Облакът атлас By David Mitchell

I was a third into this book and I could not care less about it. It didn't seem we were meant to be.

Then suddenly my heart was aching for the characters and their stories, and it did catch me by surprise.

And now it's been a week since I finished it, and I still find myself thinking about it. 'Okay, you win, book!' I have to admit grudgingly. You've wormed your way into my heart and I'd better make my peace with it.

Why did I resist liking it so much? Why did this book and I have such a rocky start to our relationship? Sheesh, let me think about it as I lie here on the imaginary psychiatrist's couch in Freudian times.

You see, its 'revolutionary structure' and all - it is basically six stories, five of which are arranged like concentric rings around one central uninterrupted story, slowly moving from A to Z as the stories go along (from Adam to Zachry), - leads even the author to question, Revolutionary or gimmicky?
And I say - gimmicky, my friend. Jarring, unnecessary, trying too hard and yet being needlessly distracting.

(Hey, you can also compare this book to the rings a raindrop makes in still waters. See, I can be allegorically poetic when need arises).

Would I have been easier for me to love it had it come simply as a collection of six stories related by the larger overarching theme? Perhaps. But we cannot always chose what the things we love look like, can we? Sometimes they just have to have that incredibly annoying anvil-heavy comet-shaped birthmark, and I have to make my peace with it.

Another war is always coming, Robert. They are never properly extinguished. What sparks wars? The will to power, the backbone of human nature. The threat of violence, the fear of violence, or actual violence is the instrument of this dreadful will. You can see the will to power in bedrooms, kitchens, factories, unions, and the borders of states. Listen to this and remember it. The nation-state is merely human nature inflated to monstrous proportions. QED, nations are entities whose laws are written by violence. Thus it ever was, so ever shall it be. War, Robert, is one of humanity's two eternal companions.
This book is a message, yes. About the never-ending power struggle that seems to be inherent to humanity, that drives it forward - until one day it perhaps drives it to the brink of demise. It's about the amazing resilience of humanity that bends but never breaks under the never-ending forward march of the power struggle. It is about our seemingly inevitable separation into the opposing camps - the oppressors and the oppressed, the powerful and the powerless, the haves and the have-nots, justifying those sometimes murky and sometimes crisp division lines with the arbitrary but hard-to-overturn notions of superiority and entitlement. It is also about the never-ending human struggle against such division, in one form or another.
But, Adam, the world is wicked. Maoris prey on Moriori, Whites prey on darker-hued cousins, fleas prey on mice, cats prey on rats, Christians on infidels, first mates on cabin boys, Death on the Living. The weak are meat, the strong do eat.


The first/last story of Adam and the central/middle story of Zachry (again, A to Z! See how smart I am? See? Can I please have a cookie now?) provide the real framework to this story, mirroring each other and reflecting off each other in the repeated motifs of tribal wars and slaughter and the meeting of 'developed' and 'primitive' nations, told from the viewpoints of members of first one and then another and underscoring essential humanity below all the superstitions and prejudices and mistrust. The revelations at which both Adam and Zachry arrive are simple and perhaps overly moralistic, but still relevant and humane. And despite the moralistic heavy-handedness, I loved them.
Why? Because of this: — one fine day, a purely predatory world shall consume itself. Yes, the Devil shall take the hindmost until the foremost is the hindmost. In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction.
As for the rest of the stories, David Mitchell plays with every genre and style he can imagine, trying to fully immerse himself in the period, real or imaginary, that he chooses to describe - with mixed results, at least for me.

I hate to say it, but Robert Frobisher's story (the composer of the titular Cloud Atlas musical piece) left me cold. Luisa Rey's pulpy cheap prose held my attention only for the first half of the story and Timothy Cavendish's flowery adventure - only for the second. Sonmi-451 for the first half of the story was delightfully reminding me of The Windup Girl that I loved, and fell flat in the rushed second part. It almost felt that some of these stories were too large for the limited amount of space Mitchell could give them, and they would have been benefited from expansion.

But the Sloosha Crossing story - Zachry's tale - won me over completely, once I got over the migraine induced by overabundance of apostrophes in this futuristic simplistic dialect. S'r's'l'y', Mr. Mitchell, there had to have been some perhaps less 'authentic' but also less headache-causing way to tell this story. But I got over the initial defensive response and allowed myself to enjoy this scary postapocalyptic setting which in so many ways reminded me of The Slynx by Tatiana Tolstaya. There is just something that I love about the postapocalyptic primitive society setup, something that speaks to me while terrifying me to death at the same time, and this story had plenty of that.

And now, apparently, there will be a movie, which explains why everyone and their grandma is reading this book now, getting me on the bandwagon as well. The movie, that from the trailer seems to be focusing on the part that made me eye-roll (just like it made Mr. Cavendish, editing Luisa Rey manuscript!) - that damn souls connectedness bit. I thought the hints at it were unnecessary dramatic; to me enough of a connection came from all of the characters belonging to our troubled and yet resilient human race. But to each their own.
He who would do battle with the many-headed hydra of human nature must pay a world of pain & his family must pay it along with him! & only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean! Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?

4 stars is the final verdict. And maybe someday in the future I will reread it being prepared for the gimmicky structure, and I will not let it annoy me, and I will maybe give it five stars. I would love that!

Recommended by: Kris Paperback UPDATE June 2022: looking back, this was the first “big” review I ever wrote when I first joined goodreads, and from discussing this book I met a lot of my first gr-Friends that I would go on to read a lot of excellent books with. I’ve always had a soft spot for this book and am thankful of it for being what introduced me to this wonderful book community, especially at a time when I had uprooted to a new place and was very lonely. This is a weird little corner of the internet and I love it, thanks to everyone who interacts and makes this such a fun place to be. I appreciate you all. And I appreciate this book. It was one of the first I encountered a bisexual character as a main character and felt very seen, so thank you David Mitchell. And on to the original review:

“One may transcend any convention,” writes Mitchell’s 1930’s composer Robert Frobisher, “if only one can first conceive of doing so.” Cloud Atlas, the third novel by English novelist David Mitchell, is the author’s bare-knuckled blow to standard conventions and literature itself. Here you will encounter six stories, linked across time, that, like individual notes of a chord, each resonate together to form a greater message than just the sum of their parts. Using a style inspired by Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler…, which I would highly recommend, and a constantly fluctuating set of language, diction, dialect, and form to flood each individual story with nuance, Mitchell delivers a work that is vastly impressive and imaginative without being impassive as each story takes on a life of its own in a perfect blending of literary musings and exciting page-turning plot that will keep you on the edge of your seat.

