The third novel by David Mitchell (no, not thatDavid Mitchell), Cloud Atlas is a sweeping epic that connects wildly different genres and writing styles into a single narrative. The novel consists of six nested stories, each set in a different place and era, moving forwards in time from the 19th century all the way to the future After the End. Each story and style is a pastiche of the most recognisable examples of the genre (which the characters swiftly realise and comment on), and lovingly combines old clichés with new twists. A comet-shaped birthmark appears in each story, generally on the protagonist, and the characters often recognize names, places, and experiences from other stories. In order of introduction, the six stories are:
The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing (1859): An American notary, returning by ship from the Chatham Islands of New Zealand, keeps a journal of his journey through the Pacific Ocean accompanied by a Moriori stowaway. Ewing has been infected with a parasitic worm, of which Dr. Henry Goose is trying to cure him. A partial copy of the edited and published journal is found by...
Letters from Zedelghem (1931): Robert Frobisher is a tremendously snarky English musician and aspiring composer, formerly Rich In Pounds, Poor In Sense and now penniless after a bad game. On the run, he charms his way into a job as an assistant to a retired composer, settling with his employer in Zedelghem, Belgium. He records his experiences in a series of letters, which he sends to his friend and lover Rufus Sixsmith. Much later in life, the letters are read by...
Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery (1973): Luisa Rey is a reporter for a fluffy media magazine in Northern California, when she crosses paths with the old Dr. Sixsmith. She starts investigating reports of ongoing corruption connected to the local nuclear power plant, and winds up with Sixsmith's collection of letters. Her story is presented as a mystery novel manuscript, submitted to...
The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish (2012): Cavendish is an old, glum British vanity press publisher who gets in trouble with a client and ends up trapped by his brother in a retirement home in a rather undignified Kafka Komedy. His experience forms the basis of a film, which is seen by...
An Orison of Sonmi~451 (2144): Sonmi is a fabricant, a genetically-engineered clone, employed at the Papa Song's diner chain. She lives in Nea So Copros (formerly Korea, named Neo Seoul in the film adaptation) in a dystopian near future. Fabricants have been created as slaves to a capitalist, totalitarian society — and Sonmi had the misfortune of developing intelligence far beyond the limits of her genetic engineering. Her story is told in a final interview, during which she's allowed to tell an uncensored account of her entire life. The recording of this interview, called an orison, is viewed by...
Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After (106 years after the Fall): Zachry, an elder of a tribe in post-apocalyptic Hawaii that regards Sonmi as their god, meets Meronym, a member of Earth's last advanced civilization. His story is set in a distant future, where most of humanity has died out. In his old age, he narrates his experiences around a camp-fire.
Instead of being completely sequential, each of the first five stories ends halfway through, sometimes on a cliffhanger, once in mid-sentence. The sixth and central story is the only one presented in one go — afterwards, each of the other five resumes in reverse order, taking the reader back to the beginning. This mirrored pattern can be found throughout the novel in other things: most prominently, in the Cloud Atlas Sextet, the tangled musical piece that Robert Frobisher feverishly composes.The film version — which is a gorgeous Pragmatic Adaptation, with some of the storylines significantly altered — is written and directed by Tom Tykwer, the director of Run, Lola, Run and Perfume, and the Wachowski siblings. The All-Star Cast includes Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Keith David, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant, Ben Whishaw and many others. It was released in October 2012.
This book contains examples of the following tropes:
Actual Pacifist: The real life pacifism of the Moriori tribe, even in the face of genocide, is discussed in depth in the first story. It didn't go well for them.
After the End: Zachry's era. Nea So Copros also exists after a period called "The Skirmishes", suggested to be a series of "limited" nuclear wars which have already left much of the planet a "deadlands". Presumably a bigger one after Sonmi's period finished the job.
Alien Non-Interference Clause: Meronym in the final segment is from a more advanced Earth civilization, not an alien, but this still applies to her. Zachry manages to convince her to use her medical equipment to save Zachry's sister. To avoid potential problems, they inject her secretly, so she just appears to have a miraculous recovery.
Ambiguous Disorder: Frobisher suffers tremendously from bipolar disorder, but being from 1931, he has no idea that anything's wrong with him.
An Aesop: Freedom is the most important thing anyone can have.
In the film adaptation at least, it is probably best summarized by Sonmi's Orison: "Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others. To be is to be observed, so it is only possible to know oneself through the eyes of the other. The nature of our immortal lives is in the consequences of our words and actions, which ripple across space and time for all eternity. With each cruelty and every kindness we birth our future."
