Empire of the Sun

by J. G. Ballard

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Critical Evaluation

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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.

Ballard’s writing in his earlier science fiction and novels, such as The Atrocity Exhibition (1969) and Crash (1973), goes far beyond the horrors of prison-camp life. In his cult classic Crash, Ballard’s characters find eroticism in the pain and suffering caused by automobile accidents. Many of the themes of Ballard’s earlier fiction appear in a more muted form in Empire of the Sun. Empire of the Sun depicts British expatriate life in prewar Shanghai as hedonistic and cold, the Japanese as unfeeling about the casual brutality of their armies, and the Americans as unaware of the dark consequences made possible by their wealth and nuclear weapons. Jim is fascinated by these things, without expressing much emotion concerning the trauma surrounding him. Still, Ballard suggests that Jim is deeply marked by these experiences.

In postwar Great Britain, Ballard attended medical school at Cambridge and undertook flight training in Canada. He completed neither course and wound up an advertising copywriter in London. He turned to writing science fiction and attracted attention for his dystopian portrayal of human life in the future, when violence and anomie have not been banished but rather have flowered in new ways fostered by technology and capitalism. In a 2006 British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) interview, Ballard defended himself against criticism that his books were filled with depictions of suffering and human perversity with a characteristically avuncular comment: “I think of myself as some sort of a weather forecaster. I see stormy weather, but most storms eventually pass. I just want to limit the damage.”

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Critical Context (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series)


Critical Overview