Science Fiction Though the Decades

Monday, September 30, 2013

1984: Empire of the Sun (Ballard, J.G.)

On helplessness and independence during wartime internment (5/5)

Curious, precocious, and cultured, J. G. Ballard (Jim in this semi-autobiographical novel), as a young man, grew up in Shanghai when the city was experiencing a lucrative growth from international trade and a melting pot for cultures. Jim’s experience in the city highlights the city’s dichotomic existence of lush international acclaim and luxuriousness of its expatriates versus the deprived and underdevelopment of its native population. Merely concerned about the war raging in Europe, the city of Shanghai was absorbed in its own economic boom prior to the shelling of its only defense against the imperial Japanese. When the bombing started, Shanghai’s progress and Jim’s own childhood ended. Thus began Jim’s experience penned in Empire of the Sun, “a mesmerising and hypnotically compelling novel of war, of starvation and survival, of internment camps and death marches, which blends searing honesty with an almost hallucinatory vision of a world thrown out of joint” (Harper Perennial [UK] edition, 2006).


It’s 1941—war rages in Europe. On December 6, the United Kingdom declares war on Finland and the Soviets push the Germans back from Moscow. Meanwhile in Asia, tensions are taut over the aggressive Japanese but life goes on for the expatriates in Shanghai—dinner parties by the pool or country club outings with the family are common. Though only eleven years old, Jim is an only child whose curiosity entertains him to no end. His forays into the city of Shanghai go unknown to his mother, his social observation of his parents’ friends’ antics are kept to himself, and his dowsing rod of curiosity always finds Jim returning to a downed Japanese fighter plane in the Hungjao Airfield (from a 1937 battle between the Chinese and Japanese).

Jim uses his intelligence to ire the constant stream of adults around him; he desires to tell older confidants that he’s “left the cubs and become an atheist, but he might become a communist as well” because “the communists has an intriguing ability to unsettle everyone, a talent Jim greatly respected” (27). This notion he will carry on through the wartime period and consider using it as a saving grace when confronting Kuomintang foot soldiers, offering to explain “that he too had once thought seriously of becoming a communist” (290). But the days of scavenging for food and nimbly avoiding punishment are years ahead… on December 7, 1941, Jim’s inquisitiveness  finds him in the cockpit of the Japanese fighter plane where, just meters away, sit a unit of Japanese soldiers awaiting their orders to strike the city. Wide-eyed and na├»ve, their illustriousness pique Jim’s curiosity and admiration.

The sleek Japanese fighter planes sooth Jim’s aesthetic eye and kindles a sympathy within Jim for the Japanese occupation. The airmen and soldiers also display pomp and circumstance which sing to his heart and inspire the words, “A flicker of light ran along the quays like silent gunfire. Jim lay down beside his father. Drawn above them on the Bund [Shanghai’s waterfront on the Whangpoo River] were hundreds of Japanese soldiers. Their bayonets formed a palisade of swords that answered the sun” (49). Glimmers of defection to the Imperialists danced in Jim’s mind. Mere escapism in a young boy’s state of daydreaming, the notion of surrender, defection, and survival under Japanese reign enticed the boy through new next three years.

Separated from his parents, raised by strangers, fed enough gruel to deter starvation, Jim enters the awkwardness of puberty in the awkward confines of imprisonment. His initial isolation and later confinement imbues him with a misguided sense of evitable conclusion, a sense of naivety penetrates his daily thoughts. These first thoughts of the war’s early conclusion stalk him as he bikes around Shanghai looking for his parents, revisiting nostalgic domains of recent childhood all the while wanting “the war to end soon, that afternoon is possible” (69). This tract of steady disappointment follows him to 1943, now nearer a man than a child, when optimism still serves as a security blanket for parent-less existence in the camp, he keeps maintaining that “the war was about to end” (190). Ignorant of the reality in the Pacific Ocean theater, his unimpeded optimism for the war’s end and for reunion with his parents keeps his spirit alive.

However, these years of internment aren’t without their troughs of sorrow and hardship. Widespread disease threatened to dilute the camp’s hope; malnutrition weakened even the hardiest of the prisoners. Ever inquisitive, Jim studied the camp doctor’s books on disease and when Jim’s own ease bruising and bleeding occurs again, Jim humorously became “curious to try out some new disease” (149); yet, I there were destitute times when pessimism was prevalent and death welcome, “He welcomed the air raids, … the deaths of the pilots, and even the likelihood of his own death. Despite everything, he knew he was worth nothing” (194).