While explaining this novel to a friend, I labeled it as being “ literary pulp”. He protested, saying that you can only have one or the other. I agreed with him that this is typically the case, yet I insisted that Cloud Atlas was the exception to this rule. While each individual story has an exciting plot full of unexpected twists, often incorporating a Hollywood action or sci-fi style, Mitchell manages to elevate the novel into a higher realm of literature. Mitchell, who studied English at the University of Kent, receiving a master in Comparative Literature (thanks wiki!), has learned enough tricks of the trade to pull-off this sort of “literary pulp”. Each one of these stories on their own wouldn’t amount to much beyond an exciting read with a few underlying messages, but when he stitches them all together in an elaborate tapestry of time and space, a larger more profound message comes out as the reader will notice overarching themes and a careful reading will reveal a sense of symmetry and repetition between the stories. There is also a sense of an evolution of language, showing past trends progressing into our current speech, and then passing forward where corporate name brands will become the identifier of an object (all cars are called fords, handheld computers are all called sonys, all movies are called disneys), and then even further forward as language begins to disintegrate. The themes of the novel also seem to move in a cyclical pattern, showing repeating itself.

As stated earlier, Mitchell was inspired by Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler in which the Reader is exposed to several different novels within the novel, each with a very distinct voice and style, only to be forever thwarted from finishing just as the action rises. Mitchell takes this idea and expands upon it, with each story ending abruptly yet still resonating in the following story, which then leads us to the next and the next until finally we reach the midpoint of the novel. I do not want to spoil too much of this novel, especially his way of each story being a part of the next, but by page 64 you will understand. There will be a paragraph that will drop your jaw and melt your mind as you realize Mitchell has something special here in his method of telescoping stories. Essentially, each major character leaves an account of a crucial storyline of their lives, which in turn is read or viewed later through history by another character during a crucial moment in their lives. An added flair is that many of the characters relate to their current events by comparing it to characters or ideas from previous stories, one character even becoming a deity figure to future generations. At the midpoint, which Mitchell describes as his “mirror”, the novel will then travel back out of the wormhole (or perhaps back in?), revisiting the previous stories in reverse order. There is a good interview with Mitchell in the Washington Post where he explains his methods.

Mitchell employs other metafictional techniques, such as having his characters each reflect on the style of the novel as would make sense for their unique world. For example, Frobisher’s masterpiece composition, aptly named Cloud Atlas, is described by Frobisher as being:
”a sextet for overlapping soloists”….each in its own language of key, scale, and color. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky?
Mitchell himself calls the style to the table, asking the reader if it is really a revolutionary idea, or if it falls flat as a gimmick. There are many instances where Mitchell inserts a bemused reflection on his own work, wondering if he is actually pulling off the magic trick.

Each story visited is as if cracking open the cover of a different book by a different author each time the switch occurs. There is everything from a dusty sailing journal, a hilarious English comedy, a sleek sci-fi thriller and to even an oral account of tribal warfare on the other side of the apocalypse, each with an equally intriguing cast of characters (fans of Mitchell will recognize some of them as they appear in other novels, most notably Ghostwritten which includes Luisa Rey, Cavendish and Ayr’s daughter). Mitchell does his homework and spent plenty of time researching each story to make sure the history, setting and language would all be realistic. As all but the spy-thriller story of Luisa Rey are told in first person, Mitchell has his work cut out for him to craft a unique voice for each narrator. And he pulls it off brilliantly. This attention to detail and nuance is what really sold me on Cloud Atlas. To go from Cavendish’s comical voice filled with English slang (and some hilarious instances of cockney and Scottish diction) to an oral language that shows the deterioration of speech two stories later is impressive. My personal favorite was the loquacious letters of Robert Frobisher, as Mitchell wrote this Nietzsche loving composer with the urgency and depravity of a frantic, brilliant mind that recalls characters such as Dostoevsky’s underground man or Hamsun’s narrator in Hunger. Mitchell toys with his knowledge of literature, molding each story from the recipes of classic literature. Adam Ewing is clearly a product of Melville, Cavendish’s plight echoes Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, and Sonmi-451 will bring to mind Brave New World or Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep? Zachary’s islander tale uses a form of sight language drawing on the oral tradition of storytelling which reflects the traditional African American stories such as the Uncle Julius tales or Equiano’s slave narratives where much emphasis is placed on the passing on of stories about ancestors. There are even small events that trigger a memory of classic works; Frobisher is passenger in a car that runs down a pheasant which is described in a way that would remind one of a certain accident involving a yellow car at the tail end of a Fitzgerald novel. He even takes a jab at Ayn Rand in the Luisa Rey story.

Mitchell seems to intentionally build this novel from other novels, and highlights this to the reader most openly through Timothy Cavendish and Robert Frobisher. “You’ll find that all composure draw inspiration from their environments” Ayrs tells R.F. in one of the many passages where Mitchell talks both about his storyline, but also about the novel itself. This honing of metafictional abilities is one of his greatest strengths and the second half of the novel is full of passages that speak on many different levels. Mitchell takes no shame in “drawing inspiration” from his literary predecessors, much as each subsequent character draws on the inspiration of the past characters. He uses this as opportunities to shamelessly quote, allude, and incorporate the ideas of other writers. Nietzsche’s concept of the Will to Power and Hegel’s theories on history make up some of the strongest themes within the novel, and he gives credit where credit is due. While allusions are used for thematic reasons, some are more deeply hidden, sometimes in plain sights as Nabokov titles are used frequently, and occasionally he simply alludes to authors of each stories present time (Luisa Rey's boss was mugged after having lunch with Norman Mailer) to make them feel more rooted to the literary culture of the time much as he does with the language and descriptions. He even pokes fun at the reader a bit, acknowledging that the casual reader will not be able to pick up on these allusions, speaking through Cavendish:
”I could say things to her like ‘The most singular difference between happiness and joy is that happiness is a solid and joy is a liquid’ and, safe in her ignorance of J.D. Salinger, I felt witty, charming, and yes, even youthful”.
He may be using ‘youthful’ as a way of saying that he must come across as fresh and exciting and inventive, which is ironic since he openly admits to borrowing the whole novels concept from Calvino. Mitchell appreciates and rewards the well-read reader with many of these subtle ironic jokes which are sprinkled all through-out the novel. He leaves so many little gems for a reader to find if they only take the time to read in between the lines and pay close attention. One might notice how several different characters “fumigate” a foul smelling room with a cigarette, or how diamonds seem to play an important role, or which characters seem repeated throughout history beyond the main character. Bill Smoke (pure evil) and Joe Napier (an ally) seem to pop up in some form in every story. I have noticed at least four other souls that seem to migrate through time in this novel.

Like a healthy, well-balanced sense of self, Mitchell seems to be aware of his weaknesses as a writer and actually uses them to his advantage, making his weaknesses some of his biggest strengths. It is clear, as the point has by now been driven into the ground, that Mitchell has aims to be taken seriously as a writer of literature, but his plots are such rapid-fire excitement with twists and turns and high climactic conclusions that he felt it necessary to be as literary as possible in all other aspects. He compensates for any other shortcomings in a similar fashion. One of the ways the characters are linked together across time (read it yourself if you want to know!) made me groan the first time I read it. Mitchell accepts that it is a corny technique and has a character flat out dismiss it as ”far too hippie-druggy-new age” and as something that should be taken out entirely. I got a kick out of this and instantly forgave Mitchell for not being subtle enough with this technique of linking characters. There are several other moments when characters question the validity of other characters, often due to the same reasons a reader would criticize Mitchell. This ability to poke fun at himself and openly address his own shortcomings gave me a far greater respect for him. He accepts that his ideas are not entirely original and counters anyone who might complain it has all been done before. Cavendish speaks for Mitchell with
”as if there could be anything not done a hundred thousand times between Aristophanes and Andrew Void-Webber. As if Art is the What, not the How!
He wants to direct your attention to his form and writing, not just his plot and originality. He repeatedly bashes critics and the masses, essentially stating that if you don’t get this novel, then you’re not smart enough to deserve to read his work. It made me laugh.

