedly packed belongings. Jim is surprised how many seem to have clung on to their tennis racquets and balls all through the three long years of privation.

The march takes a long time and after each rest, there are large numbers who can’t get up. Jim is in a close but strangely dissociated state with Mr Maxted, one of his parents friends, who is in the final stages of emaciation. Eventually, after a long march of intense suffering, the survivors are hustled into the old stadium at Nantao, built on the order of Madame Chiang in the hope that China would host the 1940 Olympics (p.257). Now it is packed with goods the Japanese have looted from the houses of the Westerners, starting with long rows of shiny American cars lined up by the running track, but going on to include all manner of household furniture piled up in the stands and, the presidential box,

where Madame Chiang and the Generalissimo might once have saluted the world’s athletes, was now crammed with roulette wheels, cocktail bars and a jumble of gilded plaster nymphs holding gaudy lamps above their heads. Rolls of Persian and Turkish carpets, hastily wrapped in tarpaulins, lay on the concrete steps, water dripping through them as if from a pile of rotting pipes.

Worn beyond endurance Mr Maxted lies down on the ground and starts to die. Jim dips his fingers in nearby puddles then puts them in Maxted’s mouth which postpones the inevitable for a little. Other British prisoners, right on the edge of death, feebly call for his help. Eventually, Jim, too, squats on the ground patting the earth and dumbly repeating his name over and over. Irritated by this a passing Japanese soldier makes ready to kick Jim, with the casual brutality he has witnessed so many times when all of a sudden… there is a flash of unusually intense white light from the north-east. They all pause, waiting for the sound of the bomb but none comes. Although he doesn’t realise it, Jim has witnessed the blast of the second atomic bomb, dropped on Nagasaki on 9 August 1945.

Part three

Part three follows directly from the end of part two and describes what happens after the Japanese surrender. Jim comes to consciousness to discover it is hailing. He tries to capture and drink the water, then stirs himself and totters over to the stands. Slowly he realises the Japanese soldiers aren’t there any more. No-one is guarding them.

A Eurasian soldier enters the stadium, circulating among the dead prisoners and it’s he who tells Jim the Japanese have surrendered. But Jim soon discovers that freedom is far more violent and unpredictable than imprisonment. Life in Lunghua was full of reassuring rhythms and timetables. It was for the most part peaceful. Now they are all entering into a period of unpredictable anarchy. The Japanese simply stop administering anything, many of them taking to wandering the countryside at random or retreating into buildings waiting reprisals. Later Jim is to find a Japanese guard at Lunghua who the released British have tied to a camp bed and bludgeoned to death. Later still, a Japanese fighter pilot savagely bayoneted to death.

Quickly the Chinese Nationalist armies approach to liberate Shanghai, but there also large numbers of Chinese communist bands, as well as forces loyal to various warlords and then and fourth element, small groups of freelance survivors of all nationalities. Violent anarchy.

In the rice paddies surrounding the sports stadium Jim is in the last stages of malnutrition when, in a scene which beggars belief, huge American B29 aircraft fly overhead and drop… not bombs but food packages, hundreds of them, gently falling from the air on their blood-red parachutes. They burst open on landing and spill a treasure of tins of spam, powdered milk, chocolate and copies of Reader’s Digest magazine, all freezing cold having flown for hours miles up in the frozen air, hence the title of this chapter – The Refrigerator in the Sky.

His body sustained by this totally unexpected bounty, Jim staggers back towards Lunghua camp which isn’t in the end, all that far away, but discovers changes: it has been taken over and barricaded by psychotically violent and angry British prisoners, firstly to keep out the growing number of starving Chinese who sit patiently outside the main gate, but also because they know about the increasing numbers of marauding bands roaming the countryside.

Jim argues with a man he knew named Tulloch, the chief mechanic at the Packard agency, and Lieutenant Price, a British soldier who’s been driven mad by years of imprisonment and torture – his body is covered with cigarette burns – on the edge angry all the time ready to kill anyone. Eventually Tulloch lets Jim into the camp when Price isn’t looking and Jim goes and holes up in his old quarters, staying out the way, eating spam and chocolate, carefully arranging the magazines included in all the B29 airdrops in chronological order.

