J G Ballard, Britain's most imaginative science-fiction writer, uses recurring themes of catastrophe and apocalypse. Does his new novel ex-plain Ballard's SF preoccupations? Colin Greenland talks to him.
J G Ballard's latest book “Empire of the Sun”, is a realistic novel about World War II. Others will find that incongruous; Ballard doesn't. “It's hardly different from any of my previous fiction”.
His disaster novels like “The Drowned World” are dreams of catastrophe, scanned for meaning by their meditative heroes, while “The Atrocity Exhibition” and “The Unlimited Dream Company” are visions of an urban apocalypse which seems to be happening already: “The future in my fiction has never really been more than five minutes away”.
“Empire Of The Sun” is less Jim Ballard-going-mainstream than the story behind the other stories. Its central character is an 11-year-old called Jim.
In the chaos of Shanghai at the end of 1941, Jim gets separated from his British colonial parents and ends up in a Japanese internment camp for civilians.
With death on all sides he learns the ambiguous art of survival, guided by his own hyperactive fantasies, “the newsreels inside his head”, which grow more lurid and bizarre as malnutrition creeps along.
“The memory of the air raid ex-cited Jim... One day Jim would become a wounded pilot, fallen among the burial mounds and armoured pagodas. Pieces of his flying suit and parachute, even perhaps of his own body, would spread across the paddy fields, feeding the prisoners behind their wire and the Chinese starving at the gate ...”
The actual hunger, which leads Jim to volunteer to pull the G Block food cart so that he can steal an extra mouldy potato, seems less important to him than a metaphysical hunger for apocalypse now, “a secret hunger that the war would so easily satisfy.”
Clearly, J G Ballard's version of events is not just another war memoir.
As he says, “There isn't a huge literature about the lives of civilians in the Far East under the Japanese, unlike the European war, where everybody from Anne Frank to Hitler's chauffeur's valet has written a book about it.
“My experiences are completely different. I was born in Shanghai; I lived there until I was 16; I spent the war in the internment camp that I describe in the book.
“There's always been a sort of cliché image of the steadfast, long--suffering, courageous Brits, always pulling together, always trying to escape -- something nobody in our camp ever dreamed of doing. Far too dangerous. The only places of safety for Allied nationals in the Far East were the camps.”
The young Ballard was one of 20,000 Britons in captivity in and around Shanghai alone. “No one in their right mind would think that 2000 people suddenly seized off the street and interned in a camp, slowly starved for three years and given no hope of release, would behave nobly.
“People aren't enobled by suffering. That's another cliché. At the same time, it does strip away a lot of illusions. One pays a terrible price for that, but at least one glimpses some kind of truth.”
In its autobiographical groundplan “Empire of the Sun” does much to explain the source of Ballard's continually disturbing imaginative visions.
Looking for his parents, Jim goes cycling around the abandoned Inter-national Settlement, a landscape full of the deserted hotels and drained swimming-pools that have decorated all Ballard's fiction since his first short story collection “The Voices of Time” (now reissued by J M Dent to coincide with “Empire of the Sun”).
Other early titles “The Terminal Beach”, “The Disaster Area” -- identify a desolate, evocative terrain inspired by the devastated countryside around Shanghai. Why has it taken him so long to get round to writing about the original?
“For most writers this book would have been the first one. I can only assume that I wanted to forget it. That took me 20 years; now it's taken me another 20 to remember it.”
The motive is obviously not nostalgia: “I don't feel that my experiences in the Far East are irrelevant to life in western Europe today. I think in many ways they're almost predictive of what may happen here, and what has happened in other parts of the world.
“If there were a nuclear war in Western Europe, you'd probably have a situation not dissimilar to Shanghai at the end of the Second World War, with rival roving gangs, drifting allegiances, and complete confusion. In the camp, we weren't certain that the war had ended. Nor were the Japanese.”
As he puts it in “Empire of the Sun”: “Peace had come, but it failed to fit properly.”
In the autumn of 1945 Chiang Kai-Shek's American-supported troops were fighting the communists outside Shanghai. “The fighting was part of a continuum of conflict between America and nationalistic communism which has gone on ever since”, says Ballard. Are we then, as he suggests in “Empire”, already in World War III?
“On the instalment plan, yes. The seeds of the next global conflict were laid down in the Far East in the '20s and '30s.
“Those huge populations were ripe for political transformation in a much more dramatic way than the countries of western Europe. Very powerful political currents moving then, are still flowing strongly.
“If there is a Third World War, I don't think it will start in western Europe.”
“Empire of the Sun” is published next Thursday by Gollancz (£8.95).