With all his cleverness and metafictional genius, Mitchell does have a few flaws that should be addressed. The main one being subtlety. He does apologize for it and poke fun at himself, but some of the major themes in this novel did not need to be called out directly. They were easily detectable in between the lines, yet Mitchell has each main character spell them out in dialogue. He seems to want to reward the clever reader, yet at times pauses and hits you over the head as if he doesn’t think you can understand. It worked since he had each character do it, applying the message of The Will to Power and the strong killing the weak to each characters situation to create a sense of symmetry, but it was ultimately superfluous, but this being my only real criticism, Mitchell isn't doing too bad. The issue of subtlety is where Calvino gets an upper hand on Mitchell, as his novel was a bit more controlled in its message and layering of meanings. Cloud Atlas is a bit more accessible than If on a winter's... but the latter is a slightly superior work in my opinion. Both novels should enter your to read list however.

All in all, this novel is a brilliant puzzle filled with exciting characters, entertaining dialogue, and throws enough loops to keep you guessing. You will find it very difficult to put this novel down. Mitchell achieves his goal of transcending conventions and addressing the broad scope of humanity and is at times bitter, funny, frightening, paranoid, and downright tragic. Cloud Atlas is a must read, and although much of it may come across as “been there, read that”, he still keeps it fresh and unique. Plus this novel really rewards a careful reading and a bit of researching, as many of the jokes will be lost on those who don’t have a good grounding in the classics. Make sure to have a pen handy, as there are plenty of mesmerizing quotes to return to and ponder, especially in the second half of the novel. David Mitchell is most definitely an author to be read and admired.”Anticipating the end of the world is humanity’s oldest pastime” writes Frobisher, and this novel envisions a plausible, horrific future that doesn’t seem all that much different than the past. Mitchell gives us this novel as a warning, and I do hope we take it to heart. I wish this novel had credits like at the end of the film just so Reckoner by Radiohead could blast my eardrums as final lines sunk in. It would be perfect.
5/5 Paperback **okay - i have actually written a review for this book, all you early bird voters! feel free to take back your picture-votes if you hate my words (and by feel free, i mean don't you dare!!)**

why have i never read this book before??


do you see how it is wedged into a teetering, lode-bearing stack of books??

removing it was a tricky business, indeed, but i succeeded, and i am finally reading it. so thank you for badgering me about it, internet, because so far, i am really enjoying it!!!


the other day, when i was still a whopping 60 pages from finishing this book, greg shoved me out from in front of my work-computer to revisit his review of the book.he muttered aloud why does anyone even read my reviews. karen, don't ever let me compare a book to a mobius strip again.

and he is both correct and incorrect. because it is a good review, but the book ain't nothing like a mobius strip.

finnegan's wake is a true mobius. infinite jest is a motheaten mobius, with key scenes lost along the way. this is more of a parabola, or the first hill in a rolly coaster. if the rolly-coaster ride-as descriptor weren't so trite, i would explore that here: how at first, you didn't quite know what you were getting into, as you made your ascent, but then, once you got to the top and could see what was coming, you just couldn't read through it quickly enough, and there was excitement and screams and probably some of the weaker readers vomited into their laps. but it is indeed trite, so i won't make the comparison at all.

i can understand the accusations of gimmickry. although as we are learning here on goodreads, gimmicks pay off, no? even the ones with no substance. and if this was just structure without substance, i would completely agree with mitchell's detractors. if it were just a series of short stories, butterflied and stacked on top of each other to form a book, it would be less appealing than it is in reality.

because they do bounce off of each other, the stories. they sneak into each others' worlds both thematically, and more overtly, like foraging little mice on mouse-missions. sometimes they are each others' stories. calvino, borges, arabian nights, david lynch - i can trot out all the expected names if you aren't tired of reading them.but this is something all its own. and i am sure that a second reading would do me a world of good at identifying even more of these echoes. this is a book that pretty much demands a second pass, which i will gladly give.

mitchell addresses the accusations of gimmickry before they are even made, in the novel itself:

spent the fortnight gone in the music room, reworking my year's fragments into a sextet for overlapping soloists: piano, clarinet, 'cello, flute, oboe, and violin, each in its own language of key, scale, and color. in the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order. revolutionary or gimmicky? shan't know until it's finished, and by then it'll be too late.

and i love that - his anticipation of his own critics. yummy.

so - yeah - absolutely read this book if you have been dragging your feet over it. but beware - some of the stories are going to be much more captivating than others. i would read an entire book about frobisher, for example.

people are obscenities. would rather be music than be a mass of tubes squeezing semisolids around itself for a few decades before becoming so dribblesome it'll no longer function.


i will definitely read this book again.

come to my blog! Paperback Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield sit having breakfast in a diner discussing, among other things, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell.

Jules: Well we'd have to be talkin' about one charming mother*****' pig. I mean he'd have to be ten times more charmin' than that Arnold on Green Acres, you know what I'm sayin'?

[Both laugh]

Vincent: Awright, check this out; I just finished reading this book called Cloud Atlas.

Jules: Cloud Atlas? What the f*** is that?

Vincent: It’s a pictorial key to the nomenclature of clouds. Early cloud atlases were an important element in the training of meteorologists and in weather forecasting, but that’s not the point, I’m talking about a book I read.

Jules: You’re always reading books, even in the john.

Vincent: Yeah, OK, but here’s the thing, this book tells six intricately connected stories that revolves around a central connection.

Jules: Explain.

Vincent: Ok, here’s how it works. It starts out with a guy in the 1800s on a whaling ship, or some s***, and then it just ends, just stops in the middle of the sentence and then jumps to the next story, in 1931 England.

Jules: So what’s that got to do with the dude in the 1800s?

Vincent: That’s what I’m trying to tell you, but listen, OK, then the story shifts to 1975 and this chick who is investigating energy corporation crime and this scientist who gets chased for writing a report.

Jules: Go on.

Vincent: Then it shifts to the future and this old guy in England who’s getting pinched by these small time hoods –

Jules: Stop, just stop, you’ve already f****** lost me.

Vincent: [laughing] I know, I know, but wait, then the story shifts to even further in the future to Korea and where people are made, produced, manufactured, whatever the f*** to be slaves, like working in McDonald’s, except it’s not McDonald’s it like a future Chinese McDonald’s –

Jules: Serving up a Royale wit cheese!

[Both laugh]

Vincent: Right, right, so then it shifts to way far in the future and I think it’s on Hawaii and they speak this pigeon English –

Jules: OK, ok, wait. Hold the f*** up, why does the author keep shifting stories, what the hell point is all this?

