J.G. Ballard and the Fiction of Enclosed Space

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
How J.G. Ballard's incarceration as a child affected his fiction.

Submitted: March 25, 2016

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Submitted: March 25, 2016



J.G. Ballard and the Fiction of Enclosed Space

by R J Dent



It wasn’t until the publication of his novel, Empire of the Sun – and its subsequent adaptation to film by Stephen Spielberg – that the literary world started to take notice of J.G. Ballard.

Prior to that, he’d been erroneously regarded as a science fiction author – therefore not a ‘serious’ writer. Either that, or he was labelled ‘pulp author with a cult following’ – and therefore not a ‘serious’ writer. Ballard has, however, always been a serious writer. Prophetic too.

Of course, now that Ballard writes novels that appear to be more ‘naturalistic’ than they were prior to Empire of the Sun, the literary establishment regularly lauds him. ‘The science fiction writer who came in from the cold,’ was how one critic described him. Despite this change in the attitude of critics, there is no discernible change in Ballard’s modus operandi; his fiction is still concerned with the themes it’s always been concerned with; Ballard’s subject matter is still uniquely his own – and he still writes about what he knows best – enclosed space.

Concerning Empire of the Sun, it is surprising how many readers believe this story of young Jim’s incarceration in a prison camp to be an autobiography. It is not. It is a novel. A fiction. As Angela Carter points out in her essay, J.G. Ballard: Empire of the Sun: ‘The entire context of the novel is true, but Jim’s adventures are invention. The book is by no means autobiographical.’

Ballard himself stresses the fictional nature of the novel: ‘I always wanted to write a novel about China and the war,’ Ballard states, ‘but I put it off because I always had more urgent things to do, in fiction.’

Part of the confusion over the fictional nature of Empire of the Sun, has come about because whilst still a boy, Ballard, with his family, was imprisoned in a civilian camp, in Shanghai, by the Japanese. Prior to Empire of the Sun being filmed, J.G. Ballard, aged 60, revisited Shanghai, where he’d grown up. He went to the prison camp he and his parents had been incarcerated in, and found the tiny room they been kept in:

‘For nearly three years my father, mother, sister and I had been imprisoned there, living together in one small room… This was the Ballard family room, every ceiling crack, every piece of chipped plaster, every worn window frame as familiar to me as the lines on my palm.’ 

Empire of the Sun being read as autobiography is also due to it being as close to a ‘naturalistic’ narrative of enclosed space as Ballard has ever written. Prior to and since Empire of the Sun’s publication, many of Ballard’s other novels have dealt with characters forced to adapt to enclosed space – and its inherent violence. However, these novels deal with it in a more symbolic, allegorical, or metaphorical way than Empire of the Sun.

In High-Rise, for example, the residents of a high-rise block of apartments are trapped inside their high-tech vertical home and revert to savagery. In Concrete Island, a man is stranded on the strip of land between motorways and has to adapt to an environment that suddenly becomes hostile. In Crash, the protagonists spend all of their time violently exploring each other’s sexuality whilst confined to a variety of cars – in fact, the main character, Vaughn, lives in his car. In Rushing to Paradise, the protagonists stay on a small island – with violent results. Super-Cannes is set in a self-contained business park, the occupants of which resort to violence to relieve the monotony of their working lives. In Cocaine Nights and Millennium People, the affluent protagonists live in exclusive, gated communities in which murders are committed. In Kingdom Come, acts of violence are committed is a shopping mall. Always the enclosed space – and always the violence that comes from being in it.

People's reactions to enclosed space is J.G. Ballard’s major theme. The years of incarceration were formative: ‘I had come to puberty in the camp and developed the rudiments of an adult brain’, Ballard claims. ‘Going back to the camp… I had made contact with a lost younger self.’ But his younger self wasn’t lost; Ballard knew exactly where he was – locked in a small room in a Shanghai prison camp – in an enclosed space he’s been writing his way out ever since.






Ballard, J.G. ‘From Shepperton to Shanghai.’ The User’s Guide to the Millennium. London; Flamingo, 1996

Carter, Angela. ‘J.G. Ballard: Empire of the Sun.’ Expletives Deleted. London; Vintage, 1993




J.G. Ballard and the Fiction of Enclosed Space

Copyright © R J Dent (2016)



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