Part of Jim’s uneasy existence with psychotic Price & Tulloch is telling them about the treasure at Nantao stadium and, eventually, a week or so later, the pair and their crew set off towards Shanghai in a truck loaded with food, drinking heavily from the jars of rice wine they’ve bartered with some of the locals for tinned food. On an impulse at the last minute Price veers off the main Shanghai road towards the stadium, where they ask Jim again about the supposed treasures contained inside, park the lorry, get out and walk towards it when…

Suddenly a bunch of men with guns come charging out of the stadium entrance, and next thing they know are firing – Tulloch is shot dead, Price is beaten to death, just like that, just like so many of the random shifts of mood and inexplicable deaths Jim has been exposed to for three and a half years. Some of the armed group are Eurasians, some Chinese, some whites… a Chinese finds Jim in the back of the lorry and is just about to kick him to death when Jim recognises Basie in the oddly dressed, pomaded and talced American sauntering nearby. Basie’s presence just about saves Jim’s life and he lives on in a precarious relationship with them, till they too take off towards Shanghai, leaving Jim once again to travel across country to Lunghua, having further hallucinatory encounters, not least with a dead Japanese soldier who has been severely bayoneted and fallen off an embankment into a reed-filled canal, where Jim blunders into him.

Back at Lunhua Jim discovers the base has been taken over by Americans, who are refitting the runway, landing Mustangs and other planes, and he discovers Dr Ransom didn’t die on the death march after all, but has been fed and restored and is working as a doctor. The cemetery has been razed to the ground as if it never existed.

Part four

It is two months later and everything is disconcertingly back to normal – Jim has returned to the family home in Amherst Avenue to discover his mother and father are still both alive, though, of course, much changed after three and a half years in the Suchoo internment camp – Yang the chauffeur has returned with a limousine. Now Jim is being packed off with his mother to England, the small damp country he’s read so much about but never seen. Traveling to the docks he gets a panoramic view of Shanghai which has returned to its pre-war days, packed with gangsters, criminals, prostitutes and corrupt officials. Above them all are huge screens onto which the Allies insist a never-ending loops of Pathé newsreels tell the story of the entire war, its heroes and villains, in fast-moving black and white images set to rousing music. As Jim boards the steamer which will take him to England he looks down and sees in the water one of the many many coffins which the Chinese consign to the Shanghai river slowly floating around the ship in its corona of soaked flowers.


A boy’s eye view

It is crucial to the book’s success that we see this grim panorama of atrocities through the eyes of a boy. The book brilliantly conveys the way that, although Jim is intelligent for his age, he simply doesn’t understand half of what is happening or why. He reports everything he sees with a kind of wide-eyed candour. He doesn’t filter, he isn’t hindered by good manners or good taste. He tells you what he sees, and half the ‘tragedy’ or emotional aspect of the book comes from the way the reader so forcefully sees how Jim’s values and view of the world have been deeply corrupted. He simply takes it for granted that Chinese peasants are publicly beheaded, Chinese criminals publicly strangled in the street.

Usually Jim would have paused to observe the crowd. On the way home from school Yang would often drive by the Old City. The public stranglings were held in a miniature stadium with a scrubbed wooden floor and rows of circular benches around the teak execution posts, and always attracted a thoughtful audience. The Chinese enjoyed the spectacle of death, Jim had decided, as a way of reminding themselves of how precariously they were alive. They liked to be cruel for the same reason, to remind themselves of the vanity of thinking that the world was anything else.

He develops a highly tuned understanding of the strange Japanese mentality, how to pause, stop, bow and show respect, in order to avoid beating, although even then the standard Japanese response to almost everything is anger and beating or kicking anyone more vulnerable than themselves.

This starkness and clarity of vision, a kind of bright-eyed candour, underpins the attitude of most of the characters in Ballard’s fiction to whom often quite drastic things happen before they have any kind of emotional response. Maybe the therapists would say that almost all normal emotional response was burned out of Jim long long ago.

But there’s something else Jim’s character embodies which echoes and re-echoes throughout his stories and novels, which is the way the protagonists are often simply puzzled. They don’t understand other people. They can’t grasp other people’s motives. His stories are littered with the notion of ambiguous and uncertain motives, in fact the characteristic attitude of any of the protagonists towards other people is simply no understanding them.

