Six different tales of crime and kindness in distinct eras. One book.
One ever-moving globe of wills, gifts and lives, with one message, that we are all connected.
How I came across this book is a romantic one. I actually initially recorded the Cloud Atlas Sextet tune and I tried my best to track it down to its source. I finally found the music on YouTube. Then, I managed to grab hold of the last (or only, I don’t know) copy at Malaysia’s BookFest 2015. Its the first and last book I finished reading for 2015.
I am not sure if this is a popular opinion, but in terms of effort, scope, and ambition, Cloud Atlas is likely the single, most well-written novel in existence. I could be very biased or misled, considering that I have not touched fiction (or finished any non-academic book for that matter) for a year.
Below is a plot summary that may or may not contain spoilers, I myself thoroughly enjoyed it even after Wiki-ing the novel’s plot.
The first tale is a diary of a lawyer of sorts, Adam Ewing, sailing on the Pacific and befriending a Moriori slave, who later saves him from a slow death by his scheming friend of a doctor.
The tale is paused midway and shifts to a series of letter from a musician, Robert Frobisher, to his same-sex lover, Rufus Sixsmith. Frobisher was recently disowned and managed to secure the tutelage of a retired musician Vyvyan Ayrs and convince him to make music again. The letters describes the minute events happening in the Ayrs family, most notably Vyvyan’s wife’s adulterous affair with Frobisher. The first half of diary from the previous tale appeared as one of the books read and sold by Frobisher from his new music mentor’s home, and is likely part of his inspiration to compose his Cloud Atlas Sextet.
The narration then changed to Luisa Rey’s thriller tale, which is the only actual novel in the book. Rufus Sixsmith from the previous tale turned out to be a great physicist who intends to report the dangerous nature of a nuclear plant’s plans. Luisa Rey, a journalist and daughter of a great cop, met him and exchanged life stories in a broken elevator. Sixsmith intends to pass on the crucial report to Luisa, but was forced to escape and eventually assassinated. Luisa learns of the silencing of whistleblowers regarding the power plant by the corporation and takes on the investigation. The first four Frobisher letters appeared as part of the documents Luisa recovered from Sixsmith. Luisa eventually acquired the report but lost it as she was forced off a bridge by her assassins.
Once again, the narration is taken over by Timothy Cavendish, an aged publisher who was forced to escape from clients and ends up trapped in a nursing home for the elderly. The first half of Luisa Rey’s story happened to be one of the books he brought along to read. Timothy’s attempts to escape were thwarted and he was forced to settle while still scheming his way out. The story was cut as Timothy got caught by a stroke.
Suddenly, the perspective moved into a distant future where most of the world is barren and dead, leaving only a corpocracy nation in Korea functioning. This sci-fi tale is written in a form of an interview between an archivist and a manufactured human clone of sorts, Sonmi-451, who was initially serving as a waitress at a restaurant and know nothing beyond what was instructed. Somni then evolved and achieve higher cognition and sentience resembling “pureblood” humans. The clone recalls her awakening, departure from the restaurant, disguised as a university student and encounters the rebellion forces. Cavendish’s story is shown as a film Sonmi watched with one of the rebellion’s members.
Sonmi’s interview, recorded in a orison (hologram recording device), was cut in half as the book moves on to the final tale in a post-apocalyptic future where humanity regressed back to primitivism and hunter-gathering societies. Zachry is one of the new tribesmen and recounts his life story, which includes his worship of Sonmi (whose name survived as a goddess), clashes with an aggressive and war hungry tribe, family and friends, then his encounter with Meronym, a women from a tribe with more advanced technology (Zachry calls it The Smarts), one of her possessions being Sonmi’s orison. After his initial distrust for her waned past an incident where she medicated his sister back to health from a fatal disease, both of them traveled to an ancient observatory left by the previous civilization. Zachry learned much more about the past and downfalls, along with the true story of Sonmi. Eventually both of them escaped to another island with Meronym’s tribe after Zachry’s people are killed or enslaved. His tales are survived by his children, along with Sonmi’s orison as proof.
The last tale ends and returns to Sonmi’s full tale where she eventually discovered the ugly truth of clones being killed and recycled to produce food and more clones. From this she made a public declaration for fabricants, then was captured and executed. She was allowed to finish watching Cavendish’s tale before the execution.
As Cavendish recovers from his stroke, he sought help from three other accomplices in the nursing home and eventually escapes from the home after clever scheming and daring execution. Parting ways with his friends, he reclaimed his publishing company and obtained the second half of Luisa Rey’s tale.
Luisa Rey eventually escaped her fate in the waters but was assumed to be alive by her assassin, who tracked her and her loved ones. Along the way, Luisa acquired a copy of Cloud Atlas Sextet while following Sixsmith’s instructions to a initial copy of his report before his death. Luisa got into a tight spot with her assassin, but was saved through the sacrifice of a retired security guard, who happened to be her father’s comrade and had his life owed to him. Finally, the information were exposed to the public and the corporation masterminds are brought under custody or fled from the public.
