Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

J. G. Ballard declares this novel to be an account of his time in Shanghai and in the Lunghua prison camp during World War II. While this fascinating work may reveal much about its author, its scope and perceptions are universally applicable.

Jim has never known any life but that of an upper-class British expatriate in Shanghai. Ballard makes no pretense of nobility for the young Jim, who is rude to his servants and shows no comprehension of their lifestyle, as displayed by his surprise when one of his servants notes that her entire family lives in one room. From his sheltered perspective, Jim enjoys the fancy parties thrown by his father’s fellow expatriates and others who are used to privilege.

All of this changes on December 8, 1941, when the Japanese military attacks an American ship, the U.S.S. Wake, and a British ship, the H.M.S. Petrel, in Shanghai harbor. Having declared war on the United States, Japan immediately begins a full occupation of Shanghai. Jim’s father is injured while saving a British sailor from the Petrel, and he is taken to the hospital.

Jim, also taken to the hospital, manages to escape, while his parents are sent to be interred at the Woosung prison camp. Jim sees Shanghai transformed from a stratified but thriving metropolis into several bitter, prejudiced enclaves. He notes that “without its beggars,” the city “seemed all the poorer.” He spends some time trying to surrender, being stymied at each attempt. Ballard writes that “Jim had always despised anyone who surrendered, but surrendering to the enemy was more difficult than it seemed.” It is observations such as these that make this novel’s tone comparable to the works of Kurt Vonnegut or Joseph Heller.

As the Japanese troops tighten their...

(The entire section is 740 words.)

Empire of the Sun

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Up to 1984, J. G. Ballard had made his reputation entirely as a writer of science fiction, with many distinguished novels and short-story collections to his credit within this genre, among them The Drowned World (1962), Love and Napalm: Export U.S.A. (originally published as The Atrocity Exhibition, 1970), Crash (1973), The Unlimited Dream Company (1979). Empire of the Sun is his first major venture outside the field. Nevertheless, in spite of the fact that it is set unmistakably in the past, and bears every sign of being a quasi-autobiographical novel, many readers have observed that Empire of the Sun still seems, in several ways, not to have moved far from the conventions of Ballard’s usual genre.

It has been suggested—by Darko Suvin, in his book Metamorphoses of Science Fiction (1979)—that science fiction is characterized by the presence in it of a novum, a new thing, a fact known not to be true in the real world but accepted in the world of the book and at least superficially possible or plausible. Nevertheless, it has also been noted that many readers, especially children, are not at all accomplished at detecting what is a novum and what is not. In a world where Star Trek or Star Wars can be seen on film or television in exactly the same context as documentaries or Disney fantasies or realistic stories, many people may be genuinely unsure about what should be believed and what should not. Have men really landed on Mars, or was it only the Moon? Is it true that dolphins have a language, if only one were smart enough to learn it? How far have doctors actually progressed with transplants or gene surgery? There is a borderland, in other words, between reality and science fiction. It is this borderland that Ballard’s child-hero, Jim, seems to inhabit.

Jim has every excuse, it is true, for his confusion. The story opens in December, 1941, just before the attack on Pearl Harbor, but Jim is British, and for his nation “the war” has been going on for more than two years. In Shanghai, however, where Jim lives with his parents, the European war, with its tank battles and Messerschmidt-Spitfire duels, looks like science fiction. The real war, with which Jim is completely familiar, is fought between the Japanese and the Chinese, and is a matter not of machines and battle lines, but of starving peasants, endless refugees, beggars shaking Craven A tins as the European cars roll by. Jim is obliged as a matter of duty to believe in the war that he sees on film, but there is a great gap between it and his daily experience.

The situation is complicated, furthermore, by the fact that the first section of the book is set in Shanghai at a time when that city was still a place of mystery and exoticism. Events which Jim takes entirely for granted—such as passing a truckload of professional executioners on their way to conduct the public stranglings, or having a youth draw a knife to cut off Jim’s hand for his wristwatch—must strike most present readers not as science fiction, indeed, but as something very like nightmare or fantasy. Belief is eroded, then, from both directions. What Jim regards as science fiction is what has always been seen as history; what seems to be fantasy is to him mere matter-of-fact.