As the Japanese are gradually defeated by the United States, the imperial soldiers endure reduced food rations, so too do the prisons; once moderately well fed, their rations were cut in half and the delirium of starvation snuck into their daily life. “Jim stared at his pallid hands. He knew that he was alive, but as the same time felt … dead” (273). Even after evacuating the prison for brief encampment at the Nantao Stadium, where a weak aura of the war’s end tinged the barren dreariness of the barren landscape, Jim felt impoverished of hope: “He remembered his fears that his body died … even though his body had survived. If his soul had been unable to escape, and had died with him, would feeding his body engorge it like corpses in the hospital?” (303). Sadly, near the end, he is wedged firmly on the precipice between life and death.

However, as a prologue of sorts after this semi-autobiographical story, J.G. Ballard relates his experience in 1992 when he returned to the Lunghua internment camp in the, “The End of My War” (1995), in the [London] Sunday Times: “[T]his is where I had been happiest and most at home, despite being a prison living under the threat of an early death”.


Could this nostalgia for his wartime internment be reflective of (a) the rabid curiosity of this late-childhood/early-adult years which consumed his time and salved his eager mind; (b) the avuncular and materteral spirit of a few of his fellow inmates; (c) the deepest of impressions of superiority which shifted paradigm from that of Japanese regal imperialism to American speed, glimmer, and heroism; or (d) the realization that our everyday prandial hunger is only that for the hunger of habit rather than the hunger of necessity.

Though semi-autobiographical, the story is imbued with a sense of realism, which is ironic considering Ballard’s reputation as an absurdist. His knowledge of the, to the reader, foreign land lends credibility and authenticity to the background of his story, on top of which lays Jim’s own foreignness to city of backward natives and an army of staunch imperialists. As mentioned in the introduction, the three words “curious, precocious, and cultured” clearly characterize Jim between the ages of 11 and 14, and most certainly before and after the time represented in this book. His imprisonment adds other layers of characterization to the boy’s humble start: humanistic care for others, eagerness to please for the ambivalent praise of the Japanese wardens/occupiers, naivety spanning the bridge from childhood which allows him to place and maintain childish assumptions, and even the onset sexuality during a time of depravity.

Ballard keeps a fair balance between Jim’s helplessness and independence. Though left without a next-of-kin to care for him after the air raid, Jim is still able to live day-by-day because of his knowledge of the International Settlement where stores of food, beds of luxury, and comfort of isolation can all be found. This independence is superseded by Jim’s inability to surrender to the Japanese: “I tried to surrender, but it ain’t easy” (99). After his capture, Jim is intellectually weaned by a number of people but his physical efforts are largely by his own volition, efforts which allow him to pilfer potato skins, whole potatoes, and goods to trade with the business savvy Basie, an American opportunist also interned at the Lunghua camp. This helplessness/independence, which defines Jim’s early life, knits into the story of Empire of the Sun a sense of community, of altruistic intentions by some for the benefit of the many.


Later, after the Japanese had left the camp, Jim returned because he had nowhere else to go. Shanghai was too far of a walk but he was comfortable with the confinement in the Lunghua camp. Ally B-59 planes began to drop care packages for the prisoners of war and Jim was exposed to the heroic war stories from the American perspective, courtesy of the Reader’s Digest and Saturday Evening Post magazines. With the stories came captivating advertisements belonging to a world he’d never known, and products of a place thousands of miles away—all providing Jim with the wonderment of escapism. This escapism is evident in Ballard’s modern writing with Terminal Beach (1964) and Vermilion Sands (1971).

As a bonus, the Harper Perennial [UK] edition (2006) has some insightful non-fiction material to J.G. Ballard’s experience during the war, which is the “The End of My War” (1995) article mentioned above. Here, he says some controversial things about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki:

The claims that Hiroshima and Nagasaki constitute an American war crime have had an unfortunate effect on the Japanese, confirming their belief that they were the victims of the war rather than the aggressors. As a nation the Japanese have never faced up the atrocities they committed, and are unlikely to do so long as we bend out hands in shame before the memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The bonus material isn’t essential reading but it’s insightful into Ballard’s feelings about the true events rather than a filtered portrayal found in Empire of the Sun.


  1. A comment and a question, if I may.

    Calling J.G. Ballard an 'absurdist' is an interesting statement. My immediate reaction was "No, he is a surrealist." But the more I think about it, the surrealism often pushes the bounds so far as to become absurd. And if I think about it even more, the pigeon holes expand into a broad horizon of methods and approaches. Ballard is surreal, absurd, satirical, dystopian, and psychological - a humanist, realist social commentator, plus a few more adjectives that don't spring to mind at the moment.

    And the question: have you seen Empire of the Sun the film? I have neither read the book or seen the film, and am curious about how well the film represents the novel.

  2. When I wrote this review, I also thought of Ballard as a "surrealist" but according to the Wikilink page, he's an absurdist with surrealist influences... thus, I changed the text as such. I don't fancy watching the movie much, I'm not much of a movie guy though Ballard does recommend watching Alexander Sokurov's The Sun (2004): Wiki link here