Luisa procured the last four Frobisher letters, which wrote of his discovery of the second part of Ewing’s journal, melancholic and embarrassing departure from the Ayrs family, completion of the Cloud Atlas Sextet, and eventual suicide.
The story ends with Ewing’s tale of his escape with the Moriori to land, and eventually joining the Abolitionist movement to combat slavery.
The book ended on a most poetic and powerful note.
“Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”
One outstanding part of the book is that every tale leaves a certain legacy to the next generation: Ewing’s diary with his eventual devotion to Abolitionism, Frobisher’s letters and Cloud Atlas Sextet, Luisa Rey’s story written as a thriller novel, Cavendish’s story filmed into a movie, and finally Sonmi’s declarations and interview recorded in a orison, which lasted even after humanity’s fall. After reading up on summaries of Mitchell’s other works, it would seem that this is a rather recurring pattern of his: tales intertwining unto each other, influencing each other in subtle ways. Its like a huge puzzle box scattered, but picking itself together as the story progresses.
Cloud Atlas is easily the most ambitious of its kind. It draws upon very distinct themes and weaves all of them together in one huge globe that we are all living on: greed motivated crimes, love for each other, aging with grace, fighting the powerful and “natural order”, lies and truths. The tales also have very distinct settings: seafaring on the Pacific, dramatic rich families and musicianship, thrill-filled detective work and journalism, comedic nursing homes, a sci-fi-ish dystopian future, and am ironic post-apocalyptic fate where humans regressed to primitive hunting and gathering.
The characters are not saints, or ordinary people with dumb luck. They are us in every sense, in different days and different stages of life, and have our every flaw. Ewing is naive with a somewhat blind faith, but is ultimately a just and fair person. Frobisher is the eccentric artist in all of us, and is hollowed out after his magnum opus was done, just like us on occasions. Luisa is the marginalized minority in the modern world, inheriting a legacy to reveal all that is unjust, and is saved by that legacy, just like how the work of our parents and forefathers shaped our lives. Cavendish is what we all may be one day, slowed down by age and unhealthy habits throughout one’s life. Sonmi is the working class, but one of the few who ascended to be the voice for the oppressed, drowned by the tides of those in power but eventually became an ocean of fighting spirit in the form of memories. Then last but not least, Zachry, seeking his meaning and origins, and inheriting the world left by the previous generation and continues to pass it down. None of them are too directly involved in combat action, but they are all soldiers and swords in their own ways.
We are in all of them, and they are in all of us.
Cloud Atlas is the most thought provoking fiction I have ever read, and it is just one book. The joining of distinct themes and times, is ingenious and emotional. There is a strange uplifting emotion in appreciating our nature, seeing the rise and fall of structures and institutions, fighting the powerful, and feeling the connectedness with others that makes up the world. It all falls down to the age old cheesy theme of unity, that together we are stronger, but with a postmodern twist. With the stories of the past to warn us, the future to show where we are possibly headed for, and the present to remind us what we can be doing and thinking now, and why it matters.
Cloud Atlas is in a sense, one great piece of poetry about humanity itself. The stories when summarized are extraordinarily simple and can be covered in a few sentences. Standalone they are interesting tales, and together they are one great epic, with humanity as its protagonist and its antagonist. Embedded within are some of the most thought provoking quotes I ever came across, which I shall share in another post.
Verdict and Criticisms
Was Cloud Atlas close to flawless? That I am not sure, but in many ways I am extremely worried about the polarized reviews, the negative ones in particular. I am hoping that these criticisms are about the literacy style and its executions, not its intentions. For many readers it was difficult to read and confusing, the presentation was bad, somewhat pretentious, and too spiritual and naive. That is all fine if these opinions are not based on a intolerance for post-modernism, anarchism, anti-authoritarian, liberalism, and secularism. I find that if civilization has to go forward, these elements are necessary.
Cloud Atlas was still beautifully written regardless, and Mitchell was extremely meticulous about all the fine details of the six stories. He intentionally changed writing tones for every tale: from a more ancient and difficult English for Ewing’s, and began to modernize through Frobisher’s expression ladled letters, Luisa’s and Cavendish’s story, and went into future jargon for Sonmi’s story. Everything then became incredibly difficult to understand in Zachry’s time, where an accent permeated throughout his life account.
Every tale has its own slang and jargon (Sonmi’s story had a lot of “e”s removed from words with “x” after the “e”: “xcited” “xecuted”), and David definitely put a lot of effort into handcrafting these hypothetical tales which is worth applauding. But all that actually made certain tales much more difficult to understand and difficult to bear. For me, Ewing’s tale was the most difficult due to the older English, different jargon, and the lack of action (its a diary after all). Following is Zachry’s verbal account, which was somewhat easier to read, likely due to being more action packed, but had ridiculously far fetched jargon and heavy altered slang. Then we have Sonmi’s interview, which was not too difficult to understand once the setting is known, but also had some jargon that are derived from modern living (“disneys” instead of movies, “sonys” instead of handphones, “nikons” instead of “photograph” or “camera”, not too hard). The remaining three are much easier to understand, although Frobisher’s and Cavendish’s ramblings require some patience to endure. Luisa’s tale is easily understandable like most other modern novel (because it technically is one), and is still very detailed in terms of writing.
