Empire of the Sun

by J. G. Ballard

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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 control on the city, Jim meets Basie and Frank, itinerant Americans who are surviving by hustling, stealing, and salvaging goods. Basie, seeing Jim as an opportunity, helps him. Ultimately, Basie tries (and fails) to sell Jim into slavery. When Basie is about to throw him onto the street, Jim suggests they go to his parents’ long-unoccupied house, which he describes as “luxuriant.” Japanese troops have taken over the house, however, and they are captured and separated.

Jim is sent first to a detention center, where he meets several other expatriates, including Dr. Ransome, whom he helps in comforting the sick and injured. Jim rapidly realizes that the road to survival lies in taking care of himself, an impression solidified when Basie, ill, is brought to the detention center. When a group of prisoners (including Basie and Dr. Ransome) is being taken to the Woosung camp, Jim makes enough of a nuisance of himself that the Japanese include him in the group.

During the trip, through desiccated countryside, Jim develops a strained but friendly relationship with Dr. Ransome. The trip results in despair for Jim when the Woosung camp, where his parents are interred, refuses the prisoners. At the end of part 1, the prisoners reach the area that will be the Lunghua camp, with Jim separated, possibly permanently, from his parents.

Part 2 deals with Jim’s life in the camp. Jim is lodged during this time with the Vincents, a dour British couple and their children, with whom he is neither friendly nor impressed. He works to survive, running errands for extra food and magazines, often provided by Basie. Eventually, he becomes the assistant to Mr. Maxted, the father of the boy who was his best friend in Shanghai. Mr. Maxted runs the prisoner’s food cart in the camp, and this position helps Jim...

(This entire section contains 740 words.)

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acquire the best of the rations.

As the war is ending, the prisoners are marched from the Lunghua camp toward Nantao. It is on that route that Mr. Maxted becomes fatally ill. Jim stays with him and others too sickly to continue their trip. Part 2 ends with the nearly simultaneous dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki and the death of Mr. Maxted.

After the bombing, Jim, again traveling alone, wanders the country in search of his family. As with his initial attempt to surrender, nothing is easy. Along the way, he reencounters Basie, miraculously still alive after having escaped the Lunghua camp a day before the prisoners were freed for their march. Ultimately, Jim is reunited with his family, but his memories of Shanghai—and especially of his time in the Lunghua camp—will never be forgotten.

Empire of the Sun

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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 part fiction, a construct of newsreel makers, Life photographers, and journalists on the Saturday Evening Post.

Jim’s character, meanwhile, is largely determined by his role as “neutral observer.” He often shows peculiar detachment. When his parents’ car runs over the foot of a beggar, Jim notes the tread pattern: Firestone, not Goodyear. In the detention center which has been made out of an outdoor motion-picture theater—and in which all long-term inmates die—Jim is perfectly happy watching neon lights reflected on a blank screen. He is convinced that air battles are staged for his amusement, and almost his strongest attachment in Lunghua Camp is to a woman who, he knows perfectly well, would literally not lift a finger to keep him alive. Jim’s reactions, in fact, provide much of the book’s suspense. One can never tell how he is going to respond, except that his response will be unpredictable and will also be governed by an inner logic perfectly clear once one understands his thinking. At times Jim’s responses can be classed as errors of childhood: He is afraid that he has “started the war” by trying to semaphore a warning. At other times, one has, reluctantly, to concede that he may be right: Jim respects the Japanese, for all of their cruelty, because they are brave and because their cruelty is, in a way, not malicious. Here, his neutrality makes Western culture’s official view look partisan.

