JAMES GRAHAM BALLARD has remained a secret to the American reading public for far too long. One of the most imaginative and idiosyncratic of modern writers, a visionary in both style and substance, he has been relegated to that peculiar limbo of critical apathy reserved for writers of science fiction because his early work appeared in that field. With his new novel, Empire of the Sun, nominated for England's prestigious Booker Prize, Ballard seems finally poised to loose the shackles of his origins and attain the wider appreciation he has long deserved.

Born in China, in 1930, the only son of a British businessman, Ballard spent several of the war-torn years of his youth in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp -- an experiencechronicled in Empire of the Sun. The novel begins in Shanghai on the eve of Pearl Harbor, introducing an 11- year-old boy known only as Jim, whose experiences are a patent embellishment of Ballard's own. The precocious only child of wealthy British parents, Jim dreams of the coming war, and soon finds his visions externalized: "The whole of Shanghai was turning into a newsreel leaking from his head." There is no better preview of the narrative that follows.

When Japanese troops seize the city, Jim is separated from his parents, and must fend for himself until captured and ultimately interned at a prison camp. Through his eyes, we view the dreamlike cataclysm that has descended upon Shanghai; but the world war itself matters little here -- indeed, the narrative jumps in mid-book from Jim's imprisonment in 1942 to his departure from the camp just before V-J Day. Ballard's focus is the intensely microcosmic experience of his naive and immature protagonist, roaming a world that has been stipped of the thin veneer of civilization. His travelogue is laced with strangely poetic contrasts of beauty and death:

"The sun fell toward the Shanghai hills, and the flooded paddy fields became a liquid chessboard of illuminated squares, a war table on which were placed crashed aircraft and abandoned tanks. Lit by the sunset, the prisoners stood on the embankment of the railway line that ran to the warehouses at Nantao, like a party of film extras under the studio spotlights. Around them the creeks and lagoons were filled with saffron water, the conduits of a perfume factory blocked by dead mules and buffaloes drowned in its scents."

As first a street urchin and then a prisoner, Jim is forced to comprehend the fragility and transience of existence -- facing hunger, sickness, death at every turn -- but he also understands, for the first time, the reality of the human condition. And he embraces that reality, seeking a mystical union with the ruined landscapes of war because they are far more attractive than the pretense of a normal life. He thus dreams, as the book closes, of the next war, that of the "Empire of the Sun." The novel's ironic title refers, of course, to the contenders for Shanghai: the British Empire, on which the sun has finally set; the rising sun of Japan; and the red star of Chinese Communism. But ultimately, it is the empire of a more ominous light source, borne by the wings of a single American bomber over Nagasaki, whose dawn is visible even in Shanghai:

"The sentry hesitated, looking over his shoulder as the light behind him grew more intense. . . Both of them were waiting for the rumble of sound . . . but an unbroken silence lay over the stadium and the surrounding land, as if the sun had blinked, losing heart for a few seconds. Jim smiled at the Japanese, wishing that he culd tell him that the light was a premonition of his death, the sight of his small soul joining the larger soul of the dying world."

Empire of the Sun is a union of apparent irreconcilables -- autobiography, naturalistic storytelling, and surrealism. Ballard has not only transcended science fiction, he has pushed at the limits of fiction itself, producing a dream of his own life that is both self-critique and story, an entertainment that enriches our understanding of the fact and fantasy in all our lives.

AS a "mainstream" novel, Empire of the Sun will certainly attract a wider readership than some of Ballard's earlier -- and more provocative -- work. It may be his finest novel, but it builds on three decades of significant fictional achievement and experiment.

In the 1950s Ballard's first stories appeared in science fiction magazines on both sides of the Atlantic. His early novels, beginning with The Wind from Nowhere (1962), were patterned after those of John Wyndham, examining the imagery of apocalypse with increasing obsessiveness and climaxing in a brilliant science-fictional retelling of Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," The Crystal World (1966).

Ballard's short fiction soon became a mainstay of the British magazine New Worlds (edited by Michael Moorcock and, later, Charles Platt), spearheading the brief and startlingly controversial "New Wave" that swept science fiction in the late '60s. In a New Worlds editorial that became the manifesto of the "New Wave," Ballard wrote that "it is inner space, not outer, that needs to be explored"; he sought to push science fiction from its comfortable niche as category entertainment toward greater literary ambition and social significance. Unfortunately, the audience for science fiction -- particularly in the all-important American market -- was unresponsive, preferring the pablum of space opera to the increasingly bold offerings of Ballard and such fellow New Worlds writers as Moorcock, Brian Aldiss, and Thomas M. Disch. Ironically, even though Ballard's writing long ago outgrew its initial audience, he has continued -- at least until Empire of the Sun -- to be packaged and reviewed as a science fiction writer, for lack of an affinity with any other form of fiction.

It has become indeed difficult to classify J.G. Ballard as anything but J.G. Ballard. In 1972, he published an avant- garde collection of chapter-long "condensed novels," Love and Napalm: Export USA, whose protagonist, a physician suffering a nervous breakdown, changed his name from chapter to chapter. (It appeared here from Grove Press only after the original publisher pulped its entire printing because of chapters on sex, violence and celebrity in American politics, including "Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy.") Ballard returned to the conventional novelistic form with Crash (1973), but its theme -- an investigation of the psychosexual significance of the car crash -- was no less unique than that of Love and Napalm. He then wrote Concrete Island (1974), which recast Kobo Abe's The Woman in the Dunes in the setting of a motorway esplanade; High-Rise (1977), a horrific study of the class struggle latent in a 40-story apartment complex; and a compelling novel of metamorphosis and messianism, The Unlimited Dream Company (1979), which Anthony Burgess selected as one of his 99 Novels.

These books, filled with potent, surreal symbols of the gloss that modern life places upon reality, established Ballard as the literary equivalent of a Salvador Dali or Max Ernst. Central to each were repetitive landscapes and images that have become distinctly and undeniably "Ballardian" -- drained swimming pools, wrecked automobiles, open-air cinema screens, low-flying aircraft -- and that hold some private meaning for Ballard and his characters in their obsessive searches feality beyond "normal" life. In Empire of the Sun, Ballard takes us to the source of these images -- his youth in Shanghai -- and in so doing, he renders his work more explicable and accessible than ever before, producing a novel that is, on one level, resolutely mainstream, while on another, cunningly revolutionary.

DDD With a certain serendipity, two detailed retrospectives on J.G. Ballard's life and writing have been published concurrently with Empire of the Sun. The first, J.G. Ballard: A Primary and Secondary Bibliography (G. K. Hall & Co., 70 Lincoln St., Boston, MA 02111; $45), represents a definitive compilation by Ballard's personal Boswell, David Pringle. The second, a special double issue of the avant-garde magazine Re/Search (Re/Search Publications, 20 Romolo St., Suite B, San Francisco, Calif. 94133, $11) offers a generous sampling of Ballard's short fiction and nonfiction, as well as interviews and reference materials; it is highly recommended as both an introduction and a tribute to this remarkable writer.