The incredible thing about war is the poetry it can inspire. J.G. Ballard's Empire of the Sun is a beautiful novel in its plot and execution, not merely an adventure story as some have claimed, but a hymn to endurance and an elegy for pain. Jim survives World War II in a Shanghai overrun by the Japanese, only barely at times, separated from his parents and starving.
One of Ballard's favorite themes is the effects of technology on modern society, the increased appetite it has engendered, the ways it sequesters people and forces them into parallel lives rather than union or community. Many of his books are extremely disturbing (even by contemporary standards) and delve deep into human transgression and evil.
Empire of the Sun is less about the perpetration of evil and more about its victims. Jim (an English boy) ends up in the Lunghua internment camp through no fault of his own, a solitary casualty of a conflict he has few clear ideas about. Some of the thoughts he does harbor are contradictory—the Japanese are enemies, but he feels safe at Lunghua and admires the Japanese fighter pilots.
This admiration underscores Ballard's preoccupation with technology. It isn't only the pilots he admires, it's their planes and their ability to manipulate machinery so skillfully. It isn't the ethics that concern Jim, it's the purely visceral, despite the equally visceral hardship he endures as a result of the pilots' activity. Is technology, Ballard seems to be asking, entirely amoral?
Not just an intellectual investigation, Empire of the Sun moves with the grace of perfectly composed prose. Despite the technological themes, elements of mysticism are retained, and Jim's growth to adulthood in the war-torn Shanghai and Lunghua are portrayed as much internally through Jim's thoughts as through his behavior. One of the truly great works of art to emerge from World War II, this is one of the 20th century's greatest writers at his best.