Arc Words: There are all kinds of repeated references across the six eras. Hydras, feeding ducks, a "crocodile" of people, eating soap, cannibalism, etc. Frobisher's "Cloud Atlas Sextet" follows the same pattern the novel does, and he associates each of the six movements of his piece with an instrument.
"I will not be subjected to criminal abuse!"
"The weak are meat the strong do eat."
Artistic License - Geography: Given that California was admitted to the Union as a free state, it's highly unlikely that a family who works in the slave trade would have put down roots there.
Barbie Doll Anatomy: Fabricants in the novel. Kidnapped ones are given cheap surgery and sold as prostitutes.
Batman Gambit: Sonmi was knowingly cooperating with Unanimity the entire time to have the opportunity to spread her message.
We see a game beyond the endgame. I refer to my Declarations, Archivist. Media has flooded Nea So Copros with my Catechisms. Every schoolchild in corpocracy knows my twelve "blasphemies" now. My guards tell me there is even talk of a statewide "Vigilance Day" against fabricants who show signs of the Declarations. My ideas have been reproduced a billionfold.
Battleaxe Nurse: A scary one runs the nursing home where Cavendish is confined.
Berserk Button: The Mexican woman kills the assassin after he shoots her dog and calls her a wetback.
Birthmark of Destiny: Ewing, Frobisher, Rey, Cavendish, Sonmi, and Meronym (or Zachry in the film) all have the exact same birthmark, in exactly the same place (although in the film the birthmark is instead placed in various dramatically appropriate locations for each character); this birthmark is one of the main manifestations of the reincarnation theme.
Bittersweet Ending: They each story ends ranges from tragic to uplifting, so in the end, the story as a whole is bittersweet. The very last chronological story involves civilization fleeing Earth and moving off-world toward an unknown but hopeful future..
Blackface: Inverted and discussed in Zachry's storyline. Some of Zachry's compatriots start painting their faces out of admiration for the dark-skinned Meronym, but she tells them to stop since her more advanced civilization is unrelated to her skin colour.
"You are a realist, Adam," Henry told me, "so your pills shall be unsugared. Once the Parasite's larvae hatch, the victim's brain becomes a maggoty cauliflower. Putrescent gases cause the eardrums & eyeballs to protrude until they pop, releasing a cloud of Gusano coco spores."
Also Zachry's baby, who is born without a nose or mouth.
Breather Episode: The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, while creepy in places, is funnier and more light-hearted than the other segments. Especially noticeable since it comes right before/after the very depressing An Orison of Sonmi~451.
Burger Fool: Papa Song's Dinery where Sonmi~451 and her fellow clones work is a nightmare version of a fast food restaurant. In the novel, it's strongly implied to literally just be McDonalds, with multiple references to its "Golden Arches", the red and yellow colour scheme, and the Papa Song mascot resembling a clown.
Call Back: Several of the protagonists remember an experience from one of the earlier (or later) stories. For example, Sonmi experiences deja vu while falling from a bridge in a car, due to the same thing happening to Luisa Rey, and Adam feels strange deja vu when he believes he's drowning.
Call Forward: There's also the opposite — Frobisher, when presented with the opportunity to slit Ayrs's throat, has a sort of reverse deja vu calling forward to Zachry slitting a Kona's throat.
Can't Stop the Signal: Sonmi's revelations somehow escape to reach all of Neo Seoul / Nea So Copros, and are passed down word-for-word until they are regarded as sacred texts.
Cloning Blues: Various types of fabricants are mass-produced to perform all sorts of tasks in Sonmi's era. As a result, human society has become dependant on the fabricants never questioning their lot in life. Indeed, fabricants are created specifically to be incapable of questioning their lot. How and why Sonmi (and her predecessor and friend Yoona) are different is an important plot point.
The Corrupter: Old Georgie, the future Hawaiian imagery of the devil. Zachry's tribe have a strong storytelling culture and smoke a whole lot of weed, so for them, seeing and hearing Old Georgie is as normal as anything. He very appropriately looks like a Hawaiian witch doctor in the film version.
Ewing is very progressive for his time period, but still a product of his age. He's initially frightened that a Moriori stowaway will eat him, right after being exhaustively told how their extreme pacifism has nearly resulted in the tribe's extinction.
Frobisher is antisemitic and looks down on the working classes, as a typical son of wealthy British gentry of his period would.