You wonder whether, at some level, the shock Ballard received as a boy prevented him ever developing a properly socialised understanding of other people, and whether this explains the air of puzzlement all his characters display when they try – and generally fail – to interact with other people. Other people aren’t, pace Sartre, hell – they are just unknowable.

A clear-eyed style for deranged events

The very powerful upside of all this, or strongly connected to it somehow, is the striking clarity and limpidity of Ballard’s prose style.

Ballard’s style in this book is beautifully, beautifully clear and expressive and to the point. The lush exoticism which I pointed out in his earliest novels has been burned away, the psychotic extravagance of the urban disaster novels has been left behind and instead Ballard’s style is clear, grammatically correct and tremendously focused. Sentence after sentence conveys just the right amount of information to make you see the scene and understand Jim’s boyish thoughts. And his style doesn’t need to be florid, because the reality of what he’s describing is so innately colourful and bizarre.

A field of paper flowers floated on the morning tide, clustered around the oil-stained piers of the jetty and dressed them in vivid coloured ruffs. A few minutes before dawn Jim sat at a window of his bedroom at the Palace Hotel. He wore his school uniform and was keen to start an hour’s revision before breakfast. As always, however, he found it difficult to keep his eyes from the Shanghai waterfront. Already the odour of fish heads and bean curd sizzling in peanut oil rose from the pans of the vendors outside the hotel. Tung-stained junks with eyes painted on their bows sailed past the opium hulks beached on the Pootung shore. Thousands of sampans and ferry-boats were moored along the Bund, a city of floating hovels still hidden by the darkness.

The surrealism of the everyday

In every paragraph Jim observes the colourful scenes, the smells, the noise and hustle of this third world city which are already full of hundreds of dazzlingly surreal images – or what, for us, living in our boring western cities – are things amazing to contemplate.

The most notable of these are the streetside executions, the stranglings and beheadings. Small crowds gather to watch some Chinese wretch be forced to kneel by several Japanese soldiers, while an officer wielded his ceremonial sword and cut off the offender’s head. The tram lines run red with blood. The streets packed with endless queues of rickshaws and carts and peasants are also lined with corpses.

In many of Ballard’s sci-fi stories the plots, such as they are, seem contrived and forced, or are strangely implausible. But in Empire of the Sun the weirdness arises naturally from the subject matter because the world Jim inhabits is weird, it’s all weird beyond belief, almost every moment brings a tumbling of strange and uncanny images and impressions.

All this Jim reports in his clear lucid way. It’s the world he grew up in. He takes it as normal. And it’s the simple, blank acceptance of the weirdness all around him which really grips the modern reader – the combination of Jim’s matter-of-fact style and Ballard’s clear prose and the astonishments surrounding him. Remember the first hundred or so pages describe everyday life for an expatriate in Shanghai and much of it is exotic and strange enough.

The mania of war

All that’s before the war even starts and Jim enters a world of permanent malnutrition, infection and fever. From this point onwards the reader is given permission to accept the strangeness of what Jim reports or sees, and Ballard is able to get away with some extraordinary sequences and an increasing scattering of his trademark visionary sentences, because it is understood that he is feverish, delirious, and sometimes hallucinating.

He fell asleep on his friend’s bed, under the endlessly circling aircraft that swam below the ceiling like fish seeking a way out of the sky.

There are lots of sentences like that in the book, visionary sentences made up of the simplest components, simple vocabulary, simple grammar, and the power to transport the reader to another plane of experience. Some are simple similes which make the entire situation spring into horrible life.

The hospital patients lay across each other like rolls of carpet.

At one point there is yet another rest break on the long death march to the Nantao stadium, where an exhausted and malnourished Mr Maxted rests on the running board of an abandoned wagon, and:

Mr Maxted reached out and held Jim’s wrist. Gutted by malaria and malnutrition, his body was about to merge with the derelict vehicle behind him.

It is all clear and factual until that final phrase which shifts into an entirely new realm, of hallucination, of drugs, a perception beyond normal human cognition, telling us something important about the infinite malleability of reality.