Cloud Atlas isn’t inviting, that is for sure. Cloud Atlas doesn’t hook you into a world of amazing background and memorable characters with humorous writing. The book requires some intellectual background and intellectual courage to absorb, and readers would have to be alone reading, and spend time contemplating certain passages, and trying to see the patterns and intent. The book also requires patience to bare through the parts that are purely description of the environment (they quickly become irrelevant if you are not into it), and the cut-offs due to the layering nature of the book. Readers will be amazed if they are ready to be told that they are not entirely right on certain matters. A literature student should enjoy the book fully though, and readers from other walks of education would have to read the book at a slower pace.
You may not like it, but its by all means a book worthy of a Nobel nomination.
Did I like it? Would I recommend it to everyone?
I am grateful that I actually read this book and that this is the only actual book I finished this year. I will admit that I didn’t like some of the writing, but I will accept that for such a masterpiece it is necessary. I also didn’t quite appreciate the themes about reincarnation (the characters are apparently reincarnations of each other) and the more overly spiritual stuff. In certain ways, Cloud Atlas didn’t live up to its ambitions, which seem to be much too great for one book of this time. The presentations could possibly have been better and made to appeal to more, without losing too much of its essence. It had too much “fluff” that are not necessary for the message to be passed on, making certain parts of the already short book (six stories!) draggy.
Regardless, it is such a great display of Mitchell’s capability that I wonder how did he even manage this without collaboration from several other authors. Really, from classic English, to thriller style, to comedic style, then towards the far future. David Mitchell just done it all, and thats taking into account of the formats of these tales: diary, letter, novel, narrative movie, interview and verbal storytelling. Its ambitious nature alone would make me recommend it to any diligent reader, even more so for those into modern literature and philosophy. I wasn’t sure how could the book be better written, but having a description of the jargon might have made the reading way more enjoyable.
Cloud Atlas sought to reach out and touch everyone, to bring everyone together. It has messages and patterns that demands attention, but some of it remains hidden under its heavily woven passages. However, for such a masterpiece, even those on the surface may suffice to make one think and rethink. Perhaps that is all the difference in the world.
After all, belief is both prize and battlefield.
I end this with one of the comments found on YouTube, directed at the film adaptation.
“This is for all the people who feel lost and confused about the many unanswerable questions about life itself: Stay positive. I encourage you all to keep searching for the truth. Like the movie says, “Truth is singular. Its “versions” are mistruths.” All human ideas about life and death is but a version. We will continue to try to come up with the right version but we might never know.
I feel like in order for us to face life and death without fear, we must first accept that we might never know the truth and that anything can be possible. On one end, there could be a heaven where we go when we die and live in forever bliss for eternity. On the other end, there could be nothing at all, no after life, meaning we only have one chance to experience life in this universe, we live and die and the universe moves on. And then there’s everything in the middle, from reincarnation to our souls going someplace else. When I personally accepted that any of these could be true, my fear of death and uncertainty disappeared. Because there is only one truth and any possibility motivates me to live a life where I could be happy and smile in my last hour.
What is the meaning of life? I believe the meaning of life is us, us being able to give life meaning. Ultimately, we choose our meaning in life. It’s beautiful to me that we can even give meanings to things. I believe we are the universe becoming aware and conscious of itself. We are able to look at something and ask “Why? How?”. We are like the universe as a child, asking questions, having yet to learn the truth. But here is a truth: We are all connected. Everything we do affects another which affects another which affects another. On a larger scale, in a sense, we are all one. We are separate individuals, but we all live on the same planet, in the same solar system, in the same galaxy, in the same universe, in the same cosmos. I personally believe we’re all family – humans, animals, and the environment.
I don’t know the whole truth. Who does? But I’d like to believe that we live on after we die. I’d like to believe we become one with the universe when we die (and that we can feel this oneness while still alive like I personally have). And if not, I’d like to believe we live on through the love we give while still alive. Love is a beautiful thing to me because true love and compassion is something we selflessly give to others and ultimately the universe, an emotion like a vibration that we send out that lives on forever. I’d like to believe that our love lives on even if there is no life after death. A part of me that is the love I gave, will live on and that’s enough for me. So that’s what I made my purpose in life. To love. Make the world a better place even in the smallest form. If there is a heaven and if I had a choice, I would choose to come back to this world and continue spreading love and peace. There is too much suffering in the world for me to be able to choose to stay in a heaven. I would never be happy or find peace there. So I found my happiness and peace here on earth while I’m still alive. If I could prevent suffering for another life, then I’ve done my part.
Anyway, that’s all just my opinion and what I choose to believe. It’s my truth for now, and I’ll never stop seeking the truth. No one should. Finding yourself, choosing your life purpose, finding true happiness, finding peace, and to love love love is my meaning of life. I hope anyone reading this finds theirs. And all the beautiful souls who commented on this video, I hope we cross paths one day, whether in this life or the next. Nothing but peace & love to all of you :)”
You just don’t come across thoughts like this every day.