The principal theme of the novel can be summed up in a few sentences: Life is durable; life is cheap; if men act too much in accordance with the latter, the former will become less true.
The British of Jim’s Shanghai display typical colonialist arrogance. The warring factions of Chinese soldiers kill peasants and themselves with apparent indifference. The Japanese count the individual as negligible in comparison with an outlandish notion of honor in victory and in defeat.
Ballard conveys the inhumanity of these practices with quiet understatement. The public execution of a Communist sympathizer is “this small death.” The understatement strips events to their essence. Beneath war’s clamor are simple truths, simple follies. Jim sees things simplistically, because they are simple.
The controlled use of narrative voice conveys the perceptive mind of the young hero and Ballard’s more considered estimation of events. Increasing in wisdom, Jim remains ingenuous yet perceives the significance of the events that he witnesses.
The book can, for most of its length, be read as a vivid recollection of childhood, but it makes telling points about the conduct of war. Allegiances are, Ballard suggests, formed arbitrarily, and it takes childlike innocence to avoid the prejudice and hate that give rise to war. Many on the “right side” are no more honorable than their aggressors. Jim, his mind muddled by delusion, dreams, illness, and propaganda, nevertheless bares a stark truth: War is folly.
This is not controversial when confined to disparagement of Japanese aggression. Yet Ballard intends to indict others, too. He portrays peoples of several nations and affiliations, all displaying an appetite for violence. Given the opportunity at the end of the war, the captives reek inhumane revenge. Sensing carnage or starvation, one character tells Jim that the greatest threat to the prisoners’ lives would be the end of the war. For Ballard, however, it was the use of atom bombs that best bore out the warning Jim received. It was no salvation, but a step toward ultimate perdition. In Jim’s mind, “the American planes set off powerful premonitions of death.” The effect of the bomb, the narrator says, was “as if the sun blinked, losing heart for a few seconds.” War, and its outcome, are the Empire of the Sun.