Vincent: I’m getting to that, see here’s the thing, I think all the people in the each story might be reincarnated and all really the same person, or soul, or whatever.

Jules: Reincarnated? Goddamn! But … that may be something upon which I can ponder as I walk the earth. I’ve dreamed before that I was a master swordsman in an alien world, like a samurai master, except my sword was shining purple.

Vincent: Right, but then, see, he goes back and finishes all six stories, going back from future Hawaii, to the Chinese girl –

Jules: Thought you said she was Korean?

Vincent: Whatever, then to the old guy, then the girl in California in the 70s to the English musician and then back to the dude in the 1800s.

Jules: Man, that’s some f***** up s***, did you pick this up in Amsterdam?

Vincent: No, but the coolest thing is the structure, it’s where, OK, it’s like he doesn’t tell the story in a lineal pattern like most books, but all mixed up, but they’re all still connected together, really all telling one big story.

Jules: Alright, I can see that. That is pretty cool, kinda familiar too.

Vincent: Right, right, and by doing so the writer creates a dramatic tension between each segment, adding depth and interest to an already cool story. Also, Mitchell changes his writing style to match whichever story he’s doing.

Pumpkin: [Standing up with a gun] All right, everybody be cool, this is a robbery!

Honey Bunny: Any of you f****** pricks move, and I'll execute every mother****** last one of ya!

Paperback One of the most outstanding, hugely epic literary sagas ever. There seem to be six distinct writers in Cloud Atlas--distinct, original, where the heck did these EVEN come from?-type tableaux: their compilation suggesting that the boundaries of writing are endless. Mitchell is authentic in every story. These really are found objects placed in blatant, cunning contrast with each other. But that they were all borne from one fountainhead--from one single and chameleonic (probably the most chameleonic I have encountered since Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa's) mind--this is the reason the novel is now a classic.

The movie is a very adequate companion piece, as the myriad loose ends are genuinely brought forth & rendered poetic. Really truly & madly love 'em both! Paperback

Един от най-забележителните постмодерни гласове в литературата на XXI век, Дейвид Мичъл съчетава приключенско повествование с типична за Набоков страст към загадките, наблюдателност в изграждането на героите и вкус към философските и научните разсъждения в традицията на Умберто Еко, Харуки Мураками и Филип К. Дик. Резултатът е блестяща и оригинална литература, колкото дълбока, толкова и занимателна.
Облакът атлас се състои от шест истории, наредени една в друга като кукла матрьошка, които превеждат читателя през различни времена и места –от XIX век в далечния Тихи океан до постапокалиптично бъдеще на Хаваите. В хода на повествованието Мичъл разкрива каква е връзката между отделните герои, как се преплитат съдбите им и как душите им се носят във времето и пространството като облаци в небето. Облакът атлас

Several short stories, that on their own are relatively weak. The author has linked them together tenuously with some mistakenly profound pseudo-religious nonsense and a tattoo. An interesting idea, let down by the poor quality of the writing. Pretentious twaddle of the highest order

This book seems to be one of those hoaxes to call out hack reviewers. I'm slightly puzzled by the fact that Mitchell hasn't come forward yet six years after publication.
He hits all the usual clichés that are the hallmark of the great modern novel. The whole thing is a pretentious construction of six separate stories, with the protagonists in each being incarnations of each other, and ending up in possession of the story of the previous one in some way.

The first one is the story of some American lawyer on a ship in the Pacific some time in the 1850s. It's supposed to be a journal, but it's a hideously unconvincing one. If it wasn't intentional, I don't know why these pretentious cockpouches never seem to be able to manage a decent pastiche; it's as if actually reading anything they didn't write themselves is beneath them. Replacing every instance of and with &, trying to use outdated vocabulary (incorrectly, most of the time; in the four pages where he repeatedly uses the word kerchief (before forgetting it exists again; some word-of-the-day calendar is probably responsible for that one), he inexplicably seems to be under the impression it's short for handkerchief, and spells it with a prepended apostrophe), and just sprinkling racism over everything isn't good enough.
The fact that it's rife with anachronisms doesn't help.

The second story takes the form of letters written by an English twat in the 1930s, who moved to Belgium to escape debt. It's probably completely forgettable to non-Belgians, but a special kind of annoying to me. Mitchell managed to spell Zedelgem as Zedelghem, which was indeed the correct spelling before the spelling reform of 1946, but uses the modern spelling for everything else. I don't know enough about the spelling reforms of French in the 20th century to say if he made the same mistake there, but I'm guessing he did.
Somewhere along the way this English twat finds the diary of the American twat for no good narrative reason, because that's what passes for plot coherence.

The third story is an attempt at an action spy thriller type novel set in 1975, the link with the previous one being the addressee of the letters, who passes them on to the protagonist of this one. It's as forgettable as the fourth one, which is something about some old guy who's sent the manuscript of this novel in the mail. Somewhere along the way a writer throws a reviewer off a balcony, I don't know.

The fifth is where he really shines: it's set in the unspecified future, and the world has turned into the tritest, most derivative dystopia imaginable. It has everything! Corporate overlords, genetically engineered slaves, cannibalism, giant totalitarian conspiracies, cutesy spelling gimmicks and neologisms, anything you could want! It's so horrifically transparent it makes Snow Crash look like a masterpiece. It's even set in Corea.

The final one is obviously the obligatory post-apocalyptic one, where the protagonist of the last one is worshipped like a goddess. It would be merely tedious if not for the ridiculous and completely unnecessary apostrophes everywhere, which render it actively obnoxious and pretty much unreadable. Initially, at least, because Mitchell doesn't have the attention span needed to keep it up for a whole chapter.

After that he goes through the entire list in reverse order again (because he *hates* you), and then at the very end he tries to make the obligatory vapid point (I forget what it was; something about drops in the ocean), slaps a suitably pretentious title onto the whole thing, and ships it off to his publishers and watches the money roll in.

So yes, if this isn't a deliberate hoax, it's a violently shit novel and a new low in post-modern self-indulgence. I'm not at all surprised at the reviews it's received either way. Paperback
This book proves David Mitchell can be any writer he chooses. The six novellas that comprise Cloud Atlas are forgeries - and they are original. Each adopts the voice of a distinct author. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, but all of the parts are superb. It is a sextet, like the one found within the novel, with piano, clarinet, cello, flute, oboe, and violin - every individual instrument pleasing, but when played altogether becomes something different and brilliant - the Cloud Atlas Sextet.

Each novella is broken, torn in two, or interrupted, and later continued after the sixth, which is the only one completed in one section. Then the previous five stories are concluded in descending order.

Written as a journal. The first story is a delightful combination of Melville, Defoe, and James Fenimore Cooper. It has the serious tone and charm of 18th and 19th century literature, but goes a bit too far, just short of mockery. It is not parody, nor disrespectful. Somehow it has a layer of - what? invisible mirth?