The coldness of Jim’s character, however, points to what may well be a weakness in Empire of the Sun, which is that it is oddly static—physically, emotionally, but also in terms of overall structure. There are no important characters in it apart from Jim. The only movement within the book is an aimless wandering round Shanghai, out to Lunghua Camp, back toward Shanghai, and then back to the camp again. Jim himself changes surprisingly little. Most important of all, the book appears to function most strongly as a set of recurrent images, appearing in no particular order and with no particular sense of development. These images are almost all contrastive; the tire tread and the beggar’s foot, the starving boy living off cocktail biscuits, Jim’s father, in white suit and tie, cradling a scalded sailor in feet of stinking mud, European warships surrounded by the floating coffins of the Chinese poor. Affluence coexists with squalor, expensive “consumer durables” with a situation in which they are pointless. The currency of exchange inside Lunghua Camp consists of condoms (though nearly all the prisoners are impotent or infertile as a result of starvation). For some time, Jim is trapped in a soccer stadium piled with rotting, useless luxuries, white Cadillacs, refrigerators, Persian carpets, roulette wheels. These articles, it is true, still exert a powerful allure—the only really purposeful activity in the book is looting or scavenging—but the looting leads usually to death, and in any case the luxuries fought for create in themselves a sense of loathing: They look splendid from a distance but on closer inspection are broken, rusty, rotting, foul. There is something nauseating in the scene where Jim (close to death from hunger) slowly and deliberately eats his last reserve, two looted liqueur chocolates, sweet, sticky, intoxicating, insubstantial. The feeling is repeated much later when Jim opens a tin of Spam (something he has never seen before) and makes an instant connection between the rich fat around the meat and the oozing corpses that he can see all around him.

What is the point of this recurrent demonstration of the obscenity of Western riches? Ballard could be writing morally, as if to criticize Western waste by opposing it to Eastern poverty, but there is an ambiguity in his images which makes one hesitate to accept this. Is he trying to make a general or even an allegorical point, as it were, that all “consumerism” is, in the end, a distraction from more important things? Once again, the reader is given no prompting to read the book this way. The fact is that in some ways Empire of the Sun appears more obsessive than controlled. It becomes a slow meander through the landscape of Ballard’s mind, in which the author presents his images for the reader (like Jim) to observe detachedly, deriving what conclusion or nourishment he can. It is probably significant that throughout the book Jim remains a devotee of words, which he learns and hoards. In Lunghua Camp, he wanders about clutching a Latin primer and repeating lists of passive verbs, such as amatus sum, “I am loved.” The words, however, lead to nothing, nor does the Latin; no one, not even Jim, translates the Latin, and of course it is not true—Jim is not loved at all, not by anyone. Pointlessness and lack of meaning are the dominant moods in Empire of the Sun.

These moods dominate even the two or three visionary moments that are the high points of Jim’s experience. In one, toward the end, he thinks that he sees a white light which proves to be the flash of the A-bomb above Nagasaki, four hundred miles away across the China Sea. The other characters accept Jim’s statement that he saw this, but can it be true? Is it merely a convenient way for Jim to reassert white supremacy, as he does on other occasions? The reader is back with the science-fiction novum again: It is not clear what really could have happened. In another scene, also near the end, Jim becomes convinced first that he has healed a dying kamikaze pilot, and second that he can go on to repair the deaths and damage of the entire war—that he is, indeed, a Christ figure come to heal the world’s wounds—but very soon even Jim comes to share the reader’s realization that this is a combination of hunger hallucination and wish fulfillment. Jim’s only abiding vision is one from quite early in the book, when he is convinced that he sees, among the streams of Zeros and Kawanishis, American bombers in the sky, flying to save him. In the end, this comes true, yet one retains a sense that Jim expected more than simply rescue and tins of Spam from the gleaming, unreal machines in the sky; to him, they are a vision of something like Divinity. Ballard is in fact making yet one more switch on the conventions of the conte philosophique: As well as being a “neutral observer” of civilization, Jim feels an urge to become a worshiper, not of men, nor even of machines (he is too familiar with wrecks and derelicts for that), but as it were of machines in their ethereal aspect, machines forever out of reach. Though Jim is a European, he is presented as a member of a “cargo cult,” like those which arose in reality on South Sea islands exposed too suddenly to a machine civilization and to war. He is wrong, but he represents an error increasingly natural and insidious.

