Home | Reviews | Blog | Daily | Glossary | Orrin's Stuff | Email

Empire of the Sun ()

Brothers Judd Top 100 of the 20th Century: Novels (22)

    [A] flash of light filled the stadium, flaring over the stands in the south-west corner of the football
    field, as if an immense American bomb had exploded somewhere to the north-east of Shanghai.
    The sentry hesitated, looking over his shoulder as the light behind him grew more intense.  It faded
    within a few seconds, but its pale sheen covered everything within the stadium, the looted furniture
    in the stands, the cars behind the goal posts, the prisoners on the grass.  They were sitting on the
    floor of a furnace heated by a second sun.
        -Empire of the Sun

Time was when the great war books were written either by the combatants themselves or by historians.  But it is uniquely the case of WWII--and uniquely a function of the fact that it was truly a "World" war--that two of the greatest, and certainly the most affecting, works of literature to emerge from the war relate the experiences of children.  Anne Frank's Diary, though the War itself is necessarily off stage, is informed by our knowledge of its events, and her perilous situation is a result of the War.  In Empire of the Sun, our young hero--Jamie, later Jim--is thrust into the very midst of war, and, though he's rarely in the middle of combat, the killing and other horrors (even down to the A-bombing of Japan, which gives the book its unexpected meaning) occur all around him.

J. G. Ballard has drawn upon his own four years in the Lunghua Civilian Assembly Center, near Japanese occupied Shanghai, the imaginative and visual techniques of his science fiction writing, the heritage of such writers as Charles Dickens and Mark Twain, and a dark, but accurate, personal vision of WWII as little more than a prelude to WWIII, to create a novel that captures the bloody-minded nature of the 20th Century as no other author has.  Particularly impressive is the way in which he shows that, for young Jamie, the War is, perversely, something of a liberation, freeing him from the normal strictures of the adult world.  He's kind of like Huck Finn lighting out for the Territories, but in his case there's not even a runaway slave for a companion.

Ballard is also very conscious of the way in which modern media has served to minimize reality, or at least to distance us from it.  After the War ends, Jim is watching newsreels and realizes that they are part of what will become the accepted version of events, with arrows sweeping across continents, while the true life experiences of people like him will take on the quality of illusions.  In turn, Ballard makes many of the scenes almost hallucinatory or surreal (it's hard to convey just how visual the novel is; suffice it to say that it is so cinematic that even Steven Spielberg made a reasonably satisfying movie version out of it.)

Ultimately, it is Jim's triumph, and China's, to have survived WWII.  It is the tragedy of the Century that, just as Jim was liberated by the fact that the world had come untethered from the normal rules of a civil society, monstrous forces of human nature were also freed, leading to death, murder, torture, and destruction on a scale which called into question whether the species could, would, or should survive.  As the novel closes and he heads to England to complete school, Jim seems uncertain whether he'll survive WWIII, but positive that China, prostrate for so long, will wreak a horrible vengeance upon the world.  Though this intuition has so far proven wrong, it is nonetheless true that tens of millions of Chinese were subsequently killed by their own government, which today is another Empire of the Sun, with nuclear weapons pointed at the rest of the world.

This novel comes as close as any can to summing up what was one of the central themes of the 20th Century : The Slaughter of the Innocents.  Jim is in many ways the archetypal hero of the age, a worthwhile representative of those who survived the Slaughter.  Anne Frank, tragically, represents all those who did not.


Grade: (A+)


J. G. Ballard Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: J. G. Ballard
-SHORT STORY: Read the 1962 Short Story That Inspired This Year’s Met Gala Theme: J.G. Ballard’s “The Garden of Time” (Literary Hub, May 2, 2024)
    -INTERVIEW: Against Entropy: Interview with J G Ballard: (PETER RONNOV-JESSEN, August 1984, Literary Review)
    -ESSAY: J. G. Ballard’s Brilliant, Not “Good” Writing (Tom McCarthy, September 22, 2023, Paris Review)
-ESSAY: JG Ballard was not a prophet: The poster boy of futurology cared more for the present (MARK BLACKLOCK, 10/19/23, UnHerd)
    -ESSAY: IF YOU BUILD IT, THEY WILL PROFIT: REFLECTING ON J. G. BALLARD’S HIGH-RISE 48 YEARS LATER: "The world of High-Rise has accelerated, exceeding its own image, manifesting so thoroughly the fiction wears thin and reality begins to flicker at its edge." (ANDREW F. SULLIVAN, 4/19/23, CrimeReads)
    -ESSAY: How Did a Censored Writer from the 1970s Predict the Future with Such Uncanny Accuracy?: 50 years ago, J.G. Ballard anticipated everything from Instagram to Netflix binging (Ted Gioia, 5/24/21, Culture Notes of an Honest Broker)
    -REVIEW: of Selected Non-Fiction: 1962-2007 by J.G. Ballard, edited by Mark Blacklock. (REdmund ordon, London Review of Books)