The acknowledgments notes Michael King’s definitive work on the Moriori, A Land Apart: The Chatham Islands Of New Zealand which provided Mitchell with a factual account of Chatham Islands history. This part of the story is interesting, and adds historical details essential to the plot in the way Moby Dick does with whaling information.

Moriori, 1877, survivors of the 1835 Maori invasion

Letters, one way. Robert Frobisher, writes amusing accounts of his escapades in Belgium to his lover Rufus Sixsmith while he works for a famous composer as an amanuensis. I pictured Frobisher to be like a young Hugh Laurie. There is something of Waugh, or Nancy Mitford in style and humour. He finds the Adam Ewing journal.

The acknowledgments notes certain scenes in Robert Frobisher’s letters owe debts of inspiration to Delius as I Knew Him by Eric Fenby....The character Vyvyan Ayrs quotes Nietzsche more freely than he admits. And like Nietzsche, Ayrs has tertiary syphilis, The syphilitic decays in increments, like fruit rotting in orchard verges.

Eric William Fenby, OBE (22 April 1906 – 18 February 1997) was an English composer and teacher who is best known for being Frederick Delius's amanuensis from 1928 to 1934. He helped Delius realise a number of works that would not otherwise have been forthcoming...In 1928, hearing that Delius had become virtually helpless because of blindness and paralysis due to syphilis, he offered to serve him as an amanuensis. - Wikipedia

Delius, Delius amat, Syphilus, Deus, Genius, ooh. - Kate Bush

The amanuensis Eric William Fenby

It's terrible! in a good way. A classic thriller/mystery/crime novel. Cheesy style and plot: spunky girl reporter, whose father (Lester Rey, now dead) had been a cop fighting corruption. Several highly improbable escapes from certain death. All the clichés of this genre are here and brilliantly strung together. Rufus Sixsmith, the addressee in the previous episode, is a key character and his letters from Zedelghem are discovered after he is murdered. Does Sixsmith's prediction about the nuclear reactor come true?

Lester del Rey

The memoir of a sixty something publishing agent, trapped in an old folks home. Cavendish is like an acid-tongued old geezer Randle McMurphy, battling another Nurse Ratched - but as written by Martin Amis. He reads the manuscript for Half-Lives, intending to publish it, as well as his own memoir, I shall find a hungry ghostwriter to turn these notes you’ve been reading into a film script of my own.


Written in Q & A form; sci-fi; a dystopian future, the economy dependent on slave clones. The clone Sonmi becomes the first stable, ascended fabricant, i.e., fully human. Some plot elements of Bladerunner.

Sonmi later watches the film (disneys) The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, one of the greatest movies ever made by any director, from any age. Ray 451 Bradbury, Orwell, Huxley and Plato's Republic are referred to. Somni is Winston Smith - and she is Jesus.

Doona Bae as Sonmi

Futurist speculative fiction - civilization has fallen, the few remaining people live a basic existence. Sort of a Tolkienian fantasy but Mitchell's marvelous invented dialect is Burgessish. Zachry the goatherder - there and back again - is a Valleysman on Big I, Ha-Why. Valleysmen only had one god an’ her name it was Sonmi.

Zachry sees a recording of Sonmi's Q & A interview, because there is a small group of advanced survivors, Prescients, and one arrives on a great ship to live on the island, to learn the ways of these primitive people. They have a Prime Directive - but who ever follows those? They are nonbelievers,

We Prescients, she answered, after a beat, b’lief when you die you die an there ain’t no comin back.

But what ’bout your soul? I asked.

Prescients don’t b’lief souls exist.

But ain’t dyin’ terrorsome cold if there ain’t nothin’ after?

Yay—she sort o’ laughed but not smilin’, nay— our truth is terror-some cold.

Jus’ that once I sorried for her. Souls cross the skies o’ time, Abbess’d say, like clouds crossin’ skies o’ the world. Sonmi’s the east’n’west, Sonmi’s the map an’ the edges o’ the map an’ b’yonder the edges.

Mauna Kea Observatories on Big I, Ha-Why.

The stories are connected by certain reoccurring themes and events. Truth. Time. Betrayal. Drugs. Poison. Power. Captivity. Masters and Slaves. Freedom. Cruelty. Worship. The Number Twelve, Seven. Worms, Snakes, Ants, Souls. Birthmarks. Escape. Letters. Books. Music. Films. Aging. Corporate Society. Religion. And there are many literary allusions: Moby Dick; The Bible; Don Juan; Time's Arrow; To the Lighthouse; The Gulag Archipelago; An Evil Cradling; Nineteen Eighty-four; Fahrenheit 451; All Quiet on the Western Front . Nietzsche, Kipling, Conrad, Zane Grey, Homer. Harry Harrison. And more.

One Novella is slyly presented within another. I found myself clinging to the first narrative as the real one. When it turns up as a curious dismembered volume in the second, damn! I swallowed hard and justified such an appearance as quite possible. Then it is merely mentioned in a manuscript - the third novella - which is being read in the fourth. Got that? making it entirely illogical to continue my belief. And worse: Frobisher says, Something shifty about the journal’s authenticity—seems too structured for a genuine diary, and its language doesn’t ring quite true—but who would bother forging such a journal, and why?

So I'm forced into using doublethink of the highest order. The fact is, you want each of these narratives to be the real one. They are that good. The structure weakens the reader's fantasy that this is real. It becomes very awkward, like explaining a time travel paradox.

Still...never underestimate the power of doublethink. Autua, Adam Ewing, Robert Frobisher, Rufus Sixsmith, Timothy Cavendish, Sonmi, Zachry, Meronym, all remain with me...


Dear David Mitchell,
I’ve been trying to figure out the nicest possible way to tell you what I’m about to tell you. I sort of feel like I’ve failed you as a reader, but I just couldn’t suspend my critical mind for long enough to enjoy your book (“how I envied my uncritical…sisters” – I hate it when my own words come back to bite me in the ass, don’t you?). Don’t take it personally though. I’m the girl who didn't like The Matrix. I know, right? How could anyone dislike The Matrix? All of the neat-o keen-o special effects, the super cool concept of the world actually being run by sentient machines, the homage to Baudrillard (If you haven’t read Simulacra & Simulation, read it. It’ll blow your mind.)(By the way, Baudrillard said the siblings Wachowski completely misinterpreted his work, but I digress), and the kick-ass soundtrack (okay so it wasn’t really all that kick ass). Unfortunately at the end of the day, Keanu Reeves can’t act his way out of a paper bag, and this girl just couldn’t get past that fact.
For the first half of the novel, I kept trying to psych myself up by reminding myself how much I disliked the first four episodes of season one of The Wire: “This is just another contrived crime drama!” “Dominic West really needs to work on his American accent. Not enough Idris Elba.” Then we meet Omar Little and BAM! It all starts to click. (Don’t you just love Omar?)(shhhh, no spoilers, I’m only on season three). I kept waiting for that BAM! moment, but it just never came. Instead I found myself more and more frustrated, finding fault with every gimmick. E.g., If language has devolved in the future, you really need to commit to your chosen alterations. If you decide flight will be ‘flite’ then sight should be ‘site,’ etc. Go all the way, I say! Oh what, you think that would be too annoying? Ur rite. It would b. So y chanj da spelng at al? It just ends up being distracting. Think of another way to say THIS IS THE FUTURE!!! without being so obvious about it. Similarly, when you wanted the audience to know it was the 70's, you could have found a more subtle way of doing it than saying THEY'RE AT A PARTY LISTENING TO DISCO AND DOING COCAINE! It's the 70's man, I get it.

