Critical Context (Critical Guide to British Fiction)
Empire of the Sun was in one sense a departure for Ballard. It is a largely realistic novel which came after many works of science fiction. The earlier works were, however, of an unusual kind in that genre. Rather than creating worlds in outer space, they created ominous worlds in readily recognizable habitats. Ballard has written that the world of his science fiction is “inner space”-threats to mankind come from within, as a result of destructive ideology or lack of foresight. In Concrete Island (1974), for example, a man is trapped on a large traffic island, isolated by a network of freeways.
Empire of the Sun is in keeping with the body of Ballard’s work in that it suggests that mankind has a stubborn propensity toward self-destruction. Jim, whose ingenuousness allows him to view the fighting around him without patriotic prejudice, shows the reader something that he himself never fully registers: that the capacity for senseless and casual cruelty is a human trait, and that the response of a wronged group of people to violence perpetrated by another faction can easily be a greater, more destructive and foreboding violence. That the avenging force purports to have right on its side does not mitigate the horror of its reaction to oppression.
The novel is also extraordinary in Ballard’s opus because, while it comes late in his career, it reveals formative incidents in his life, and in this sense is a coda to his whole oeuvre.