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...