I would sum up my fear about the future in one word: boring. And that’s my one fear: that everything has happened; nothing exciting or new or interesting is ever going to happen again… the future is just going to be a vast, conforming suburb of the soul.
1942 saw the foreign population in Shanghai more than quadruple, as Europeans and Russians fled for the relative safety of the international city: in Shanghai, one needed neither a visa to enter nor proof of income to stay. The uneasy peace was not to last, as Germany pressed Japan to ghettoize the Jews of Shanghai, exacerbating already dire conditions. Shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Imperial Army began to intern American, Dutch, and British citizens, including a young J.G. Ballard and his family.
Fittingly, the boy who would become the author of multiple dystopian futures found some kind of freedom in the Lunghua internment camp. He spoke and wrote often of the “hundred and one games” that could be played in the camps, while surely his contemporaries who had evacuated to Britain were in constant fear of air attacks. The Shanghai-born author’s Empire of the Sun was published in 1984; just 3 years later, Spielberg’s adaption starred a 13-year-old Christian Bale. It is impossible to tell whether Ballard would have become a writer had it not been for his early experiences, but we need only look to the desolate airfields and machinery of his fiction to know the influence of war.
Empire of the Sun stands apart from the body of his work, yet the straightforward reportage still allows for his trademark discomfort. In a frenzy–Shanghai’s humid air thick with the portent of war–the fictionalized Jim loses his parents, effectively shifting our focus to the boy. What follows is the madness of adults attempting to keep order in a realm ordered solely by their captors. Essentially, Ballard makes a convincing argument that children are better suited to wartime than adults–although it will cost them.
At heart, the writer knows he needs no tricks to make us feel as though we inhabit a kind of hell. The family’s life before the war–parties, chauffeurs, a Jewish governess–are the fragile shell of calm to which most adults long to return. For Jim, who discovers the nature of the true world, a return to that illusory peace is impossible.
What Jim discovers is what the author discovers: that in the fused deaths of society and youth are the keys to the creation of new worlds, new selves. Who else but an artist could find birth in war and violence? Ballard made these his trade, and ensured his readers felt the scars of history as keenly as a surgeon had inflicted them.
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