One may conclude by saying that Empire of the Sun is perhaps not, ultimately, the great book about the horrors of war that it has been hailed to be. Its true theme may be closer to that of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818)—namely, the growing gap between what technological civilizations can produce and what they can control. Of this gap, even war, even World War II, is but a symptom, and of it the natural symbols are, on the one hand, naked starving prisoners and, on the other, superfortresses in the sky. It is true that people built the machines, but that is not how it looks to an innocent or even to a truly experienced eye.

Historical Context

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World War II
The rise of totalitarian regimes in Germany, Italy, and Japan during the 1930s tipped the scales toward a world war. These dictatorships—known as the Axis power when they became allies—began to forcibly expand into neighboring countries. For instance, in 1936 Benito Mussolini's Italian troops took over Ethiopia, which gave them a strong foothold in Africa. In 1938 Germany annexed Austria; a year later, German forces occupied Czechoslovakia. Italy took control of Albania in 1939.

On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland and World War II began. On September 3, 1939, Britain and France declared war on Germany after a U-boat sank the British ship Athenia off the coast of Ireland. Another British ship, Courageous, was sunk on September 19. All the members of the British Commonwealth, except Ireland, soon joined Britain and France in their declaration of war.

By 1940, Japan controlled a large part of China including Northern China, the coastal areas, and the Yangtze valley. During the years before World War II, the Japanese met resistance from the Chinese Communists. After Japan attacked U.S. and British bases in 1941 and World War II broke out in Asia, China received U.S. and British aid.

By the end of the war, however, China was in full civil war. Hostilities between the Chinese nationalist forces and the communist troops intensified into a full-scale war as both sides vied for occupancy of the territories evacuated by the Japanese. By April 1950, China was a communist country.

In August 1937 the Japanese attacked Shanghai, which fell under Japanese control by November. The foreign zones of the city were occupied by the Japanese after December 7, 1941, the date Empire of the Sun opens. In 1943 Great Britain and the United States gave up their claims in Shanghai. China regained control of the city at the end of World War II. In May 1949, Shanghai fell to the Communists.

Literary Style

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Point of View
One of the novel's most interesting and successful qualities is its use of point of view. The events unfold through the eyes of Jim, the protagonist, as he experiences the horrors of life in China during World War II. While providing a vivid depiction of the destruction that surrounds him, Jim remains the detached observer, a survival skill he learns at the prison camp. That same sense of detachment is evident in the novel's early scenes before Jim is separated from his parents.

While he enjoys the benefits of his upper class life in Shanghai, this lonely boy observes with an ironic eye the stark contrasts between European and Chinese life. He notes the "dances and garden parties, the countless bottles of scotch consumed in aid of the war effort" while beggars are whipped in the streets by limousine drivers. Jim sees that "all over the western suburbs people were wearing fancy dress, as if Shanghai had become a city of clowns."

Although this novel is concerned with the devastating impact of war, it does contain elements found in the science fiction genre. In their review published in Newsweek, David Lehman and Donna Foote maintain that the novel has "more in common with [Ballard's science fiction novels] than immediately meets the eye. Like its predecessors, the book explores the zone of 'inner space' that Ballard sees as 'the true domain of science fiction.'" John Gross echoes this assessment in his review for The New York Times, viewing many of its scenes "lurid and bizarre, so very nearly out of this world."

In the novel, Ballard uses abandoned buildings and drained swimming pools as symbols of Jim's predicament and psychological state. As he searches for his parents in Shanghai, Jim comes across the abandoned homes and drained swimming pools, symbols of the privileged lives of the Europeans who once resided there. These empty images foreshadow the world Jim will face in the prison camp, a world where social hierarchies reverse and eventually collapse.

Literary Techniques

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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 with newsreels of the war in Europe, Jim tries to think of a way to help stop the Germans in Russia while the Japanese are poised to invade Shanghai. He watches the Japanese soldiers watching his father and other businessmen burning the papers from their businesses and is concerned about the soldiers' patience. He senses they are waiting for a prearranged signal but neither he nor his parents seem to understand that they will no longer be safe in Shanghai when the Japanese conquer the city.

