Thanks to the film adaption by Steven Spielberg and Christian Bale’s subsequent career, this novel seems to be the popular entry point for readers interested Ballard. I’ve not seen the movie, but the book’s cinematic appeal was immediately apparent when I read it a few months ago.
Based on the author’s own internment in a Japanese prison camp during WWII, it details life in Shanghai International Settlement through the eyes of Jim, an adolescent boy with dreams of becoming a pilot. When Japan declares war on Britain and the United States, he becomes separated from his parents and must fight for survival, first as a runaway on the streets of Shanghai and then as a prisoner at the Lunghua Civilian Assembly Center.
Ballard made a name for himself in 1960s and 70s for his bracingly pessimistic brand of futurism in novels such as Crash and High Rise. As well written as those books are, the depravity found in them feels at times too contrived to make for effective commentary on the human condition more generally. But the historical reality behind the events in Empire of the Sun brings themes of cruelty, exploitation, and survival into much sharper focus.
Ballard is at his most incisive when he evokes the casual violence inherent in the colonial system, both of the Western powers occupying Shanghai and of the Japanese Empire which replaced them. When, for instance, the camp guards beat a Chinese laborer to death, the indifference of the British seems both representative of larger crimes and singularly real in itself. And to Ballard’s further credit, he does not place his fictional avatar, Jim, above such brutality. Indeed, it’s Jim’s indifference, both towards his life and the lives of others, which comes in stark relief.
A dark lesson, but perhaps a necessary one if we want to understand people from less gentle ages. No one familiar with Ballard could fail to see how the author’s own wartime experiences planted the seeds for the fictional dystopias. With luck, we won’t see his actual past or his possible futures come to realization again.