Empire of the Sun is accordingly still not science fiction, but it does resemble one of science fiction’s literary ancestors, the conte philosophique, such as Voltaire’s Candide (1758) or Oliver Goldsmith’s The Citizen of the World (1762), in which the inhabitant of another civilization is confronted with an unfamiliar one and casts a wry, amusing light on it by the pseudonaïveté of his comments. The most pointed criticism which the accepted view of history receives from Jim is his conviction that war—the world war that his elders believe in—must be some kind of a game. It has sides; it can be said to be “over”; when it is “over,” another one can be expected to start. None of this is true of anything with which Jim becomes involved, and in his world all the conventions of war (including the Geneva Convention) are inverted or impossible. After being separated from his parents, for example, in the confusion after the attack or Pearl Harbor and the Japanese takeover of Shanghai, Jim tries very hard to surrender, as the books have told him he should, but no one will accept the surrender of a small boy in a school blazer; the soldiers merely chase him away. Twice later, he appears at the gates of a prison camp, but both times he is refused admittance, and both times by the British inmates, not the Japanese guards. There is clear logic in this—the prisoners have no wish to share their rations any further—and Jim accepts it, but his experience makes nonsense of official history and official morality. To Jim, surrender is a difficult feat, to be regarded with respect. Those who collaborate are the really brave people, for they have to approach the unpredictable Japanese. Escape is ridiculous, and prison a haven. One may say that all of this is the result of Jim’s extremely one-sided and unrepresentative personal experience, but there is also at least a sneaking feeling that Jim’s experience was that of a majority of participants in World War II, especially among civilian populations. What he sees as science fiction was in great...

(The entire section is 2220 words.)

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

A woman and her granddaughter, injured in the bombing raid of a village in 1937. Published by Gale Cengage

World War II
The rise of totalitarian regimes in Germany, Italy, and Japan during the 1930s tipped the scales toward a...

(The entire section is 306 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Point of View
One of the novel's most interesting and successful qualities is its use of point of view. The events...

(The entire section is 338 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

By using the point of view of the elevento fourteen-year-old child, Ballard is able to present the war as a never-ending story. Saturated...

(The entire section is 784 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In a review for Newsweek, Donna Foote and David Lehman wrote that Empire of the Sun "explores the zone of 'inner space' that...

(The entire section is 298 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Empire of the Sun focuses on a young protagonist's strategies for survival in a Japanese prison camp in occupied China during World...

(The entire section is 1553 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

Research the internment of European civilians in China by the Japanese during World War II. Can you find reports...

(The entire section is 102 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Identifying precedents for Ballard's text is difficult because it does not seem to conform to other works within the genre of fictionalized...

(The entire section is 312 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Ballard has written a series of novels dealing with catastrophes, beginning with The Wind from Nowhere (1962), and followed by The...

(The entire section is 294 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Empire of the Sun was adapted for film in 1987. It was directed and produced by Steven Spielberg from a script by Tom Stoppard and...

(The entire section is 119 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

Empire of the Sun was adapted as a film in 1987. Tom Stoppard and Menno Meyjes (uncredited) wrote...

(The entire section is 29 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl (1947) chronicles the courageous life of its author, a gifted Jewish teenager, after she and...

(The entire section is 119 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

John Calvin Batchelor, "A Boy Saved by the Bomb," in The New York Times Book Review,...

(The entire section is 202 words.)


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Batchelor, John Calvin. Review in The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX (November 11, 1984), p. 11.

Book World. XIV, October 28, 1984, p. 1.

Enright, D. J. Review in The New York Review of Books. XXXI (November 22, 1984), p. 45.

Goddard, James, and David Pringle, eds. J. G. Ballard: The First Twenty Years, 1976.

Kirkus Reviews. LII, August 15, 1984, p. 760.

Lehman, David, and Donna Foote. Review in Newsweek. CV (January 28, 1985), p.69.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 21, 1984, p. 3.


(The entire section is 105 words.)