Timothy Cavendish has the lingering racism and disgust for youth culture that you might expect a bitter old man to have in modern times.
Future Korea is a dystopia filled with deliberate values dissonance
In future Hawaii, Zachry has a child at a very young age with a girl he barely knows. This doesn't seem to be considered abnormal, probably because life expectancies are so short.
Depraved Bisexual: Robert Frobisher — charming, hedonistic, manipulative, thieving, sees no problem with cheating, freely admits he'll never truly love anyone but himself (though in the end, he almost admits he loves Sixsmith) and leaps easily from one conquest to the next. He's a true self-absorbed sensualist and opportunist.
Doesn't Like Guns: Luisa says that guns make her sick. This might tie her story in with the pacifist Moriori tribe in the Adam Ewing storyline, and more prominently with Robert Frobisher's story.
In Adam Ewing's storyline, Rafael, after being repeatedly raped by the First Mate and his goons.
Dystopia: Nea So Copros/Neo Seoul. How dystopic? Sonmi refers to other dystopian authors as "optimists."
Eternal English: Averted. Ewing's and Frobisher's writing perfectly evokes the English of their eras. In 2144, many spellings are truncated (particularly, "gh" seems to have been dropped entirely, resulting in "lite" and "thoro", etc.; additionally, "exactly" has become "xactly", etc.) and brand names have substituted several everyday terms ("disney" versus "film"). Both spelling and grammar have changed a good deal after the Fall, although Meronym speaks it in a more twentieth century form in her communication with her ship's captain.
Exact Words: Zachry once gets the chance to surprise a sleeping Kona, and prepares to slit his throat. But then he remembers the seer's words, warning him never to slit the throat of a sleeping enemy. So he wakes up the Kona, and then slits his throat.
Explosive Leash: Not technically an explosion but the Fabricants' collar kills them instantly if they try to escape.
Fantastic Racism: Against fabricants — just look at Sonmi's attempt to attend a university lecture. By her time, however, actual racism is completely gone.
Foregone Conclusion: Frobisher's early death is hinted at in the first half of the Luisa Rey storyline.
Ayrs talks about a dream he has in "Letters from Zedelghem" — of a restaurant where all the waitresses have the same face, in a reference to "An Orison of Sonmi~451".
As Cavendish travels through the countryside, he mentions one area has been turned into a facility for "cloning humans for shady Koreans". A bit later, as Cavendish escapes Aurora House, he makes a crack about Soylent Green. The nurse also threatens to make him eat soap. These all apply to "An Orison of Sonmi~451".
Free-Love Future: Sex absolutely isn't taboo anymore in Zachry's time, though society still follows the classic pattern of monogamy, marriage and jealousy. Zachry becomes a father at age 12 and doesn't see anything wrong or shameful about it.
Sonmi's era has been hit hard by this trope. Anything that began with 'ex' now only starts with 'x', and everyday items are referred to by the brand we would most readily associate with them, only without the capital letter. Hence nikes (running shoes), sonys (computers), disneys (movies) etc. Explicitly an example of Brand Name Takeover on a global scale, as her world is run by corporations.
The humans of Zachry's era developed their own future slang as well, though it's more primitive.
Gentle Giant: Wing the disasterman, who stands almost ten feet tall and was genomed to clean up disasters. He's kind to Sonmi and carries her up to the roof to see the sights.
Glad-to-Be-Alive Sex: Between Sonmi and Hae-Joo after witnessing the fabricant recycling plant. Sonmi describes it as "joyless". The two also have to improvise, since fabricants are not genomed to be able to have intercourse.
Government Conspiracy: The Corporacy organizing Sonmi's ascencion in order to radicalize public opinion against fabricants and distract from the system's real problems. Sonmi realised it very early on, and decided to play along anyway, since it gave her a chance to start a revolution even if the revolution was engineered.
I'm a Humanitarian: Cannibalism, both literal and figurative, is a running motif through most of the stories.
Hypocritical Humor: Timothy Cavendish initially criticises the manuscript of Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery sent to his publishing house for being badly written and obviously intended to be turned into a screenplay. His own story suffers from Stylistic Suck, and he ends up putting in explicit directions for its future director (whom he imagines as a reclusive Swede named "Lars"). The film version of Cloud Atlas, rather fantasically, takes him up on it and actually follows his notes.
Lighter and Softer: Cavendish's story is the most comedic, though its narrator is also the most curmudgeonly.
