Empire of the Sun was J. G. Ballard’s best received work from among his extensive oeuvre of science fiction, short stories, and novels. Ballard was raised in Shanghai and interned at the Lunghua camp from 1942 to 1945, so the novel is semiautobiographical. However, Ballard was not separated from his family while in captivity. The author also shared Jim’s fascination with airplanes.
The second section of the novel ends with a chapter titled “Empire of the Sun,” the same title as the book. Because the sun is the national symbol of Japan and the two characters for Japan mean “source of the sun,” the book and chapter titles appear to refer to Japan. However, in this chapter a second meaning is suggested: Jim and other prisoners are blinded by a momentary flash of light as bright as the sun. They believe the flash came from the detonation of the atomic bomb over the Japanese city of Nagasaki, about five hundred miles east of Shanghai. Thus, the title refers both to Japan and to the United States, which has harnessed the power of the sun and created a new American empire.
Jim’s easy accommodation of suffering and death fits into the recurrent themes of violence and nihilism in Ballard’s writing. Years before Empire of the Sun, Ballard acquired a cult following of readers who found in his dystopian views of present and future human life a bold expression of an existentialist nihilism.
(The entire section is 499 words.)