Cloud Atlas (David Mitchell)

Posted: August 4, 2014 in fiction, other media
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Cloud Atlas is structured as a series of interrelated novellas, but upon reading it this time, I believe that it tells one story, about how corporations destroy the world. Some of the people quoted on the cover seem to wonder how it was possible for one man to have written this. I think it’s pretty obvious. First, read widely enough that you’re basically familiar with several genres of fiction. If you love reading, this is not necessarily hard. Then, write one of your six novellas at a time. Read particularly deeply into the genre of the one you’re writing as you go along. After you have your six separate pieces, split them apart and sandwich them together, 1-2-3-4-5-6-5-4-3-2-1. It’s not a simple process, but it’s not mindblowingly difficult to understand how he did it. It’s not like authors sit down at page one and write straight through until they finish page 510. The narratives are nested like matryoshka dolls, but someone in Narrative n+1 is always reading Narrative n, so the stories frame each other backwards, like an inside-out Arabian Nights. Each protagonist gets into some sort of trap, and as the net tightens, they find ways to escape: execution, suicide, rescue, triumph.

Part Six: Post-Apocalyptic, Neo-Prehistoric Fantasy

Zachry is a teenager living on Hawaii, the last remaining bit of land that hasn’t been poisoned by ecological disasters so far in the past they’re forgotten. People can live here, so they do. Zachry’s people are fairly peaceful, but the warlike Kona are always threatening their existence. There’s almost no technology, and most children have severe birth defects that prevent their living long, like Zachry’s son who was born without a mouth or nostrils. There’s another group of people on a distant island who retain an understanding of advanced technology, and they come around twice a year to trade. One of these Prescients stays for a half-year to study Zachry’s people, and while he resists at first, he eventually grows close to her. They take a heroic journey up Mauna Kea, and she reluctantly tells him how the world became so fucked up:

Eerie birds I din’t knowed yibbered news in the dark for a beat or two. 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.

I asked why Meronym’d never spoke this yarnin’ in the Valleys.

Valleysmen’d not want to hear, she answered, that human hunger birthed the Civ’lize, but human hunger killed it too. I know it from other tribes offland what I stayed with. Times are you say a person’s b’liefs ain’t true, they think you’re sayin’ their lifes ain’t true an’ their truth ain’t true.

Yay, she was prob’ly right.

Zachry’s people believe in a goddess Sonmi, who watches over and protects them. They have an Abbess who interprets Sonmi’s will for them – useful sort of a person, I suppose. The Prescient, however, knows that Sonmi was a real person who lived a few hundred years before, and Zachry finds a recording of Sonmi, which forms the next part.

Part Five: Hi-Tech Sci-Fi Tragedy

Think Arthur Clarke, or Isaac Asimov. Much of the world has been deadlanded, or rendered unfit for human habitation. This makes it clear that the devastation in Zachry’s world isn’t from a nuclear war; it’s the natural, gradual evolution of the type of system we already live in. Korea hasn’t been destroyed yet, but corporations have taken over the government, and to some extent the language. Spelling is simplified to levels that are occasionally hard to understand, and most products have been renamed with a brand name, so all cars are called fords and all films are called disneys. Sonmi-451 is a clone worker for not-quite-McDonald’s; she and her ‘sisters’ work for nineteen hours a day for twelve years, engineered not to ask questions or desire anything more in life. Sonmi begins to develop higher brain function, so she’s removed for further study. Over time, she realizes that she’s the victim of a plot much more devious than she had originally thought. As she’s running from the corporate police, she meets a small commune outside the city, where people resist the corporations.

I said how all purebloods have a hunger, a dissatisfaction in their eyes, xcept for the colonists I had met.

The Abbess nodded. If consumers found fulfillment at any meaningful level, she xtemporized, corpocracy would be finished. Thus, Media is keen to scorn colonies such as hers, comparing them to tapeworms; accusing them of stealing rainwater from WaterCorp, royalties from VegCorp patent holders, oxygen from AirCorp. The Abbess feared that, should the day ever come when the Board decided they were a viable alternative to corpocratic ideology, “the ‘tapeworms’ will be renamed ‘terrorists,’ smart bombs will rain, and our tunnels flood with fire.”

I suggested the colony must prosper invisibly, in obscurity.

“Xactly.” Her voice hushed. “A balancing act as demanding as impersonating a pureblood, I imagine.”

After her adventures in running from society, Sonmi writes a series of Declarations that oppose the current system, gets labeled a terrorist, and while you know what will happen to her, her Declarations spread and become the ruling doctrine for the majority of (what’s left of) humanity. But while she’s running, she watches a film about a little old man who gets trapped in a retirement home.

Part Four: Gothic Suspense.