Recurring themes

Calm Repeatedly other characters are made to say ‘calm down Jim’, or slap him in the face to snap him out of his hysteria, or give him a hug, or tell him to remember he’s British i.e. to keep a grip on himself.

‘Jim…Jim…’ Tulloch placed his hand on Jim’s head, trying to steady the over-excited boy. ‘It’s time you found your father, lad. The war’s over, Jim.’

These repeated injunctions serve to warn us that Jim spends almost the entire book in a state of nervous over-excitement.

Before the war a small English boy would have been killed for his shoes within minutes. Now he was safe, guarded by the Japanese soldiers – he laughed over this so much that the Dutch woman reached out a hand to calm him.

Dr Ransome reached out and gently pressed Jim’s hands to the table, trying to calm him.

In my reviews of Ballard’s stories of the 1970s I had begun to notice how many of his protagonists need calming, are feverish and delusional or become over-excited. Was it Ballard’s own feverishness spilling over into his texts or is it something about his entire attitude to fiction: that it is, by definition, about over-excited people.

Intoxicated by the fermenting potato, Jim giggled at the thought of the deity trapped in the bowels of the earth below Shanghai, perhaps in the basement of the Sincere Company department store. Mrs Philips held his hand, trying to comfort him.

Distilling water In Lunghua Camp, the narrator explains how, in the early days of the internment, a group of British men were tasked with boiling the water taken from ponds in the camp in order to sterilise it, but eventually let the habit fall into desuetude, preferring to get dysentery than expend so much energy. The ceaseless effort involved in boiling water to make it drinkable resurfaces in part two of The Drought where entire communities have to boil seawater to produce fresh water, for me the most haunting story Ballard ever wrote.

Cramped living space In the camp Jim shares a room in the unheated hall of residence of a former training college, with a young British couple and their six-year-old son. They, especially the mother, really resent his presence and rig up a partition carefully defining his quarter of the space. This stifling claustrophobia resurfaces in Ballard’s classic short story Billennium, set in a grossly overpopulated world of the future.

Old American magazines Jim likes to pore over old copies of Life magazine which the American, Basie, gives him, just as Wayne, the central protagonist of the novel Hello America, pores over old Time and Life magazines in the ship carrying the European scientific team to the dead New World.

AMERICA Young Jim adulates everything to do with America, addicted to their magazines, in love with their huge stylish cars, Packards and Chryslers and limousines. When he sees the B29 bomber planes fly overhead it is immediately obvious that nothing the Japanese have can compete with it.

The adulation of America and American culture, at the same time as satirising it, is something you see in British artists from the late 1950s through the 1960s, a notable example being Richard Hamilton and then, in the next generation, David Hockney. (Hockney became famous, at one point, for his vivid depictions of the lush, lazy swimming pools of Los Angeles; insofar as he obsessively depicts abandoned, derelict, drained swimming pools, Ballard is a kind of anti-Hockney.)

America was so obviously the winner of the Second World War, and the explosion of consumer goods it developed after the war was so much the envy of the world, especially in wartorn, exhausted Europe, that maybe it was impossible to resist. Certainly an obsession with Americana drives The Atrocity Exhibition which, on Ballard’s own admission, was presided over by the assassination of President Kennedy, and features a floating population of American consumer goods and Hollywood movie stars, just as the plot of Crash drives towards the mad protagonist’s attempt to stage a fatal car crash with Elizabeth Taylor.

The beauty of planes and shiny machines Even before the war Jim is mad about airplanes, we learn about the model planes he has made and the even better ones made by his boyhood friend, both of them hanging them from strings in their bedrooms. Suddenly the car fetishism of Crash seems less perverse, when you read a description of Jim running his hands over the hard, cold, smooth, beautifully engineered surface of a Zero fighter plane. Even in decay, it is a thing of unspeakable, dizzying beauty.

Jim stopped under the tailplane of a Zero fighter. Wild sugar-cane grew through its wings. Cannon fire had burned the metal skin from the fuselage spars, but the rusting shell still retained all the magic of those machines which he had watched from the balcony of the assembly hall, taking off from the runway he had helped to build. Jim touched the feathered vanes of the radial engine and ran his hand along the warped flank of the propeller.