Literary Agent Hypothesis: Played with. Despite the characters apparently being reincarnations or something similar of each other, some of the stories are presented as fiction when they appear in another story. Lampshaded by Frobisher, who points out to Sixsmith in his letters that The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing feels a bit too well-structured to be a true diary. The logical overlap between the lives of Rey and Cavendish only makes things more confusing. The novel lampshades this when Cavendish outright rejects the idea of his birthmark being similar to a comet; the film does away with this angle by never calling attention to any ambiguous fictitiousness.
Locked into Strangeness: Zachry tells a story about a man named Truman, whose black hair went white from the shock of seeing Old Georgie harvesting a soul.
Lost Technology: By the time of Zachry's era, technology has mostly devolved back to the iron age, but a small group has access to some stuff on our current level and a even a few objects more advanced than anything we currently have.
Magical Realism: The protagonist of each story appears to be a reincarnaton of the the previous ones. In Zachry's story conversations with the dead and with the Devil appear commonplace as well as the seers words coming true.
Matter Replicator: Sophisticated 3D-printer-like devices are seen rapidly assembling fast food in Papa Song's.
Sixsmith partially inspired Frobisher's creation (smithing) of the Cloud Atlas Sextet (a piece written for six players).
Jocasta, the composer Vyvyan Ayrs's wife. In Greek Mythology, the wife of King Laios of Thebes and mother of Oedipus. In the novel, Depraved Bisexual Robert Frobisher (son figure) makes love with Jocasta (mother figure), the wife of Vyvyan (father figure).
A "meronym" means something that is part of a whole.
Mercy Kill: Hae-Joo Im shoots Xi-Li in the head when the latter is hit by a government weapon that causes agonising pain while keeping the victim conscious. Similar mercy kills are accepted practice among Union.
Meta Twist: Timothy mentions Soylent Green in connection with cloned Koreans before Sonmi's story even starts; the clones all drinking the same nutrients each day invokes the connection very strongly. But the plot thread seemingly gets dropped very early on in Sonmi's tale, to focus on political intrigue instead. Small hints are dropped — a reference to Malthus, for example. By the time Sonmi reaches the ship, it's of course a Foregone Conclusion that Xultation isn't real... but the sudden return of the Soylent Green theme is unexpected, if just because the story already includes such a large number of other famous sci-fi twists in its loving pastiche. And then it gets taken a step further when it turns out that not just the Soap is made of discarded clones, but also the regular food in Papa Song's diner.
Mind Screw: Each story initially appears to be set in the same universe as its predecessor. This is toyed with when Frobisher questions the veracity of Ewing's journal, then completely undermined when Cavendish receives Rey's story as a manuscript for a fictional novel. Yet connections between the characters seem to bridge this fiction-reality divide, such as the shared birthmark of Frobisher, Rey, Sonmi, and Meronym. Similarly, the reader is led to believe that all of the protagonists are one reincarnated soul, marked by the distinctive birthmark, but this is disputed since the lifespans of Luisa Rey and Timothy Cavendish should overlap... unlessthey're two aspects of the same person, since they're the exact same age. Her being a fictional character in his universe might be a more significant barrier, unless she was real and "Half-Lives" is a story based on her adventures — which is entirely possible.
Cavendish and Luisa Rey may actually be of exactly the same age: she was born in 1947 (would turn sixty-five in 2012), and Cavendish is "65 and a half" in 2012. Can one soul be divided in two?
Morton's Fork: Luisa and Fay both encounter this in their dealings with boorish men.
[Fay:] "[...] What would you do? Dash off some witty put-down line, let 'em know you're riled? Slap him, get labeled hysterical? Besides, creeps like that enjoy getting slapped. Do nothing? So any man on site can say shit like that to you with impunity?" [Luisa:] "An official complaint?" "Prove that women run to senior men when the going gets rough?"
The Mourning After: It's implied Sixsmith lived forty-five more years, but never loved again after Frobisher. Ouch.
Nested Story: With the relationship between the various narratives left deliberately unclear. Robert Frobisher thinks Adam's journal looks fake, the archivist interviewing Sonmi refuses to accept parts of her story, and Zachry's son thinks his dad probably made part of his story up. It's entirely purposeful, and it ties into what Isaac Sachs writes about virtual pasts and virtual futures.
Next Sunday A.D.: "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish" takes place in 2012; the novel was published in 2004. Ironically, the movie was released in 2012, so the story became a contemporary one, even though it wasn't so in the book.
