Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell [A Review]

In Cloud Atlas David Mitchell delivers a vision of the arc of human history. Told in six separate stories are the human impulses to dominate and control, motivated by greed and power, and the equally human instinct to rebel and fight for freedom. Hope and the transmission of it through various mediums connects the novel’s characters across time.

Cover image of Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

The six stories of Cloud Atlas cover six different time periods spanning the 19th century to the contemporary world to a post-apocalyptic future.

We begin in the mid-nineteenth century. Adam Ewing is crossing the Pacific on a journey home to San Francisco. A lawyer, Ewing meets Dr Henry Goose and despite an unfavourable first impression they become friends. It is a friendship between gentlemen that becomes easier as they witness the behaviours of others on their journey. The drunken carnality of the seamen; the enslaving and torturing practices of indigenous people; the hypocrisy of the missionaries; all serve to make Ewing find Goose’s company a relief.

Ewing’s journey suddenly becomes complicated when he finds a native stowaway in his cabin begging for his protection. And the doctor gives him a disturbing diagnosis.

Next, in England, between the World Wars, Robert Frobisher has hit rock bottom. Broke and without anywhere safe for him to hide, he embarks on a last-ditch effort to revive some sort of life and escapes to the continent. In Belgium he hopes to find Vyvyan Ayrs, a once-great composer now aged, dying and nearly blind. Frobisher hopes to work for Ayrs in return for room and board and to help Ayrs produce one more great work.

But though Frobisher has escaped his past it seems a life without secrets and potential scandal is not meant for him.

In 70’s California, Luisa Rey is a young reporter working for a barely solvent magazine which hardly publishes anything of importance. It is not the sort of journalism Rey ever aspired to. But she soon finds herself at the other extreme, uncovering the kind of story that puts a journalist’s life at risk.

In present-day England, publisher Timothy Cavendish finds himself unexpectedly with a literary hit on his hands after its author commits a horrendous crime that makes him famous overnight. Just as 65-year-old Cavendish begins enjoying this sudden turnaround in his life, he is visited by his client’s thuggish brothers who want their family’s cut. Fearing for his life, Cavendish flees to the countryside. He wakes one morning surprised to find he did not check into a hotel the previous night. A dreadful mistake has left him trapped without any apparent hope for escape.

Somni~451 is a clone bred in a near-future South Korea. Made for service in a fast-food restaurant, Somni~451 lacks the conscious mind to question anything about herself, her existence or her place in the world. All that changes when Somni observes that one of her fellow servers has achieved ‘ascension’ – consciousness; a fact that leads to her death. When Somni realises that she too has ascended, she must keep this secret and try to keep her behaviour uniform lest she be discovered.

The sixth story is narrated in broken English by a man named Zachry. Living on a post-apocalyptic Hawaii, Zachry is one of the Valley Folk living simple agricultural lives. They live under the threat of raids by the Kona, a martial people who come to steal their possession and people for food and slavery. Occasionally they are visited by the Prescients. Possessing technology far in advance of the Valley Folk, perhaps even more advanced than Somni’s time, the Prescients do not believe in interfering with the lives of the Valley Folk. It is a moral that is tested when one of them comes to live with Zachry and his family, purportedly to learn their ways. Zachry, though does not trust the intentions of his guest.

This was my first experience reading David Mitchell and it was quite a ride. The six stories briefly described above are told in eleven parts. Like ascending a mountain, we are told the stories in chronological order; half of each of the first five stories in turn, before the sixth, the summit, is told in full. Then, on the descent we return to finish the other five stories in reverse-chronological order.

On the ascending side, I found myself enjoying each story more than the previous ones until I reached Somni~451’s, which, to me, was the best of them.

The first two stories – of Ewing’s Pacific adventure and Frobisher’s new life with Ayrs – were interesting; I was curious to see where they would lead. But they did not quite give me the sense of telling something more than character and the plot. At least not yet. Then the third story, that of Luisa Rey, adds mystery and intrigue with its story of dangerous corruption dressed in the page-turning fashion of a criminal or political thriller.

It was the fourth story of Timothy Cavendish that really changed my feelings about this novel. At first, Cavendish comes across as hard to like. Told in the first-person, Cavendish is a little annoyingly digressive, almost pompous. But the nature of his adventure makes for great entertainment. Both on the ascent and descent I found myself impatient to turn the page and laughing at both his predicament and his ineptitude.