Terminal documents In the camp Jim has a box full of a random selection of precious objects:

  • a Japanese cap badge given to him by Private Kimura
  • three steel-bossed fighting caps
  • a chess set
  • a copy of Kennedy’s Latin Primer
  • his Cathedral School blazer
  • the pair of clogs he’s been wearing for three years

The idea of a psychologically significant collection of half a dozen random objects like this occurs in the ‘terminal documents’ collected by Kaldren in the 1962 short story The Voices of Time and similar collections of half a dozen or so random items are collected by all the male protagonists of The Atrocity Exhibition stories, beginning with Talbot who owns:

  • a spectrohelion of the sun
  • the front elevation of balcony units, Hilton Hotel, London
  • a transverse section through a pre-Cambrian trilobite
  • ‘chronograms’ by E.J. Marey
  • a photograph taken at noon 7 August 1945 in the Qattara Depression Egypt
  • a reproduction of Max Ernst’s Garden Airplane Traps
  • the fusing sequences for ‘Little Boy’ and ‘Fat Boy’, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atom bombs

The idea recurs in 1982’s Myths of the Near Future in which the protagonist Robert Sheppard takes just such a psychic ‘survival kit’, i.e. suitcase of random junk, with him to the Florida jungle.

Random to us. But charged with intense psychological significance for the characters, rescue kits, survival kits, escape kits – talismans to aid mental escape from intolerable situations, such as the one Jim experienced in the camp, and his characters experience in their tortured inner lives.

Magazine pictures are reality Jim cuts out pictures from magazines and pins them to the wall of his little partition. Eventually he confusedly identifies a photo of a couple outside Buckingham Palace with his long-lost parents.

Beside the Packard was a small section that Jim had cut from a larger photograph of a crowd outside the gates of Buckingham Palace in 1940. The blurred images of a man and a woman standing arm-in-arm reminded Jim of his parents. This unknown English couple, perhaps dead in an air raid, had almost become his mother and father. Jim knew that they were complete strangers, but he kept the pretence alive, so that in turn he could keep alive the lost memory of his parents.

This echoes the mentally ill protagonist of The Terminal Beach who cuts out a photo of a little girl and pins it to the wall of the abandoned bunker he’s living in, using it to channel hallucinatory visions of his dead wife and son.

The sky When all human existence on earth seems to be wretched, diseased and violent, where else is there to turn but the sky. Hence Jim’s fairly rational fantasy of one day learning to fly a plane like the young Japanese pilots he sees climbing into their suicide fighters. Hence the altogether more hallucinatory visions he has at numerous moments of himself or other characters or buildings or the world disappearing up into the sky. On the long death march to the Nantao stadium, Jim looks back.

He looked back at the ammunition truck. He was startled to see that hundreds of suitcases lay on the empty road. Exhausted by the effort of carrying their possessions, the prisoners had abandoned them without a spoken word. The suitcases and wicker baskets, the tennis racquets, cricket bats and pierrot costumes lay in the sunlight, like the luggage of a party of holidaymakers who had vanished into the sky.

The sentences are all reasonable and factual, clear and precise right up until that final phrase where the mania takes over. Similarly calm and simple is this statement, made when Jim, tottering with fever and malnutrition decides to climb up the stands of the Olympic stadium.

Jim left Mr Maxted and walked along the running track, intending to follow them, but then cautiously decided to climb one of the stands. The concrete steps seemed to reach beyond the sky.

The sun And at the centre of the sky, is the great ball of energy which drives all life on earth, the sun. The importance of the sun cannot be over-emphasised – overseeing all things – the blistering force and light and heat – with the result that it’s natural that when he thinks of escape it isn’t to anywhere else on earth – the whole world is a battlefield covered in beggars and starved people beating each other to death – the only path of escape is off the earth altogether, upwards, away from the earth, upwards towards the source of all heat and light and, ultimately, meaning. The sun, father of all things, symbol, of course, of the Japanese Empire, until a greater sun comes to eclipse it, the unwatchable sun o the atomic bomb.

A flicker of light ran along the quays like silent gunfire. Jim lay down beside his father. Drawn up above them on the Bund were hundreds of Japanese soldiers. Their bayonets formed a palisade of swords that answered the sun.