Think Ann Radcliffe or Franz Kafka, but in roughly contemporary England. Timothy Cavendish is a small-time vanity publisher who gets into big trouble when one of his books becomes an accidental success. Running from goons in London, he goes to borrow even more money from his brother, who sends him off to an address in Hull. The address is for an old-folks home taken straight from Ken Kesey, complete with a Nurse Ratchet type overlord. She is prepared to take every necessary step to keep the senile dears from hurting themselves or others, including cutting off all communication with the outside world and confiscating all keys and valuables. Cavendish makes a few friends who still have some sense, and they plot their escape.

“Oh, once you’ve been initiated into the Elderly, the world doesn’t want you back.” Veronica settled herself in a rattan chair and adjusted her hat just so. “We – by whom I mean anyone over sixty – commit two offenses just by existing. One is Lack of Velocity. We drive too slowly, walk too slowly, talk too slowly. The world will do business with dictators, perverts, and drug barons of all stripes, but being slowed down it cannot abide. Our second offense is being Everyman’s memento mori. The world can only get comfy in shiny-eyed denial if we are out of sight.”

“Veronica’s parents served life sentences in the intelligentsia,” put in Ernie, with a dash of pride.

She smiled fondly. “Just look at the people who come here during visiting hours! They need treatment for shock. Why else do they spout that ‘You’re only as old as you feel!’ claptrap? Really, who are they hoping to fool? Not us – themselves!”

Ernie concluded, “Us elderly are the modern lepers. That’s the truth of it.”

How is this part of the decline of civilization? Cavendish’s UK is full of policies that benefit corporations but make life unnecessarily difficult for individuals. Outside Aurora House, he’s constantly being bullied and expected to wait in lines or wait for trains that unexpectedly stop short of their destinations and leave him stranded. Conformity and patience are expected everywhere, and as people age, their tolerance for this type of institutionalization fades, so we lock them in special homes “for their own good.” Didn’t someone somewhere say that the true measure of a civilization is how it treats its elderly?

Among the things not confiscated is the manuscript of a mystery novel that he was to have considered for publication, Half-Lives, the first Luisa Rey mystery.

Part Three: Hard-Boiled Detective Story, Environmental Edition

Think Dashiell Hammett, but in 1970s California. Actually, skip that and think The Pelican Brief. Luisa Rey is a small-time reporter for a disreputable magazine who finds out that the local nuclear power plants are not actually that safe, and that her town is ready to go Chernobyl. The company that runs it, backed by the government, does everything in its power to destroy all the evidence so they can go on making money until central California turns into a Thalidomide baby factory. Luisa makes friends with one of the top physicists on the project when the two get trapped in an elevator during a power outage. She tells him about a very brief interview she once had with Alfred Hitchcock:

He didn’t answer my questions because he didn’t really hear them. His best works, he said, are roller coasters that scare the riders out of their wits but let them off at the end giggling and eager for another ride. I put it to the great man, the key to fictitious terror is partition or containment: so long as the Bates Motel is sealed off from our world, we want to peer in, like at a scorpion enclosure. But a film that shows the world is a Bates Motel, well, that’s . . . the stuff of Buchenwald, dystopia, depression. We’ll dip our toes in a predatory, amoral, godless universe – but only our toes. Hitchcock’s response was […] ‘I’m a director in Hollywood, young lady, not an Oracle at Delphi.’

With Luisa, we get to see the corporate evil up close, almost as clearly as we do with Sonmi, but more realistically because it’s set in a time that we’re familiar with. Luisa also ends up with a set of letters that her physicist friend keeps with him at all times, from his only true love.

Part Two: Modern Art

Think Virginia Woolf, or D. H. Lawrence, or E. M. Forster. Robert Frobisher is an impoverished composer, recently removed from Cambridge without earning a degree. He dashes off to Belgium in 1931 to work as a scribe for an aging big-name, and to hide from his English creditors. He calls his physicist friend the one true love of his life, but that doesn’t stop him from sleeping around with men and women of all types.

Next I found a backstreet church (steered clear of the tourist places to avoid disgruntled book dealers) of candles, shadows, doleful martyrs, incense. Haven’t been to church since the morning Pater cast me out. Street door kept banging shut. Wiry crones came, lit candles, went. Padlock on the votive box was of the best. People knelt in prayer, some moving their lips. Envy ‘em, really I do. I envy God, too, privy to their secrets. Faith, the least exclusive club on Earth, has the craftiest doorman. Every time I’ve stepped through its wide-open doorway, I find myself stepping out on the street again. Did my best to think beatific thoughts, but my mind kept running its fingers over Jocasta. Even the stained-glass saints and martyrs were mildly arousing. Don’t suppose such thoughts get me closer to Heaven.

Frobisher is a joy to read, but I think I would have a hard time being around him if he were real. His boss starts stealing his material, so he decides to go on his own, despite threats of being ruined. He writes a sextet for piano, flute, oboe, cello, clarinet, and violin, which by all accounts is very beautiful, but I doubt I’ll ever get to hear it.

