Review of Empire of the Sun

The writer Angela Carter reviewed Empire of the Sun for Time Out on its publication in 1984. Describing it as J G Ballard's 'breakthrough' novel, she nevertheless emphasised its connections to his previous work.

J G Ballard’s fiction has been characterised by restless and brilliant formal innovation, highly stylised, extreme and shocking violence, pitch-black humour... all the postmodernist characteristics. But you are still less likely to find Ballard on the shelf next to Barthes and Barthelme and Coover than you are to find him filed along with Bug-Eyed Monster.

Ballard was attracted to science fiction in the early days because, when he arrived in Britain from China, where he was born, after the war was over and as a stranger with a strange, cold eye, he found that the reality of British society seriously overstretched the traditional resources of British naturalistic fiction:

I wanted a revolutionary fiction; I wanted the recognition of the whole domain of the unconscious, something British naturalistic fiction never attempted. I wanted a fiction of imagination which would tell us the truth about ourselves. I wanted the future, not the past – I wanted the future of the next five minutes.

One of the results of this desire was that Ballard became the great chronicler of the new, technological Britain. A man prone to thrust himself into the grip of obsessions – ‘I am my obsessions!' – he grew increasingly obsessed by the aspects of our landscape those of us who grew up with the culturally programmed notion of Britain as ‘a green and pleasant land’ conspire to ignore. Motorways. High rises.

There eventually ensued novels of pure technological nightmare – Crash!, High-Rise, The Concrete Island. These were the vinyl and broken glass, sex ‘n’ violence novels, describing a landscape of desolation and disquiet similar to that of the novels of William Burroughs; the fame they brought was of a kind distinctly parallel to the norm of the world o' books.

* * * * * *

Ballard’s 30-odd-year career as a cult classic is, however, about to come to an end. He has, in his mid-fifties, produced what they call a ‘breakthrough’ novel. No doubt the ‘literary men' (and women) will now treat Ballard as the sf writer who came in from the cold. Who finally put away childish things, man-powered flight, landscapes of flesh, the erotic geometry of the car crash, things like that, and wrote the Big Novel they always knew he'd got in him.

Yet Empire of the Sun, which is indeed a Big Novel, is manifestly the product of the same unique sensibility as his last major novel, The Unlimited Dream Company (1979), and has a great deal in common with it. They share the theme of death and resurrection, the earlier one in a radiant, visionary mode, the later one as delirious obsession. But Empire of the Sun is a recreation of the recent past, not a myth of the near future, and the well-loved Ballardian leitmotifs, confinement, escape, flight, have the gritty three-dimensionality of real experience. The novel is even about a kind of apocalypse, the destruction of the British community in Shanghai by the Japanese.

Manuscript draft of Empire of the Sun by J G Ballard

Manuscript draft of Empire of the Sun by J G Ballard

Chapter 31 from J G Ballard’s handwritten draft of Empire of the Sun, c. 1983.

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All the same, the chapters have titles that recall those of earlier Ballard short stories: ‘The Drained Swimming Pool', 'The Open-Air Cinema’, ‘The Fallen Airmen'. It is a shock to find so much of the recurrent, hypnotic imagery of J G Ballard moored to the soil of an authentic city, at an authentic date in real time – Shanghai, as the European residents of that city of salesmen are engulfed ineluctably in war. It was the place of Ballard's childhood.

Empire of the Sun is, very notably, a novel about the fragility of the human body, and the dreadful spillability of that body's essential juices, sh*t, piss, blood, pus. It is also about the resilience of children; and about the difficulty experienced by the British in adjusting to changing circumstances. More specifically, it is about one child's war, and hence an investigation of 20th-century warfare, in which non-combatants such as children and also the old, the weak, the sick increasingly fare worst. It is about one child's war in a prison camp, and how he came to feel at home there.

There has, notes Ballard, been surprisingly little fiction about the war in the Far East, perhaps because the British lost it. No, he hasn't read J G Farrell's The Singapore Grip, which is an account of the fall of Singapore. ‘Was Farrell there?' Ballard asked sharply. He obviously doesn't trust book-based research in this area. A note at the front of Empire of the Sun says the novel ‘draws on my experiences in Shanghai, China, during the Second World War and in Lunghua C.A.C (Civilian Assembly Centre) where I was interned from 1942–45’. The strange, cold eye which Ballard turned on Britain when he first came here was evidently trained to look on, unflinching, in Lunghua.

He says:

I always intended to write a novel about China and the war, but I put it off because I always had more urgent things to do, in fiction. Then, two or three years ago, I realised if I didn't write the China book soon, I would never do so. Memory would fade, apart from anything else. It took a very long time, 20 years or so, to forget the events that took place in Shanghai and it took a very long time to remember them, again ... I don't just mean to bring them to mind, but to flesh them out, to remythologise them.