Jim's fantasies are embodied in his interest in planes, pilots, and airfields. The incident at the Christmas party with the downed fighter plane is a window into Jim's imagination. The combination of his uncaring and thoughtless behavior with his fear at having put his father at risk from the Japanese soldiers camped on the deserted air field, sets the stage for Jim's reactions to the events of the next three years. He responds thoughtlessly as any preteen and early teenager would to most situations. He displays insight into the minds of his captors far beyond his years in matters of survival. He is able to stay alive and help to keep others alive because of this insight.

Symbols of death surround Jim, beginning with his dreams of newsreels without a sound track to the flies he tries to keep out of Mr. Maxted's mouth as he is dying after the march from the camp to the Olympic Stadium at the end of the war. Empty swimming pools, burned out airplanes, weeds growing on lawns, houses and apartments left empty, the bodies of Chinese put off the funeral pier into the Yangtze River, sunken ships weave in and out of Jim's fantasies of flying. During the invasion of Shanghai, a traffic jam puts the war on hold when no one, invader or invaded, can move. Jim and his mother are forced from their car as it is run over by a tank. Sailors fleeing from the Petrel and the U.S.S. Wake, are stranded on the mud flats of the Yangtze River with the tide coming in and funeral flowers surrounding them. Jim's father is on the mud flat with a wounded British naval petty officer when Jim joins him. Jamie and his father survive the day on the mud flats, but many do not. The Japanese soldiers line the road above the flats, their bayonets forming "a palisade of swords that answered the sun."

Writing in Contemporary Literature, Roger Luckhurst observed that the story is "obsessed with the marking of boundaries and the logical inversions and displacements that attend them." Jim stays in the Maxted's apartment until the water and electricity have been shut off, and he cannot use the elevator to get his bicycle to street level. Jim looks for the end of his freedom, knowing he will be safer as a prisoner than a free man. The fence around the Lunghua Camp is not to keep him in but to keep the Chinese out. Basie sends him outside the fence, and Jim is almost lost there. He cannot find the end of the war, deciding that as one war ends, another is beginning. He hides in the Olympic Stadium among the dead and has to find his own way back to the camp. His inability to show how happy he is to find his parents, alive and at home, puts him on the wrong side of the fence once again.

Almost as a beacon leading Jim toward safety, recurring events involving a bright light move through the story. Newsreels are shown constantly during the year before the war. The patterns of light on the screen in the open-air cinema entertain Jim during the first weeks of internment. Near the end of the war, air raids light up the skies. While in the Olympic stadium, Jim sees the flash from the atomic bomb as it explodes over Japan. As Jim is trying to return to the camp, he finds a dead Japanese pilot and tries to revive him. When he puts his finger in the pilot's mouth and is bitten, he has a vision that he can bring all the casualties of the war back to life.

Counterpoint to Jim's vision and putting the world back into its tilt is Lieutenant Price. He is almost as great a danger to Jim's survival as any danger he has lived through until this time. In competition for the food and cigarettes being dropped by the allied bombers, Jim finds he must outsmart Price to survive.

Ideas for Group Discussions

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In a review for Newsweek, Donna Foote and David Lehman wrote that Empire of the Sun "explores the zone of 'inner space' that Ballard sees as 'the true domain of science fiction.'" The novel is autobiographical but edits out his parents during the time spent in the camp. Set during World War II, the book does not deal with the war, but with Jim's fantasies that grow around the machines for making war.

1. Japan invaded China before Pearl Harbor. Report on the war between Japan and China during the period before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

2. Dr. Ransome tried to educate Jim during the time they were in the camp. Why did he use subjects such as Latin in Jim's course of study?

3. Why would a shift from science fiction to autobiographical novel have gotten Ballard's work attention from the critics?