Book-related and General Links:
-FEATURED AUTHOR : J. G. Ballard (NY Times Book Review) (Spike Magazine)
    - J. G. BALLARD : Twentieth Century Chronicler (Solaris Books)
    -99 Stella Vista : JG Ballard Resource
    -STORY : The Assassination Of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered As A Downhill Motor Race (J.G Ballard, From the Evergreen Review Reader 1967-1973.)
    -OBIT : for William S. Burroughs (J. G. Ballard, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW : of Rattling the Cage: Towards Legal Rights for  Animals by Steven M. Wise (J. G. Ballard, booksonline uk)
    -REVIEW : of CHILDREN OF WAR, CHILDREN OF PEACE Photographs by Robert Capa (J. G. Ballard, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of J G Ballard reviews Emergence: the Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software by Steven Johnson (booksonline)
    -INTERVIEW : The Billen Interview : Andrew Billen visits author JG Ballard in his peeling semi to discuss class, feminism and the material world  (August 7, 1994, The Observer)
    -INTERVIEW : Madness as therapy : On the publication of JG Ballard's latest novel, 'Super- Cannes', Chris Hall of Spike Magazine talks to the cult author about the dark side of capitalism and the deceptions of reality. (Arts World)
    -INTERVIEW : j.g. ballard: the personal mythologist  (Alex Burns ( - December 16, 2000, Disinformation)
    -INTERVIEW : JG Ballard (Pat Quigley, Albedo One, Autumn 1993)
    -J. G. Ballard (alt.culture)
    -PROFILE : JG Ballard (Richard Behrens, Scriptorium)
    -PROFILE : J. G. Ballard : The author of " Crash" and "Empire of the Sun" talks to Prospect about sex, technology and the 1960s. Do his dark obsessions amount to a serious quest to understand modernity? (Jason Cowley, Prospect)
    -PROFILE : Tales From the Dark Side (Luc Sante, September 9, 1990, NY Times)
    -PROFILE : Prophet With Honour :  David B. Livingstone on why J.G. Ballard is one of the most vital writers of the 20th century (Spike, 8/99)
    -ESSAY : J. G. Ballard on William Burroughs' Naked Truth (RICHARD KADREY AND SUZANNE STEFANAC, Salon)
    -ESSAY : Extreme Metaphor : A Crash Course In The Fiction Of JG Ballard (Chris Hall, Spike)
    -ESSAY : J.G. Ballard (The Electronic Labyrinth)
    -ESSAY : JG Ballard : The Wind from Nowhere (Vector, the journal of the British Science Fiction Association)
    -ESSAY : Through The Crash Barrier : A Reading of J.G. Ballard's Concrete Island ( L J Hurst)
    -ESSAY : The Dark Side of the Equinox : A Reading of J G Ballard's The Crystal World ( L J Hurst)
    -ESSAY : Extremity or Superlative? : J G Ballard's High-Rise (L J Hurst)
    -Guardian Unlimited Books : Authors : J. G. Ballard
    -ARCHIVES : "j.g. ballard" (booksonline uk)
    -ARCHIVES :  "j.g. ballard" (Salon)
    -ARCHIVES : "Ballard" (NY Review of Books)
    -ARCHIVES : ballard (Spike)
    -LINKS : JG Ballard (Guardian Online)
    -REVIEW : of Empire of the Sun By J. G. Ballard (1984) (John Gross, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of Empire of the Sun By J. G. Ballard (John Calvin Batchelor, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Empire of the Sun (The Guardian)
    -REVIEW : Nov 22, 1984 D.J. Enright: Prisoners & Pornographers, NY Review of Books
       Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard
       Swallow by D.M. Thomas
    -REVIEW : of The Day of Creation By J. G. Ballard (1988) (JOHN GROSS, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of THE DAY OF CREATION By J. G. Ballard (Samuel R. Delaney, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of HELLO AMERICA By J. G. Ballard (1988) (Gregory Benford, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE KINDNESS OF WOMEN By J. G. Ballard (1991) ( David R. Slavitt, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of  War Fever By J. G. Ballard (1991) (HERBERT MITGANG, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of WAR FEVER By J. G. Ballard (Ursula K. Le Guin, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of RUSHING TO PARADISE By J. G. Ballard (1995) (Nicholas Lezard, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Cocaine Nights (1998) (A. O. Scott, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of  'Cocaine Nights' by J.G.  Ballard (Scott McLemee, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of Cocaine Nights (David Livingstone, Spike)
    -REVIEW : of SUPER-CANNES  by J G Ballard  (Alex Clark, Guardian uk)
    -REVIEW : of SUPER-CANNES  by J G Ballard  (JOHN SUTHERLAND, Sunday Times of London)
    -AWARDS : Guardian Fiction Prize : 1983 Empire of the Sun

    -FILMOGRAPHY : J. G. Ballard (Imdb)
    -INFO : Empire of the Sun (1987)  (Imdb)
    -BUY IT : Empire of the Sun (1987) DVD (
    -BUY IT : Empire of the Sun (1987) VHS (
    -REVIEW : of Empire of the Sun (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)
    -REVIEW : of Empire of the Sun (Hal Hinson,  Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of Empire of the Sun (Desson Howe,  Washington Post )
    -REVIEW : of Empire of the Sun (Jaime N. Christley , Film Written)
    -REVIEW : of Crash (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times)
    -REVIEW : of Crash (Luc Sante, Slate)
    -REVIEW : of Crash (Robin Dougherty, Salon)

    -ARTICLE : Payouts to Japan PoW's could cost £200m (Philip Johnston, Daily Telegraph)
    -EXCERPT : First Chapter of Grammars of Creation by George Steiner