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What is the fuss about?
David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas is a novel that consists six stories hidden inside one another (Inception style). They encompass a whole variety of genres and settings, from 1970s thriller to 1930s romance, far future sci-fi distopias to 21st century comedy. It is a compelling idea, and the book has garnered an astonishingly positive response. Astonishing I say, because I don't think it is particularly good.

A commendation should be made to Mitchell for his ability to switch between entirely different genres, settings, characters and tone. But these individual tales are no good. These short stories (because that is what they really are; the perfunctory metaplot is just a ploy for the sake of publishers who believe short stories don't sell) are competently written, but generic and uninspired. Mitchell perplexingly communicates this flaw through his characters, having them repeatedly point out the similarities of their situation to other famous novels. In one instance, a cloned slave in a totalitarian future specifically mentions reading 1984 and Brave New World.

I can't figure out what Mitchell is doing by pointing out the similarities. Perhaps he thinks that by doing it first, we are unable to make the same criticism. Or perhaps he is just suggesting that the Tropes Are Not Bad. Unfortunately, in this case, these tropes are bad. The dystopian tale pales in comparison to its forefathers, Huxley and Orwell. There is another story in which a young female journalist fights to expose evil corporate figures, which equally proves to be an inferior derivative of the countless (aready derivative) identical thrillers. All the short stories suffer this same problem. They are uninspired, and going through the motions.

Perhaps one could argue that the sum of these flawed parts make an ultimately compelling, over arching narrative. They'd be wrong. The meta plot scarcely exists. The only thing connecting these diverse characters and scenarios is the identical brithmark they all have. No explanation is given for how these characters have this token thing in common. There is no suggestion as to why it matters. Ultimately, there seems to be little point to it all.
I'd just like to add a couple things:

1) The sections of the book, or short stories if you wish, are not supposed to be paragons of originality. The Luisa Rey story, for example, is implied to be a wholly fictional detective story (which is a Mind Screw, but nonetheless), and it's obviously playing with detective-story tropes. Sonmi-451's story may not possess enough complexity or originality to be anything other than what it is, but you're judging it as a stand-alone short story, which it is not. It may have similarities to Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty Four and other dystopian classics, but it's still superbly written and no more derivative than any other dystopian story. I don't think the form of the novel is gimmicky; on the contrary, I thought it was very well done, but I think you're missing the point of the book.

2) What connects the stories is not an overarching plot, but overarching themes. If you read more carefully, you'll find many links between the stories other than the obvious ones.
comment #13929 Lillias 22nd Apr 12
There are inevitably going to be some common elements that connect stories, but those in Cloud Atlas seem to be arbitrary, and I struggle to see any larger themes at work. I heard someone say Cloud Atlas was about pacifists throughout history, dealing with antagonistic scenarios. Whilst several of the characters certainly are openly pacifistic, some of the stories seem to have nothing to do with violence vs. non-violence: the sickness on the sea voyage, and the Frobisher's affair being two of them.

I'm curious to hear what common themes or threads you noticed though, and your analysis of the "story-within-a-story" plot.
comment #13932 maninahat 22nd Apr 12
The larger theme is Predacity, or how people exploit and interact with each other. The cruelty and harshness of the Kona in "Sloosha's Crossing" are a direct echo of the Maori and Moriori relationship in "Adam Ewing", and the Archivist character in "Sonmi" is comparable to Adam Ewing. The human element of the exploitation is a major element of this, particularly with characters like Joe Napier (who ended up becoming part of the system before fighting it when Luisa Rey comes along), Adam Ewing and the Archivist (fundamentally decent people who are biased by their upbringing and cultural background), and Sonmi's mention about how even a prison conducts news (their jailers). That's also the point that Adam Ewing is driving at in his last few paragraphs, about how exploitation and predation ultimately come down to what individuals believe.

The "story-within-a-story" plot refers to the way that all the accounts are a story within another story's narrative, and are all heavily biased by the people telling them. Luisa Rey's story, as mentioned, is a second-rate thriller novel that goes off the rails, which is why the plot is so convoluted and the characters broadly drawn. Cavendish's story is colored both by his constant self-pity and sense of victimhood, as well as the fact that he's deliberately writing his memoirs with a movie in mind. Sonmi is telling an account that she's clearly polished and prepared during her time in prison, so that it will have maximum impact when read. Zach'ry is an old man re-telling a story that he's told and probably polished for many years.

comment #16770 WiseBass 3rd Nov 12
[quote]The only thing connecting these diverse characters and scenarios is the identical brithmark they all have. [/quote] hmm? As detailed in the film page on main site, There is much more than just the birthmark connecting them, for instance, Frobisher has the letters of Adam Edwing to Frobisher, Frobisher's letters via Sixmith land in the hands of Lusia Rey, who's story 'half life' is submitted for publishing to Cavendish who's story becomes a movie that inspires Sonomi who becomes a messiah in Zachary's world.
comment #20398 hopper 1st Aug 13
Sorry, to be clear by connected I mean "related". I'm referring to recurring themes or story beats rather than the methods used to interconnect largely isolated stories.
comment #20400 maninahat 1st Aug 13
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