Like Cavendish’s ghastly ordeal, it might seem hard to place this in the context of corporate destruction, but Frobisher does experience the snobbish philistinism of those who made their fortunes in trade. He also goes to visit his brother’s grave – Adrian died in The Great War. While there, he chats with a diamond merchant who tells him that the only constants in human life are war and diamonds, and that the end of it will be the destruction of the race, which is a bit more prophetic than either of them realize.

Frobisher spends some time at his employer’s house looking for rare books to steal, and he comes across one of those old South-Sea journals.

Part One: Nineteenth-Century Travelogue

Think Herman Melville. Lots and lots of Melville. Adam Ewing is a notary from San Francisco on a long journey home from Australia. He’s naïve and devout, which leads to frequent conflict with the captain and crew. He does get to witness firsthand how religion is put to use, enslaving the natives for corporate gains in the name of God. In the end, I think that his last page gets right at what the book is all about:

If we believe humanity is a ladder of tribes, a colosseum of confrontation, exploitation & bestiality, such a humanity is surely brought into being, […] 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.

Our belief both reflects and shapes the world we live in. I believe this very strongly, which is why I often ignore my friends’ advice to be canny and careful and end up in the scrapes of the naïve. I want the world to be a good place, so I insist on believing it is so. I want people to be good, so I assume they are better than they are. And I doubt I’ll stop, because I want to make the world a better place, and this is where I choose to start.

Ewing imagines his father-in-law mocking him:

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!

And he replies:

Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?

One person can make a difference. I don’t know what my lifelong legacy will be; if someone were to write an eighty-page story that sums up me, I don’t know what he would choose as the turning point, where I make an irrevocable decision that sets my course in a firm new direction. But I’ll do what I can, and let history account for me as it may. One ignorable drop in an ocean of hope.

Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal return comes back here. The implication is that the six protagonists are really one person, reincarnated several times. Similar patterns emerge, similar choices must be made, similar thoughts are thunk. Like these bits about the title:


I watched clouds awobbly from the floor o’ that kayak. Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an’ tho’ a cloud’s shape nor hue nor size don’t stay the same, it’s still a cloud an’ so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud’s blowed from or who the soul’ll be ‘morrow? Only Sonmi the east an’ the west an’ the compass an’ the atlas, yay, only the atlas o’ clouds.


Three or four times only in my youth did I glimpse the Joyous Isles, before they were lost to fogs, depressions, cold fronts, ill winds, and contrary tides . . . I mistook them for adulthood. Assuming they were a fixed feature in my life’s voyage, I neglected to record their latitude, their longitude, their approach. Young ruddy fool. What wouldn’t I give now for a never-changing map of the ever-constant ineffable? To possess, as it were, an atlas of clouds.

And of course, Frobisher’s composition is called the Cloud Atlas Sextet. Characters remember events from past lives, end up living in the same places, and even run into people with similar names. The genre changes, the situations are often different, but the details are somehow the same. Like that comet-shaped birthmark they all have.

I’ve been wondering why my subconscious is sending me to so many books about historical recurrences, and I think it’s a warning. This summer I vacationed in the place I think of as home, and I’ve been really tempted to move back. It’s a wonderful place to live, and my current situation is unsatisfactory. But. What kind of life would I have? Working more than sixty hours a week divided between two part-time jobs, still only paying my bills with more luck than foresight, hoping for a romantic connection with someone whom I barely know? That’s no life at all. If I were assured of full-time employment (or full-time romance), it would be different. But things being as they are, it would be completely daft of me to try it. I remember how depressed I was, even in that paradise. In this case, I’m going to try to approach the next step in my journey with more logic than sentiment. An atypical approach for me, but we’ll see how that works.

Oh, and there was a movie, too.

I think this is probably the best possible film that could be made based on this book. Each of the stories is twisted a little, some a lot, but film is a different medium with different constraints, etc. The six stories are all mixed up together instead of being arranged tidily, so instead of matryoshka dolls it becomes scrambled eggs. They reuse most of the actors in each story, which drives home the reincarnation theme and the déjà vu feel, but it’s not obvious most of the time; aside from dramatic differences in makeup, many of them also change gender. Being a film, it’s often more dramatic and more violent than the book; it also has more romance. Zachry the teenager and Meronym the fifty-year-old Prescient are an unlikely couple, but if you cast them with Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, it suddenly makes more sense. With this plot omelet, any gesture toward making sense is welcome. I also love what they do with Old Georgie, Zachry’s hallucination of the devil. This movie is filmed beautifully, but I think that you really ought to either read the book or watch the film several times to be able to follow it. Considering how many times you might need to watch the film, it’s probably more time-efficient to read the book.


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