It seemed to me like you didn’t have enough faith in the intelligence of your audience to get the gist without spoon-feeding it to us. If the reader didn’t pick up on the “nested dolls” analogy all by themselves (or by having Chabon tell them on the back cover) you make sure Grimaldi spells it out for us: ‘One model of time: an infinite matryoshka doll of painted moments, each “shell” (the present) encased inside a nest of “shells” (previous presents) I call the actual past but which we perceive as the virtual past.” Etc. “Revolutionary or gimmicky?” I’ll take gimmicky for 1000, Alex (damned if your words don’t keep biting you in the ass, eh Davey boy?).

If you’ve read the book, than you know that each chapter or story is in some way “read” by a character in another story (journals, letters, film). A clever idea for sure. The thing about clever ideas is this, you really need to trust that your reader is as clever as you! We can pick these things up without you telling us. I mean come on the look of disgust on my face must have been a sight to see.

Let's talk about the Sloosha chapter for a moment (but just for a moment because I’m trying to repress the memory). I'm sure you were going for something really important and profound there, but it was completely lost on me because that 'style' you came up with was ridiculously irritating. I was unable to become emotionally invested in the relationship between Zachry & Meronym in the slightest. It’s the fall of humanity for chrissakes and I could not have given a shit less.
At least you have a sense of humor about it all, right pal? You saw the criticisms coming, and you gave them a swift kick in the ass (well, your character did, literally) right from the get-go. The Ghost of Sir Felix Finch whines, “But it’s been done a hundred times before!” – as if there could be anything not done a hundred thousand times between Aristophanes and Andrew Void[sic]-Webber! As if Art is the What, not the How!” Oh man, you said it. Art is not the what, it’s the how; and in this instance, for me, the how is, well, not great. From the Mrs. Robinson romps to the three stooges escape hijinx, and let’s not forget the lovable Erin Brockovich Luisa Rey chapters. If you were experimenting with genres, take note, pulp is not your thing. I could go on and on (honestly I could) but I really don’t think it matters.

Anyway, I’m sure one little dissenter doesn’t matter much, right? Millions of people love this book, just like Dan Brown’s! Hey, they even got the same actor to star in the film! AND you got Wachowski directing (isn’t it serendipitous how my Matrix side story is actually relevant now?). You’re going to rack in the Euros buddy. If it means anything, I thought Black Swan Green was ace in the face!

Paperback All autumn, with the release date of movie adaptation of Cloud Atlas fast approaching, interest in the novel among my Goodreads friends has been high. I have not seen many subdued reactions. Fans of Mitchell discuss his ability adeptly to assume so many different voices and styles, the intricacy of the novel’s structure, and the relevance of its themes for today. Detractors have dismissed Cloud Atlas as gimmicky, a work by a much-hyped writer who is showing off his style but neglecting to anchor it in themes of substance. And some readers simply found his shifts in voice tedious.

I recently re-read Cloud Atlass, bearing in mind both reactions to the novel. I also remembered my first time reading it. I was mesmerized by Mitchell’s ability to pay homage to six very different genres and voices in the six novellas that make up Cloud Atlas. I delighted in tracing connections and interconnections among the different sections of the novel. I was entranced by Mitchell’s high wire act.

Mitchell structures Cloud Atlas as follows: six novellas are organized in chronological order. The first five break off abruptly in the middle of their respective stories. The sixth novella, “Sloosha’s Crossin’,” appears in its entirety in the center of the novel. After its conclusion, Mitchell moves in reverse chronological order through the remaining five novellas, bringing each to a conclusion, but also providing numerous points of connection and resonance among all six novellas.

The novellas are as follows:

The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing: tracing the travels of Adam Ewing, a notary, who is sailing to Australia and New Zealand in the 1850s, and who comes face to face with human greed on individual and communal levels;
Letters from Zedelghem: the composer Robert Frobisher writing to his friend, Rufus Sixsmith, about his experiences in post-World War I Belgium as he seeks fame and fortune while negotiating a precarious relationship with a famous composer at the end of his career;
Halflives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery: Luisa Rey, a young investigative reporter, seeks to carry out her father’s legacy while combating the corporate greed and corruption of Seaboard Power Inc. in Reagan-era California;
The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish: a vanity publisher gains and loses a fortune, and loses his freedom, in England;
An Orison of Sonmi-451: Sonmi-451, a genetically modified being or fabricant, shares her memories of her quest for knowledge and her fight against government-sanctioned murder in the name of corporate greed;
Sloosha’s Crossin’ An’ Ev’rythin’ After: Zachry, a Pacific Islander who is a member of the Valleymen, tells about his experiences with Meronym, a Prescient, as they seek past knowledge and combat the savagery of the Kona and devastation by plague in the future.

With my second reading of the novel, I delved deeper than focusing on its structure. I focused on themes. Did Mitchell have the content to support his style and technique, or was Cloud Atlas all style and no substance? After a careful re-reading, I concluded that Mitchell’s approach to writing Cloud Atlas is successful, not simply as an exercise in writing style, but because the style and structure support his exploration of central themes, of critical importance to 21st-century readers.

Knowledge in Cloud Atlas: History, Language, Belief, Memory, and Forgetting

In a 2004 interview in the Washington Post, David Mitchell provided some insight into his main interests in writing Cloud Atlas. After reading a reference to the Moriori in Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, Mitchell became fascinated with the tribe, who lived in the Chatham Islands of New Zealand. He researched them and visited the Chatham Islands as well. The Moriori appear in Cloud Atlas, as Ewing meets them and attempts to come to terms with the many forces that overpower them: Western missionaries in search of souls, whalers in search of profit, and Maori exercising their power over the Moriori through force. However, as Mitchell describes, the Moriori’s influence appears throughout the novel, as a main influence for a central theme: “Knowledge can be forgotten as easily as, perhaps more easily than, it can be accrued. As a people, the Moriori ‘forgot’ the existence of any other land and people but their own.” This led to Mitchell’s first theme in Cloud Atlas: how does knowledge transform over time, from generation to generation? How are we shaped, not only by what we remember from the past, but also by what we forget or rework? Why is it so important for us to be able to tell stories about the past, and to know the conclusion of those stories? Mitchell’s interest was fueled in part by his being a father, and wondering what the future would hold for his child, but also by his interest in history.