In the hour before dusk they entered an area of abandoned battlefields nine miles to the south of Shanghai. The afternoon light rose into the air, as if returning to the sun a small part of the strength it had cast to the indifferent fields.

The ubiquity of the sun as a central symbol mirrors its use in scores of the short stories, where umpteen characters dream of being reunited with the sun, flying into the sun, listening to the music of the sun. Ballard is obsessed with the sun and sunlight and sunshine and sunwarmth which makes it that much more ominous when, in a typically limpid phrase he manages to convey the unsettling effect of the Nagasaki atom blast, whose white light for a moment illuminates the Olympic stadium and its field full of dying Europeans.

Jim stared at his white hands and knees, and at the pinched face of the Japanese soldier, who seemed disconcerted by the light. Both of them were waiting for the rumble of sound that followed the bomb-flashes, but an unbroken silence lay over the stadium and the surrounding land, as if the sun had blinked, losing heart for a few seconds.

The Mustang crash One of the most intense moments in the book is when Jim witnesses a flight of Mustangs flying low over Lunghua airfield as part of an attack on the Japanese planes, only for one of them to be damaged, and:

Jim had never before seen an air attack of such scale. A second wave of Mustangs crossed the paddy fields between Lunghua Camp and the river, followed by a squadron of two-engined fighter-bombers. Three hundred yards to the west of the camp one of the Mustangs dipped its starboard wing towards the ground. Out of control, it slid across the air, and its wing-tip sheared the embankment of a disused canal. The plane cartwheeled across the paddy fields and fell apart in the air. It exploded in a curtain wall of flaming gasoline through which Jim could see the burning figure of the American pilot still strapped to his seat. Riding the incandescent debris of his aircraft, he tore through the trees beyond the perimeter of the camp, a fragment of the sun whose light continued to flare across the surrounding fields.

‘A fragment of the sun’.

World War III Towards the end of the book Jim ceases endlessly pestering the adults about when the war will end – they keep telling him it has ended and since, if anything, the world has immediately become more violent and unpredictable, Jim starts suspecting that the next war – World War III – has already started.

When Basie and the men had gone, vanishing among the ruined warehouses on the quay, Jim studied the magazines on the seat beside him. He was sure now that the Second World War had ended, but had World War III begun? Looking at the photographs of the D-Day landings, the crossing of the Rhine and the capture of Berlin, he felt that they were part of a smaller war, a rehearsal for the real conflict that had begun here in the Far East with the dropping of the Nagasaki and Hiroshima atomic bombs.

And anyone with a feel for history knows that the next world war did, in fact, start immediately upon the end of the second one. For most of us in the West it was a low-key, almost invisible cold war, although for the next 45 years we all knew that deep down, all it would have taken was a few buttons to be pressed and – bang!

But where Jim is, in the book, it wasn’t at all a cold war: in China it was hotter than anywhere else in the world. In Europe the fighting stopped, even as the Russians and the Western powers regarded each other with suspicion. But in the East the fighting didn’t stop. Across the huge territory of China the civil war resumed between the communists and the nationalists which wasn’t to end until the communists finally secured control of most of China in 1950. And only a few months later North Korea invaded South Korea triggering the Korean War which lasted from 1950 to 1953.

In his over-excited, confused but prescient way, even right at the end of the novel after he’s been restored to his parents, Jim has the powerful sense that ‘peace’ is not real or normal.

While Yang drove uneasily back to Amherst Avenue… Jim thought of the last weeks of the war. Towards the end everything had become a little muddled. He had been starving and perhaps had gone slightly mad. Yet he knew that he had seen the flash of the atomic bomb at Nagasaki even across the four hundred miles of the China Sea. More important, he had seen the start of World War III, and realized that it was taking place around him. The crowds watching the newsreels on the Bund had failed to grasp that these were the trailers for a war that had already started.

It’s very Ballard to mix the Third World War up with film and newsreels, and brings us much more into the world of his fiction of the 60s and 70s, concerned with the deranging effects of the mass media, movies and advertising on the human psyche.