No New Fashions in the Future: Averted. While the fashion changes between 1974 and 2012 aren't much, 2144 is another matter altogether. Apart from some working overalls, virtually nothing is recognizable.
Our Souls Are Different: In 2144, "Soul" refers to an electronic tracking device implanted in the index finger by the totalitarian government, which functions as identification and an electronic wallet. Fabricants have similar Soulrings worn around the neck. Despite their mundane, technological nature, the Archivist in "An Orison of Sonmi~451" refers to them as "eternal Souls" as if the metaphysical concept and the electronic device have been conflated.
Page Turn Surprise: The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing is cut off mid-sentence in such a way that the sentence appears to run onto the next page, but it turns out that the next page is blank, and the page after is the title page for the next story.
Pastiche: Every story. Most notable in Sonmi's chapters.
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 [...]
Powered by a Forsaken Child: Fabricants that serve out their time as workers are killed and recycled into Soap and food to feed fabricants and purebloods, respectively. Sonmi has the good fortune to watch this happen.
Psycho for Hire: The novel makes it clear that Bill Smoke is quite obsessed with murder. Smoke also briefly employs another killer who keeps a book of his victims' last words.
Rape as Drama: Used several times in the novel, and foreshadowed when Cavendish is momentarily scared that he might get raped. Completely Played for Drama in all cases.
Reincarnation: A recurring theme in the novel (though it is left ambiguous whether it is real). Also an explicit belief of the Valleysmen in "Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After", of the Buddhists in Sonmi's era and of the Moriori. Luisa doesn't believe in it at all.
Secret Police: Somni drops a figurative bomb on her archivist when she reveals that she suspected she was in their grasp almost from the beginning but played along at the end at least because the book they wanted her write would be more influential and important than they realized. Considering how she is regarded in Zachry's era, she was probably right.
Fabricants? Disposable clones employed for inhuman tasks without regard for their dignity? Sounds like Replicants.
Sonmi mentions reading the works of "optimists" Huxley and Orwell. This is a reference to Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, best remembered for their respective dystopian novels Brave New World and 1984
Cavendish's story in the book is far worse written than the other storylines, with intrusive similes, plenty of tangents, and stylistic levels swinging wildly between the pompous and the slangy.
Luisa Rey's story is written in the present tense, and intentionally feels like a somewhat clumsy imitation of mystery novels, which Cavendish (ironically) decides to edit into something better.
Survivor Guilt: Zachry gets this twice — once when during his childhood a band of Kona kill his father and kidnap his brother, and again in his adulthood when the Kona destroy his camp and kill or enslave his family and people.
Zachry talks about wishing he had some kind of map to track souls as they move across the ages, like clouds across the sky. He calls it an "atlas o' clouds".
Cavendish, in an oddly poignant moment, writes a passage about the futility of recording the ephemeral, once again referring to an "atlas of clouds".
The title of Frobisher's masterpiece is The Cloud Atlas Sextet. Its structure is described as extremely similar to that of the novel, with six individual parts slowly woven together into one greater whole. Frobisher himself isn't sure if it's clever or gimmicky.
Together in Death: Frobisher hopes that this will be the fate of himself and Sixsmith. Considering that the entire plot is about reincarnation, not the afterlife, this may be either false hope or they could be together in another timeline. Interestingly (in the film at least), they both die the same way - with a gun in their mouth.)
The Unfavorite: Robert Frobisher is this to his parents, who much prefer his older brother who died in World War One. Frobisher isn't too fond of his Mater and Pater either.
Unreliable Narrator: Most of the stories are told in first-person perspective, and it's occasionally suggested that some of them are not being entirely honest. Zachry's narration, in particular, is heavily influenced by his tribe's superstitions and storytelling conventions (and presumably by the copious amounts of weed he smokes throughout). He freely talks about the wind and the animals whispering things to him, about his dead father appearing to him, and about corpses speaking and time freezing and the devil himself appearing before him, because that's just how his tribe traditionally experiences life.
Unsettling Gender-Reveal: Cavendish has sexual fantasies about the writer of Half-Lives (who goes by the name of Hilary), only to be put down when they finally meet and Hilary turns out to be male.
"An Orison of Sonmi~451" has several key similarities to Brave New World, such as the foundation of a dystopia following a Great Offscreen War, mandatory consumer quotas, tailor-made clones, a populace kept happy with psychoactive drugs, and a rebellion informed by modern literature. Sonmi actually reads Brave New World halfway through her story.
Adam Ewing's plot to Moby-Dick, with Melville himself and whales being mentioned frequently.