But even this story was outdone by Somni~451’s. The first of two stories set in the future, it was the first that requires Mitchell to not only provide interesting characters and plot, but to engage in world-building as well. In this Mitchell excels. There is so much to think about packed into this short tale of Somni~451’s ascension and liberation – genetic engineering, runaway capitalism, consciousness and free will, autocracy and technology. My favourite part of the book, it gave me strong vibes of Blade Runner and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The final story also showcases Mitchell’s world-building imagination. Zachry’s broken English makes it a little difficult to get into. It too has some important things to say about the direction our species may be heading in.

In a year that was a little disappointing for me in terms of reading fiction, Cloud Atlas was welcome relief from that. It was easily the most enjoyable book I read all year and I look forward to more as I will read Black Swan Green soon.

What is Cloud Atlas about?

What moral to draw? Peace, though beloved of our Lord, is a cardinal virtue only if your neighbours share your conscience.

This is a question that I found difficult to answer. There are clear linkages between the six stories. Such as physical resemblances between the characters across periods. There are also more direct links. For example, Robert Frobisher finds himself obsessed with a copy of Ewing’s account of his South Pacific adventures from the previous century. Luisa Rey finds the music Frobisher has written decades earlier strangely compelling. Similar connections link the stories of the novel.

This is an aspect the 2012 film adaptation gives a strong focus – using the same actors for different characters across the six stories and periods. It is suggestive of a theme of reincarnation and the endless recurrence of human strengths and faults and their impact across history. Being a visual medium, it is something the film can give greater emphasis – whether or not it ends up being overemphasised.

Given the post-apocalyptic nature of the futuristic stories, one could conclude that there is more than just eternal recurrence that is being suggested here. There is an arc to history which human tendencies are curving towards self-destruction in Mitchell’s vision. Although, interestingly, Somni~451, views the late-twentieth century as a dark age of sorts from the perspective of her bio-engineered, climate-changed and chemically-altered future.

Its world intrigued me; its differences from our own were indescribable. Purebloods did all the menial work then; the only fabrications were sickly sheep. People sagged and uglified as they aged; no dewdrugs. Elderly people waited to die in prisons for the senile and incontinent; no fixed-term life spans, no euthanasium.

Zachry, on the other hand, thinks of our time as a paradise compared to his and is confused to learn the same impulses which created it also destroyed it.

Then who, asked I, tripped the Fall if it weren’t Old Georgie?

Eery birds I din’t knowed yibbered news in the dark for a beat or two. The Prescient answered, Old’uns tripped their own Fall.

O, 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.

Slavery, or at least entrapment, is also a common occurrence in the different stories. The impulse to control by those in power and the equally strong impulse to resist and fight for freedom also reoccurs. But, given the arc of history illustrated, perhaps both the controlled and the controlling are puppets to their human impulses. And the effort to subvert and revolt is not the exercise of a free will we might assume it to be.

All revolutions are the sheerest fantasy until they happen; Then they become historical inevitabilities.

Is there a common theme or aspect that connects all six stories? Perhaps, but Mitchell plays this subtly enough that it can be difficult to be sure without thorough analysis. There are aspects that can seem to unite only for there to be exceptions. Four of the stories, but obviously not all, take place in the Pacific or Pacific rim for example.

Another thing the film does better, given the nature of its medium, is to move from on story/period to another. In the book, when you are on the descent, it has now been a long time since you were in the first two stories and it can take a little bit of scouring your memory to be plunged back into them.

But, what the book does better is the telling of Timothy Cavendish’s and Somni~451’s stories. They were also my favourites so I may be biased, but the film medium cannot hope to do these two justice within the time they can give each. Cavendish’s story is far funnier and more exciting in the book. And Somni~451’s world offers a lot more for the reader to consider in the book. It even has a different ending.

These comparisons between mediums is in itself a fitting way to examine this story. That is because storytelling, through various mediums, is another theme of Cloud Atlas, one that connects all the stories. In the novel, the stories of each period survive and are passed on to future periods as memoir, music, journalism, film, prisoner transcript and oral storytelling. It is a humanising aspect that connects all people at all times.


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