And it feeds into our understanding of the way the protagonist of The Atrocity Exhibition is obsessed with World War III, but not in any way a historian or soldier would conceive it, but as a purely personal struggle, a psychological battle against the self.

What we are concerned with now are the implications—in particular, the complex of ideas and events represented by World War III. Not the political and military possibility, but the inner identity of such a notion. For us, perhaps, World War III is now little more than a sinister pop art display, but for your husband it has become an expression of the failure of his psyche to  accept the fact of its own consciousness, and of his revolt against the present continuum of time and space. Dr Austin may disagree, but it seems to me that his intention is to start World War III, though not, of course, in the usual sense of the term. The blitzkriegs will be fought out on the spinal battlefields, in terms of the postures we assume, of our traumas mimetized in the angle of a wall or balcony.’

Like Jim, Ballard’s protagonists know that the next war will take place in their heads.

Novel or autobiography

So how true is Empire of the Sun, how accurate is it? How much is truth and how much carefully orchestrated, re-arranged, reconfigured in order to make it into a readable work of fiction? The book has a preface in which Ballard wrote:

Empire of the Sun draws on my experiences in Shanghai, China, during the Second World War, and in Lunghua C.A.C. (Civilian Assembly Centre) where I was interned from 1942-45. For the most part this novel is based on events I observed during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai and within the camp at Lunghua.

This sounds candid and open enough. But as you read through the book all kinds of suspicions arise. The overall structure is shaped just so, and designed to foreground highly charged or symbolic incidents – the scene where he watches an American fighter plane crash in a sheet of flames on Lunghua runway; the scene where he confronts the single Japanese pilot walking in despair around the airfield after the army has left; the scene with the Japanese corpse, the scene where he enters the prison hospital to find it an abattoir of rotted flesh infested with swarms of black flies.

And it’s pretty handy that Jim happened to be a) outdoors and b) conscious enough, to witness the white light of the atom bomb. Convenient for an author intent on his symbolism.

Above all there is the suspicious way that the same small number of characters – specifically the American chancer Basie and the good English doctor, Ransome, manage to survive and crop up in successive setups.

The question

After reviewing just the dozen or so more obvious ways in which Empire of the Sun touches on themes and images which recur throughout Ballard’s entire oeuvre, the question is:

Does Empire of the Sun touch on so many of the themes and images which dominate Ballard’s other books because the wartime, boyhood experiences it describes laid the basis for Ballard’s entire imaginarium? Are all the other stories and books attempts to work through, in disguised fictional form, the true-life experiences which are for the first time described in Empire of the Sun with unflinching documentary accuracy? Or –

Does Empire of the Sun contain so many of the themes, images and hallucinatory turns of the phrase that occur in all Ballard’s other fiction, not because it is the source of them – but the exact reverse: because he had to spend all those years developing the obsessive imagery and coolly visionary turn of phrase as ‘objective correlatives’, developing the haunting images and crisp prose style in which he could express the things he saw and lived through?

When Ballard writes that Lieutenant Price, emaciated, with bloodied fists, permanently enraged after years of torture:

calmed himself. He touched the cigarette burns on his chest, tapping out a secret code of pain and memory.

Did he? Did he touch the cigarette burns as if tapping out ‘a secret code’? Or is that the kind of thing Ballard thinks that kind of character ought to do? Is it a true memory, or is it an example of the stylised way Ballard has, over the previous thirty years, come to conceive and write about human beings and which he now systematically projects back onto his experiences, embroidering them, expanding them, elaborating them, posing and positioning them in order to fit the highly artful aesthetic he had developed over all those years?

Was there ever a Lieutenant Price at all, cigarette burns or not – or is he a creation of Ballard’s later, more highly wrought, imagination?

Is Empire of the Sun the truth, which all his other works are based on? Or an extremely artful fiction, which all his other books were a careful preparation for?


Related links

Reviews of other Ballard books

Novels

Short story collections

Reviews of other prison camp books

Leave a comment

2 Comments

  1. Kathryn Jolly

     /  February 18, 2020

    Well worth the wait to read your comments about this autobiographical master-key to Ballard’s fiction. Thank you!

    Reply
  2. C A Clarke

     /  February 20, 2020

    I have to say, I admire all your critic views, but this one was outstanding.

    Reply

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