Five Minute Review: Empire of The Sun by JG Ballard

Five minutes to write a review on a recent read. Here we go:

Empire of The Sun by JG Ballard is a semi-autobiographical novel set in Shanghai (China) during the Japanese occupation of the 1940s.

The novel and centres itself Jim, a young boy born and raised in the Western ex-pat district of the city. Setting the scene on the eve of the Pearl Harbour bombings, what follows is a dramatic series of events resulting in Jim’s separation from his family and the experiences faced by the pre-teen as he fends for himself in Shanghai and in a series of labour camps. Despite all the horrors unfurling around him, Jim maintains an eerie calmness throughout, which is perhaps more disturbing at points than the war crimes themselves. The bright light of an atomic bomb takes the plot down a somewhat more dystopian route as the Japanese soldiers flee and the Western survivors and Chinese communists fight over what little remains. Ultimately Jim comes out of the War alive but a markedly changed person from the little boy we’re introduced to at the start.

Ballard’s novel is by no means an easy read. As the plot progressed I found myself increasingly frustrated by Jim’s naivety towards the growingly desperate situation, especially when it opened him up for other prisoners to take advantage. I am prepared to accept though that if I was a 11 year old in a work camp I might have adopted a similar coping mechanism. Regardless of this Empire of The Sun paints a fair reflection of the often overlooked period of Japanese occupation in China and the work camps. When so much has been written about World War Two in the West it was refreshing to read something with an Eastern focus.

Nablopomo Day 15: A Short Extract From that Book I’m Writing

A (very much) first draft from that novel I’m trying to write in the little free time I have.

In this segment, our narrator, executive Chantelle, is having a conversation with her superior, manager Sye. Manager Sye has come to view Chantelle’s stock/team as part of a routine inspection, after reports from a colleague that our protagonist is a sympathiser of ‘masses’ (a lower, slave-type, class of person).

We enter this segment mid-way through their dialogue.

“You know, executive, there are not many of your kind. Female I mean.”

“No sir, there are not.”

“Do you know why that is?”

“Because, unlike most women of our class, I am not privileged enough to bleed for The Cause in the same way they do. A previous manager decided that I’d be more fitted to monitoring masses rather than producing leaders.”

“And how did that make you feel?”

“Feel sir?”

“Emotionally. How did you feel when your manager said you were not fit for purpose? Must have been tough.”

I could feel my manager’s eyes on me. He was observing; looking, waiting, maybe even hoping I’d slip up. Nowadays even the slightest twitch can condemn someone to the South. I carried on looking out towards my team, focusing my attention on a particular mass toiling in the dirt.    

“I cannot really remember how I felt. A lot has come to pass since that decision was made, and I have grown in many ways since. I have come to respect the department which my former manager recommended me for. In truth sir he did me a great honour by casting me off.”

In the corner of my eye I saw my manager raising his eyebrows.

“Oh really?”

I kept my focus on the mass. “Yes sir. Here I can fulfil my duty to The Cause. I monitor and control a team of masses, they grow and harvest the food, I give the food to managers and they distribute it out, a portion going to the breeders. In the old days I believe that is what they used to call feminism.” I turned to face my senior, “I bleed more than the breeders do anyway” I smirked.

My manager looked over at the toiling masses, “I had heard about your labouring efforts. It’s impressive to see an executive prepared to assist where necessary, just as long as they maintain their distance.” It was a veiled warning.

“I bleed in other ways too sir.”

I rolled up the sleeve on my right arm, revealing my various cuts and scratches. The sight shocked him, I wondered if he was going to faint. In absence of comment I explained myself.

“This is my atonement for what I lack. With every score I bleed for The Cause. Some days it hurts more than others, it depends how deep I go. This one,” I pointed to a prominent scar on my wrist, “this was one of my first ones. As you can see, none of the others incurred since look as bad. I am a quick learner sir. If my combined efforts do not make me a supporter of The Cause then question my loyalty now.”

My manager nodded. Any doubt for my loyalty had left him as much as his voice had left his throat. I rolled my sleeve down. I do not like to boast of what I do, it is nothing of note compared to what the other females endure. I know, I’ve seen it.

After a short pause my manager regained his composure, “I’ve been thinking about all the hard work and effort you’ve invested into your duties and I think it’s time you were given more authority. It’s clear you’re good at what you do, your masses are well trained and your assistant is one of the most loyal I’ve ever seen.”

“Hard work sir. Hard work and duty.” I replied.

“Yes, yes, I’m sure,” he said, flapping his hand in the air. “Anyway, there may be an opening coming up in one of the Townships, management I’m told. Nice lodgings, increased rations, a respectable position within society. A role that certainly wouldn’t involve dealing with grubby masses like these on a daily basis,” he wrinkled up his nose. “I think you, executive, would be perfect for this position and that’s why I’m going to nominate you for the role with my full support.”

Now it was my turn to be shocked. “Me sir? Why not nominate yourself? You’re already a manager at ground level, wouldn’t you be the better candidate?”

My manager laughed, “oh no, I couldn’t possibly fulfil the role to the standard it demands. I know what those Townships are like. Besides, my best interests lie here.”

When manager Sye says ‘best interests’ he means his best fuckable ones. It’s the same for all ground level managers. They gorge themselves on the poor quality meat freely available, leaving the executives to deal with the mess they leave behind.

“You are most kind” I said.

“Don’t get too excited executive. I need to tell those above you’re ready and to do that I need to know you can handle any challenge. That’s why I’m putting some Fallens into your team to monitor for a couple of weeks.”

“I thought Fallens were sent South to the toxic zones?”

“Not these ones. One is the daughter of a senior executive, another acted out a minor crime. Muttered thanks to Bamanga in a public place or something. Just see they’re treated like one of the masses and return them back with nothing but a revitalised love for The Cause. Do that and I’ll see you moved to the Township.”

I bowed, “thank you for this opportunity manager” I said, as is custom.

“The Cause thanks you too,” he said distractedly. “Now, if you don’t mind I have to see to executive Wayne. He’s apparently been having trouble managing his stock and, as his manager, it’s up to me to investigate the situation further. Until later.” He nodded at me and then started walking towards a group of Wayne’s masses.

“Glory to The Cause sir!” I cried out after him.

“Glory to The Cause executive Chantelle!” My manager cheerfully cried back, “glory to The Cause.”