4. Why would Jim have believed that Dr. Ransome disapproved of him?

5. Jim and Dr. Ransome have a discussion about his lessons and having Mrs. Vincent help him with his Latin vocabulary. During the discussion (Chapter 25), Jim tells Dr. Ransome he has used his trig to calculate ways for the Japanese gunners to shoot down the American planes. Why did Jim feel loyalty to the Japanese?

6. As a European in China, Jim had enemies all around him. Jim's father could have left Shanghai before the war began. What kept him there with his family?

7. Explain the reaction of the British prisoners to the execution of the Chinese coolie who had pulled the rickshaw from Shanghai to the camp.

8. What are some of the lessons Jim learns during the years he is in camp?

9. Describe instances that light is important to the story.

10. In what ways will the boarding school Jim is going to be like the camp?

Social Concerns

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Empire of the Sun focuses on a young protagonist's strategies for survival in a Japanese prison camp in occupied China during World War II. In contrast to the privileged world he inhabited before the war, the reality of the world in which Jim finds himself involves merely staying alive by getting enough to eat, managing to maintain a relationship with his captors and the inmates of the camp, and remaining sane. Based on events from Ballard's childhood, this world is colored by childish imagination. The world Jim creates for himself in his imagination is more important to him than physical reality. In the Paris Review Ballard explained that he used his obsessions, setting up an "obsessional state of mind" within his characters. There is the fascination with a romanticized war contrasted with the truth of a real war with battlefields and dead bodies. Ballard examines "the relationships between the private fantasies of his characters and the public events and images of their environments" in order to build a world both real and surreal.

The protagonist, known as "Jamie" in his family and "Jim" in the camp, is eleven years old when the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor and the next day march into Shanghai, the city of his birth. Jamie's father owns a cotton mill on the Yangtze River, employing Chinese workers. This allows him and his parents to live a pleasant life of parties, private school for Jamie, friends in the European community, a large home with a swimming pool and servants in the years before the invasion. For Jamie it is normal to be driven by the chauffeur to and from school, church, his friends' houses, and anywhere else he wishes to go. He rides his bicycle out into Shanghai, without his parents' knowledge, in search of adventure to feed his imagination. The newsreels, shown everywhere, seem as imaginary as his dreams, playing over and over in his mind. His imaginary world is forming.

It is December 7, 1941. It will be December 8, 1941 in China when the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor. Jamie and his parents are invited to a party in the country outside Shanghai, one of a round of Christmas parties for the season. Jamie slips away from the home of Dr. Lockwood and his family, across a field containing a tumulus—a burial ground where he looks at the skeletons in their lidless coffins—to the aerodrome of Hungjao. He has visited the aerodrome other times, fascinated by a crashed and rusting Japanese fighter plane where he imagines he is the pilot. He has been trying for months to find a way to convince his father to move the derelict plane home to the house in Amherst Avenue. In his excitement at the visit to the plane, he sails his balsa wood model plane into the air, where the wind catches it and carries it across the field. As Jamie chases it, he becomes aware of a group of Japanese soldiers in the trenches by the blockhouse. He realizes he is in danger, but he wants to get his plane. His father calls to him to come, and he obeys, realizing he has put his father in danger also, showing an adult understanding of the situation while, childlike, still wanting to get his balsa wood plane. The plane and the dead pilot are part of the imagery of his private world.

Fearing that an attack is imminent, Jamie's parents decide they will spend the next several days in the Palace Hotel rather than their home. They think they will be less isolated and more protected in the hotel. The next morning, Jamie watches the British, American, Italian and Japanese gun boats on the Yangtze River, noticing that the Japanese gun boat is now anchored in front of the British Consulate. He notices the corpses put into the river every day by Chinese families too poor to afford burial of their dead. The corpses float toward the sea on the outgoing tide and return when the tide comes back in. Jim stands at the window, giving arm signals, and, with the ego of a child, thinks he has caused the war to start when the Japanese boat begins to fire on the H.M.S. Petrel, a British vessel. Jamie's parents decide the hotel is not safe with its proximity to the river, so they go to the car to be driven home by Yang. They are caught in the wave of Japanese soldiers invading the city. Jamie's father leaves the car to try to help the sailors from the Petrel by helping to pull them out of the river onto the mud bank. Jamie and his mother are forced from the car by a tank and are separated. Jamie finds his father on the mud flats, stays with him and a wounded man for hours and is then separated from him at the hospital. The Japanese think he is a very young sailor because he is wearing his school uniform.