Moriori people, 1877

Spirit Grove- Hapupu, Chatham Islands

As a novelist, Mitchell explores these questions while also paying homage to different genres of writing, and in some cases specific books that were particularly inspiring to him. (See the Washington Post interview linked above for a list of these influences.) However, these voices are not simply an opportunity for him to demonstrate his ability to shapeshift as a writer. A quotation from this interview gave me insights into the significance of the different voices that he adopts in Cloud Atlas: “I learned that language is to the human experience what spectography is to light: Every word holds a tiny infinity of nuances, a genealogy, a social set of possible users, and that although a writer must sometimes pretend to use language lightly, he should never actually do so -- the stuff is near sacred.” He is not simply showing off his chops as a writer when he adopts six different voices in Cloud Atlas--instead, he is creating new worlds, painting pictures of cultures with words. In doing so, he considers the knowledge these cultures retained and the knowledge they lost from the past. If you read closely and carefully, you can see how language is shifting over time, particularly in the novel’s central section, “Sloosha’s Crossin’.” Some readers found this section to be painful to read, but I loved the challenge of diving into Zachry’s language, identifying unfamiliar words, and considering what social factors led to their creation. I felt like an ethnographer, listening carefully to stories told by an informant from a very different world, and finding clues to recreate that world. That quest to understand, and the impact of discovering points I had in common with Zachry, speak to a larger theme -- continuity in some aspects of human culture over time, and the necessity of preserving and understanding the past as much as possible, even as it recedes from us in time.

The title of the novel, Cloud Atlas, itself ties back to Mitchell’s conception of history. We think of an atlas as a book that guides us through unfamiliar terrain and captures the contours of mountains and valleys, the depths of seas and lakes. An atlas of clouds suggests something much more ephemeral -- clouds are constantly moving, shifting, transforming, and eventually dissipating into the ether. Mitchell’s conception of history is built on a sense of constant movement and change. Even as we try to capture the past in works of history, literature, and art, we change and transform its meaning to fit our present.

In the Luisa Rey story, the engineer Isaac Sachs outlines this view of history as he takes notes during a plane ride:.
• …. The actual past is brittle, ever-dimming + ever more problematic to access + reconstruct: in contrast, the virtual past is malleable, ever-brightening + ever more difficult to circumvent/expose as fraudulent.
• The present presses the virtual past into its own service, to lend credence to its mythologies + legitimacy to the imposition of will. Power seeks + is the right to “landscape” the virtual past. (He who pays the historian calls the tune.)
• Symmetry demands an actual + virtual future, too. We imagine how next week, next year, or 2225 will shape up—a virtual future, constructed by wishes, prophecies + daydreams. This virtual future may influence the actual future, as in a self fulfilling prophecy, but the actual future will eclipse our virtual one as surely as tomorrow eclipses today. Like Utopia, the actual future + the actual past exist only in the hazy distance, where they are no good to anyone.
• Q: Is there a meaningful distinction between one simulacrum of smoke, mirrors + shadows—the actual pas —from another such simulacrum—the actual future?
• One model of time: an infinite matryoshka doll of painted moments, each “shell” (the present) encased inside a nest of “shells” (previous presents) I call the actual past but which we perceive as the virtual past. The doll of “now” likewise encases a nest of presents yet to be, which I call the actual future but which we perceive as the virtual future.

Throughout Cloud Atlas, Mitchell develops this depiction of the interplay of the actual and virtual past and the actual and virtual future in shaping the present. In doing so, he leaves the door open for societies to shape their actual futures through this process of creation and reinterpretation. However, one important limitation on their ability to do so for the better is the ubiquitous influence of power dynamics across human societies, past, present, and future.

The Will to Power in Cloud Atlas

This interest in history leads another of Mitchell’s themes in Cloud Atlas: the centrality of acquisitiveness, of the drive to acquire and possess, to the human experience throughout time. He takes a broad approach to exploring this force, as explained in his Washington Post interview: “Perhaps all human interaction is about wanting and getting. (This needn't be as bleak as it sounds -- a consequence of getting can be giving, which presumably is what love is about.) Once I had these two ideas for novellas, I looked for other variations on the theme of predatory behavior -- in the political, economic and personal arenas.”

Mitchell is not alone in focusing on wanting, getting, and giving as main factors forming human relationships, and shaping history. Anthropologists such as Marcel Mauss in The Gift have explored the role of gift exchange in fostering relationships, and in determining power dynamics, in human societies. Historians have looked at these elements from a broader perspective, particularly in studies of colonialism in the early modern and modern world. Investigative reporters uncover instances of the abuse of power, as measured by wealth and influence. Wherever we turn, our past and present are shaped by power relations and the desire to possess -- wealth, political influence, land, beautiful objects, and people. What does this mean for our future?

In Cloud Atlas, Mitchell explores power in many manifestations. “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing” provides a deep exploration of the intersections of colonial interests and local power struggles and how they affected the lives of the Moriori, whose commitment to peaceful interactions with their neighbors were no protection against the combined forces of missionaries, whalers, and the Maori: “What moral to draw? Peace, though beloved of our Lord, is a cardinal virtue only if your neighbors share your conscience.”

Portrait of New Zealand man

Reception of Captain Cook in Hapaee

Robert Frobisher confronts power on two scales: on an individual level, he experiences the combined forces of sexual power and greed in his interactions with Vyvyan Ayrs and his wife Jocasta. As Ayrs tells him in a final confrontation: “Any society’s upper crust is riddled with immorality-- how else d’you think they keep their power?” He also explores power in a world-scale through attempts to come to terms with World War One:

“What sparks wars? The will to power, the backbone of human nature. The threat of violence, the fear of violence, or actual violence is the instrument of this dreadful will. You can see the will to power in bedrooms, kitchens, factories, unions, and the borders of states. Listen to this and remember it. The nation-state is merely human nature inflated to monstrous proportions. QED, nations are entities whose laws are written by violence. Thus it ever was, so ever shall it be..... Our will to power, our science, and those very faculties that elevated us from apes, to savages, to modern man, are the same faculties that’ll snuff out Homo sapiens before this century is out!”

Sonmi-451 provides another perspective on the evolution of conflict and wars, showing that the basic dynamics are not different in her future:

Rights are susceptible to subversion, as even granite is susceptible to erosion. My fifth Declaration posits how, in a cycle as old as tribalism, ignorance of the Other engenders fear; fear engenders hatred; hatred engenders violence; violence engenders further violence until the only “rights,” the only law, are whatever is willed by the most powerful. In corpocracy, this means the Juche. What is willed by the Juche is the tidy xtermination of a fabricant underclass.

Meronym provides a cautionary perspective on the future that may await us in our zeal to acquire power in all its forms:

The Prescient answered, Old Uns tripped their own Fall.
Oh, her words was a rope o’ smoke. But Old Uns’d got the Smart!
I mem’ry she answered, Yay, Old Uns’ Smart mastered sicks, miles, seeds an made miracles ord’nary, but it din’t master one thing, nay, a hunger in the hearts o humans, yay, a hunger for more.
More what? I asked. Old Uns’d got ev’rythin.
Oh, more gear, more food, faster speeds, longer lifes, easier lifes, more power, yay. Now the Hole World is big, but it weren’t big nuff for that hunger what made Old Uns rip out the skies an boil up the seas an poison soil with crazed atoms an donkey ’bout with rotted seeds so new plagues was borned an babbits was freakbirthed. Fin’ly, bit’ly, then quicksharp, states busted into bar’bric tribes an the Civ’lize Days ended, ’cept for a few folds’n’pockets here’n’there, where its last embers glimmer.