Jim ‘my young hero', misses his Scripture exam because the Japanese attack Shanghai; at first that missed exam seems the most important thing. Although he mislays his parents early on, it is a long time before he finally surrenders his school cap and blazer. This well-brought-up boy goes to the Cathedral School. His father’s house in Amherst Avenue has a swimming pool (soon to be drained) and nine servants. Jim has the sense of security only privilege can bring.

He is too young to be surprised when he finds the servant gone and the house deserted. He is on his own; it is an adventure. Trying to surrender to the Japanese is more of a problem. They don't really want any more prisoners, but the camp, for all its privations, offers more safety than the dangerous chaos of the city, where a thief will cut off your arm for the sake of a watch, kill you for your shoes, where there is no food left, where the water is full of cholera. Where privilege has evaporated.

Once in the camp, Jim adjusts quickly. Too young to feel nostalgia, he focuses his memory forward. Soon he will be reunited with his parents! One day. Soon. Until then, he lives the present. He scavenges. He runs errands. He keeps himself busy. He sneaks and wheedles extra sweet potatoes. If his ingratiating smile drives the Japanese guards into paroxysms of fury and all the other children are afraid of him, he is free from self-pity, sustained by the very business of living, and his dreams are nourished by contraband copies of Reader’s Digest scrounged from American prisoners.

Jimmy Ballard lived in Lunghua Camp; he lived in the very hut that his young hero inhabits. The entire context of the novel is true, but Jim's adventures are invention. The book is by no means autobiographical. Ballard was with his parents and his sister in the camp and he knows that children, particularly when they are with their parents, can witness appalling events and feel no fear.

Photographs showing the remains of the Lunghua Civilian Assembly Centre, where J G Ballard was interned as a child

Photographs showing the Lunghua Civilian Assembly Centre, where J G Ballard was interned as a child

J G Ballard returned to Shanghai and the Lunghua camp in 1991. These photographs were taken on his trip.

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It was a peculiar life for the business community in Shanghai, before the war, after the war, even during the war – until the crunch came and internment began.

‘Like my young hero’, Ballard says,

one witnessed, on a daily basis, the most appalling events - starvation, disease, brutality - but through the window the of a chauffeur-driven car. So that one was very, very close to the terrible brutalities inflicted on the Chinese by the Japanese, who surrounded Shanghai, and by the Chinese themselves on one another, but one could do nothing about it. And one wasn’t directly involved. And, in a way, writing the book may be an attempt to go back and put emotion in.

Only at the end of the novel, reunited with his parents, about to leave China forever, does Jim, now sixteen, a child no longer, see that Shanghai is now and always was a ‘terrible city’; and these, the last words of the novel, restore to the adjective ‘terrible’ all its original force. The last image of the novel is the haunting one of the paper flowers that decorate the coffins the Chinese, too poor to afford burial, launch into the sea, the drowned flowers that come back to the city, along with the corpses.

Empire of the Sun is a rich, complex, heartrending novel, in characteristically Ballardian prose – a prose with a curiously metallic quality, cold as steel, that makes the imagery shine out, as he wants it to, with the hallucinatory clarity of that of naïve painters. The image of those paper flowers decorating the corpses, not of the Chinese dead, but of British sailors dying in the Yangtze River; the mask of flies on the face of the dead airman; the silvery shapes of the American bombers Jim sees from the corner of his eye when he is sick with fever, that are the emissaries of death.

It is easy to think of Empire of the Sun as the logical culmination of a career, the book towards which Ballard has been working all his life. Since he is far too young to retire, to think that would be an error. The novel has the look of a significant change of direction for Ballard, yet its appearance of naturalism is only superficial – it is, once again, a triumph of the imagination. The imaginative recreation of that ‘terrible city’ and the resurrection of its teeming population of dead are to do with the notions of transformation that have always informed his work.

It is hard to imagine – top that! – what he will do next. But, then, it always has been. Meanwhile, here is the fruit of that obsessiveness Ballard so much admires, the obsessive single-mindedness of, as he puts it, ‘long-incarcerated mental patients who remain totally faithful to their few obsessions throughout their long lives, the sort of dedication shown by the Japanese soldiers hiding out in the jungle for 30-odd-years …’ The obsessive pursuit of his own imagery to its origins has brought us this riveting and sombre and, yes, funny (humour blacker than black, this time) and humane novel, that is the kind of novel we used to think we no longer had the energy to write, that Ballard was writing all the time.

J. G. Ballard: Empire of the Sun
A review by Angela Carter, Time Out, 1984

  • Angela Carter
  • Angela Carter published many novels including Nights at the Circus (1984) and Wise Children (1991) as well writing for radio, stage and screen. More information is available about Angela Carter here.

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