In the weeks that follow, Jamie is not successful in finding his parents or any of his friends. He lives by his wits, finding food in the abandoned houses of the European families. All the swimming pools are drained, a symbol indicating dereliction in this and other stories. The world gradually closes in on Jamie. He is forced to consider surrender to the Japanese but knows he must choose carefully in order not to be killed while trying to give himself up. Food becomes harder and harder to find. His bicycle is stolen, making it impossible for him to continue moving around Shanghai in search of food and shelter. Living on the street is certain death. He goes to the river, to the funeral pier, where he can sit and let his imagination dwell on the sunken Chinese ships he has admired. He imagines eating the Japanese ship, the Idzumo, a sign he is close to starvation. His imagination is so active that he uses a rotting sampan to reach a derelict vessel, boarding it as if he owns it, using it as part of his own private game. Frank, an American seaman who has managed to avoid capture by the Japanese, comes out to the ship in a small boat to get Jamie. Frank and his partner, Basie, are living on an unfinished boat in the shipyard. They feed Jamie with the intention of selling him to slavers and give him the name "Jim," "a new name for a new life," Basie says. Jim is able to keep Basie's interest by telling him about notable people he has met and using what Basie calls "interesting words."

From Basie Jim comes to understand that there may be people who want the war to continue, are profiting from it. They spend three days traveling around Shanghai bartering for rice while Basie and Frank try to sell Jim. The afternoon of the third day, they drive to Amherst Avenue, and Jim knows they are planning to leave him to starve or be killed. Jim suggests that they go to his house, where they meet Japanese officers coming outside and, to Jim's relief, are captured. Jim now understands that the only place he will be safe is in a civilian prison camp, fed and guarded by the Japanese. Everyone else is an enemy.

Survival is not easy. At the detention camp in the open-air cinema, something like a drive-in movie theatre, Jim entertains himself by watching the images created on the movie screen as the sun moves across the sky. The prisoners are fed only once a day, and Jim is sure he is not getting his fair share but has no idea what to do about it. Basie reappears, without Frank, and begins to tutor Jim in survival techniques. How to ingratiate himself to the people who control the food is Jim's first lesson. Jim puts this tutorial to good use all the time he is interned in the camps. His realization that there is not enough food to keep everyone alive makes this his most important lesson. He will need skills to obtain more than his share and insure his survival. Guilt disappears with this realization. The animal instinct to survive any way possible takes over.

The instinct to survive becomes paramount in Jim's life. He escapes from the open-air detention center to be transported to a camp by using his understanding of the guard and the guard's lack of patience. Jim needs to be in the truck because Basie is in it. Fortunately for Jim, Dr. Ransome is also in the truck. The trip to the camp is a nightmare of misunderstandings and near death experiences. The Japanese driver does not know how to get to the camp, becoming lost almost immediately. There is no food or water for the prisoners, most of them elderly. At the train station where the driver stops to get directions, Jim obtains water for himself and some of the prisoners, able to do this because he is a bothersome child. He uses his knowledge of Japanese custom, drinking all the water in the first bottle himself rather than sharing, as the Europeans expect. His show of bravery coupled with the deep bow of respect earns more water that he can then share with the other prisoners.