Image from Riddley Walker, inspiration for Sloosha’s Crossin’

Is there any form of power than can combat corporate and governmental power and greed? Luisa Rey presents another form of power: that of public outrage, driven by the media, which can provide a counterweight to greed that acts against the public interest. However, what happens when the media is co-opted by the same corporate powers which it should be scrutinizing?:

Van Zandt’s bookshelf-lined office is as neat as Grelsch’s is chaotic. Luisa’s host is finishing up. “The conflict between corporations and activists is that of narcolepsy versus remembrance. The corporations have money, power, and influence. Our sole weapon is public outrage. Outrage blocked the Yuccan Dam, ousted Nixon, and in part, terminated the monstrosities in Vietnam. But outrage is unwieldy to manufacture and handle. First, you need scrutiny; second, widespread awareness; only when this reaches a critical mass does public outrage explode into being. Any stage may be sabotaged. The world’s Alberto Grimaldis can fight scrutiny by burying truth in committees, dullness, and misinformation, or by intimidating the scrutinizers. They can extinguish awareness by dumbing down education, owning TV stations, paying ‘guest fees’ to leader writers, or just buying the media up. The media—and not just The Washington Post—is where democracies conduct their civil wars.”

The Individual and the Forces of History: Is There Hope For Our Future?

After considering the kaleidoscope of human power and greed in Cloud Atlas, are we left with any hope for the future, or is Mitchell leaving us with a pessimistic prognosis? Cloud Atlas provides a staggering exploration of different manifestations of power and greed over centuries of human history: colonialism, missionary activity, 19th-century whaling, the modern quest for fame and fortune, and corporate greed, to name a few.

In spite of these dark depictions of the negative influence of the human quest for power, Mitchell does provide some hope that individuals can and do make a difference. Luisa Rey and her allies uncover the publicize the deception and danger of Seaboard Power Inc.. Zachry and Meronym band together and manage to survive plague and attacks from the Kona. Sonmi-451 sacrifices herself for the good of the fabricants, and lives on in the religious practices of the Old Uns and the studies of the Prescients. Fittingly, Mitchell gives Adam Ewing the last word, as he reflects on his experiences after his rescue from poisoning and drowning:

If we believe that humanity may transcend tooth & claw, if we believe divers races & creeds can share this world as peaceably as the orphans share their candlenut tree, if we believe leaders must be just, violence muzzled, power accountable & the riches of the Earth & its Oceans shared equitably, such a world will come to pass. I am not deceived. It is the hardest of worlds to make real. Torturous advances won over generations can be lost by a single stroke of a myopic president’s pen or a vainglorious general’s sword.
A life spent shaping a world I want Jackson to inherit, not one I fear Jackson shall inherit, this strikes me as a life worth the living. Upon my return to San Francisco, I shall pledge myself to the Abolitionist cause, because I owe my life to a self-freed slave & because I must begin somewhere.
[W]hat is any ocean but a multitude of drops?

Just as Mitchell channels his concerns about his son's future through Ewing's words, so does he provide us with a clear sense of how critical our individual choices are in shaping our own children's future. Individuals are not swept aside by the forces of history--one by one, we make up these forces. The actual future of our species and our planet is in our hands. Will we act for a just world, or sit back and contribute to the demise of our planet through inaction, or greed, or cowardice? These pivotal questions, and this critical choice, give Cloud Atlas its power.

Paperback On re-reading in 2012...

I admit, the surpringsingly-and-terrifyingly-not-awful trailer for the upcoming movie adaptation of this book sent me plunging back into its hexapalindromic universe to re-solidify my own mental renditions of Frobisher's bicycle, Sonmi's soap packs, and Lousia's imaginary California, among other things. I emerge even more impressed with Mitchell's mimetic acrobatics, the book's deft allusive integument (Is not ascent their sole salvation? p. 512), the acrimonious satire (if consumers are satisfied with their lives at any meaningful level [...] plutocracy is finished p. 348), and, ultimately, the nakedly deliberate messages about humanity's will to power and our capacity for empathy re-re-re-re-re-reiterated in the second half. I kept wishing Lousia or Cavendish or someone one would say Be excellent to each other. Party on, dudes! but not wishing in a snarky cynical judgy kind of way! Because I actually think Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure is pretty... excellent (and come to think of it, is also a story set in multiple time periods with strong musical undertones and a message of peace, love, and happiness...). This book grants me one of the greatest pleasures a book can: it restores profundity to a hackneyed truth. If you're not into Mitchell's prose, characters, or fancy-schmancy structure, though, you might just end up with the hackneyed bit.

Old review from 2006

This, Sir, is a Novel. I don't think I've read anything so surprisingly excellent since Jonathan Strange Mr Norell. Actually, I have. What I meant to say is that I've read nothing so marvelously epic since then. As usual, my attempts to explain it to people have met with polite nods and changed subjects, but let me try: the book is like 6 perfect little novellas, arranged as Russian matroyshka dolls, and as you read, you bore in, and bore back out. Each doll is a different period in time, the outermost being in the early 19th century, the latest being somewhere around 2200 (I think). Four of the six are out and out genre pieces: historical maritime fiction, crime novel, dystopian scifi, and post-apocalyptic scifi, with all their various tropes rendered with loving affection. But they are just written, so, well that they are simply irresistible. I only wish I could find single genre novels that were as perfectly crafted as a single portion of this book. The pieces placed in the 1930s and the present day are also wonderful, but certainly aren't the type of fare I normally seek out.

But yes, exceedingly well written. What's it about? Well, there's the the journal of an American notary returning home from the Chatham Islands aboard a morally suspect ship in the 1830s; a young quasi-rake of a composer cuckolding an older colleague while helping him write new works, who documents his dalliances and mishaps in letters to his former lover; there's a true-story thriller about a Californian journalist in the 1970s attempting to out a corrupt and deadly energy company for squelching a safety report damning their new nuclear energy plant; the soon-to-be-filmed chronicles of a publisher in the present day whose attempts to escape the extortionist cronies of his gangster star author land him in a Draconian nursing home from which he cannot escape; there's the not-too-distant future testimony of a Korean clone bred for service in a fast food joint but who, via the machinations of forces many and penumbral, gains full consciousness; and finally (in the sweet and creamy middle) the Huck Finnish tale of a post-apocalyptic Hawaiian primitive and the civilized researcher sent to study his society. Whew! The characters of each story find themselves reading their predecessor, and sometimes characters overlap a very, very little. Each story features a character with the same birth mark, and they all seem to experience deja vu from characters in other stories. See? Now it sounds corny. But I swear to you, it is cool.

I guess the book is primarily about the will to power. Slavery and subjugation, small personal cruelties, corporate greed. It's sort of like the anti-Fountainhead, except much more fun to read. I don't know. Dissecting fiction about giant apes comes much more naturally to me. Please read this book so, at the very least, you can explain it to me. Paperback


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