Literary Precedents

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Identifying precedents for Ballard's text is difficult because it does not seem to conform to other works within the genre of fictionalized autobiography. Empire of the Sun is his first work that is not science fiction. Many critics say his science fiction is explained by Empire of the Sun. Luckhurst noted "the difficulty of siting Ballard's work, of finding adequate contexts in which to read it, results from this uncertain nonsite between science fiction and the mainstream." Until Empire of the Sun, Ballard did not receive critical acclaim for his writing, since science fiction often is not taken seriously. This work, being autobiographical, allowed critics to include him in "mainstream" literature, "mainstream criticism celebrated his transformative reworkings of science fiction tropes as long as they remain within the genre," Luckhurst further commented. Ballard's receipt of the Guardian Fiction Prize (1984) and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize (1985) and his nomination for the Booker Prize (1984) attest to the quality of the work.

Ballard's science fiction does not quite fit its genre, either. He does not have a hero who overcomes evil, but rather has heroes who accept catastrophe, finding death preferable to life. Science fiction critics praise him for writing an autobiographical novel rather than for his science fiction.

Ernest Hillen has written a memoir of a young boy in Java in World War II. Hillen is eight when his father and others working on a tea plantation in Java are taken away by the Japanese. He, his older brother, Jerry, and his mother are interned in a camp for the rest of the war. The book, The Way of a Boy: A Memoir of Java, recounts their experiences in the Bloemankamp prison camp, "where daily life was defined by random brutality, fear and unending hunger" reports Publishers Weekly. A reader might be led to wonder what brutality Ballard has chosen not to report.


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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 Menno Meyjes (uncredited). Peter Travers, movie reviewer for People Weekly, wrote that Christian Bale gives a remarkable performance as Jim. But, he continued, the chill has been removed from the movie. Spielberg even manages to romanticize the suicide of the kamikaze pilot. The ending "loses its resonance when Spielberg hasn't connected his spectacle to a larger moral theme."

An audiocassette recording consisting of eight cassettes of one and one-half hours each was made in 1996. Read by David Case, the recording is unabridged. It was called "an incredible literary achievement . . . brilliant," by the Los Angeles Times.

Media Adaptations

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Empire of the Sun was adapted as a film in 1987. Tom Stoppard and Menno Meyjes (uncredited) wrote the screenplay, and Steven Spielberg produced and directed it for Warner Bros.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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John Calvin Batchelor, "A Boy Saved by the Bomb," in The New York Times Book Review, November 11, 1984, p. 11.

William Boyd, "Unique Vision," in Books and Bookmen, September, 1984, pp. 12-13.

John Gross, "A Survivor's Narrative," in The New York Times October 13, 1984, p. 18.

David Lehman and Donna Foote, in a review in Newsweek, January 28, 1985, p. 69.

David Pringle, in Earth Is the Alien Planet: J. G. Ballard's Four Dimensional Nightmare, Borgo Press, 1979.

For Further Study
Jonathan Cott, "The Strange Visions of J. G. Ballard," in Rolling Stone, November 19, 1987, p. 76.
In this interview, Ballard discusses how the novel relates to the science fiction genre.

Edward Fox, "Goodbye, Cruel World," in The Nation, Vol. 240, No. 3, January 26, 1985, pp. 89-90.
This review explores the theme of survival in the novel.

Roger Luckhurst, "Petition, Repetition, and 'Autobiography': J. G. Ballard's Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women," Contemporary Literature, Vol. 35, Winter, 1994, pp. 688-708.
Luckhurst examines the autobiographical significance in both novels.

Luc Sante, "Tales from the Dark Side," The New York Times Magazine, September 9, 1990, p. 58.
Sante explores the "complex, obsessive, and disquieting" themes in the novel.

John Simon, in a review in National Review, February 5, 1988, p. 59.
Simon finds the cinematic adaptation a poor version of the novel.


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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 Nation. CCXL, January 26, 1985, p. 89.

The New Republic. CXCI, November 12, 1984, p. 46.

Newsweek. LV, January 28, 1985, p. 69.

Pendleton, Dennis. Review in Library Journal. CIX (November 1, 1984), p. 2078.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVI, August 24, 1984, p. 74.

Vale, V., ed. Re-Search: J. G. Ballard, 1984.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide