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Literature / Cloud Atlas

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"What is any ocean but a multitude of drops?"

“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.”

The third novel by David Mitchell (no, not that one), 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. 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...
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  • Letters from Zedelghem (1931): Robert Frobisher, 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 (1975): Luisa Rey, 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...
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  • The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish (2012): Timothy Cavendish, an old, glum British vanity press publisher who gets into trouble with the mob when one of his authors tosses a book critic off a roof, and he 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~451, a fabricant, a genetically-engineered clone, employed at the Papa Song's diner chain. She lives in Nea So Copros (formerly Korea) 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 (notably, there are also in-universe explanations for the stories resuming, with the protagonist of each story finally getting around to reading/watching the later half of the chronogically preceding story). 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 Wachowskis. 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 (not to be confused with Maori), even in the face of genocide, is discussed in depth in the first story. It didn't go well for them.
  • Advert-Overloaded Future: Sonmi's era is a capitalist, corporate-run dystopia where even the Moon is an advert.
  • 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.
  • All Animation Is Disney: Exaggerated — in 2144, all films are referred to as "disneys", because the world has become a total plutocracy. Pun not intended. invoked
  • Aluminum Christmas Trees: Did it strike you as unrealistic that the people of Nea So Copros refer to shoes as "nikes", to electronic devices as "sonys", and to movies as "disneys"? Well, have you ever instinctively referred to a stick of lip balm as "chapstick", to a tissue as a "kleenex", or to an adhesive bandage as a "bandaid"? All three of those common words are actually brand names ("ChapStick", "Kleenex", and "Band-Aid") that have become widely accepted terms for everyday items. As bizarre as it might sound, there is precedent for brand names becoming recognized words in vernacular languages, and the novel accurately shows that phenomenon in action.
  • Always Save the Girl: Hae-Joo and Sonmi have this trope going on... Although Sonmi is convinced he was in on the Government Conspiracy in the end.
  • Ambiguous Disorder: Frobisher suffers tremendously from bipolar disorder, but being from 1931, he has no idea what's happening or how to handle it.
  • An Aesop:
    • Freedom is the most important thing anyone can have.
    • Our actions have consequences beyond our intentions, and we should interact with others with this in mind.
  • 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."note 
    • "An atlas o(f) clouds."
  • At Least I Admit It: Henry Goose may be a murderer, a racist, and a con man, completely devoid of morality and empathy, but he is almost sympathetic when he skewers the hypocritical missionaries that exploit the natives. He is the only character that feels no need to disguise his brutal Social Darwinism behind religious, pseudo-humanitarian, or patriotic reasons.
  • Ate His Gun: Frobisher.
  • Bar Brawl: At the very end of the Cavendish story. It's engineered by the old folks as a way of escaping the bad guys.
  • 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.
  • Bio Punk: The Sonmi section takes place in a future setting where humanity is heavily genetically engineered, Uterine Replicators are common, and clones perform most unwanted tasks. It's a dystopia, and the biotech in the story is used to enhance the power of the corporate hierarchy that makes the world a dystopia.
  • Birthmark of Destiny: Ewing, Frobisher, Rey, Cavendish, Sonmi, and Meronym all have the exact same birthmark, in exactly the same place; this birthmark is one of the main manifestations of the reincarnation theme.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The ending of each individual story ranges from tragic to uplifting, so in the end, the book as a whole is bittersweet. The last (chronological) story ends with only a few human survivors and the likely extinction of humanity, whereas the last (actual) few pages of the book end with a stirring monologue from Adam Ewing, declaring the need to fight for good and equality despite hopelessness and constant setbacks.
  • 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.
  • Body Horror:
    • Ewing's parasite.
    "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."
    • Zachry's baby, who is born without a nose or mouth due to mutation.
  • Brand Name Takeover: Exaggerated in Sonmi's time, where extreme corporatism has resulted in everyday items being named by the brand most associated with them (eg. "disneys" for films, "rolexes" for watches, "nikes" for running shoes).
  • 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 McDonald's, with multiple references to its "Golden Arches", the red and yellow colour scheme, and the Papa Song mascot resembling a clown.
  • Bury Your Gays: Robert Frobisher is the only main character to explicitly die, and his lover Sixsmith is murdered in the next story.
  • 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. Frobisher also mentions a mistrust of "opportunistic quacks," which could be related to Adam's near death at the hands of Henry Goose.
    • Luisa has a deep-seated fear of guns. Her predecessor, Frobisher, Ate His Gun.
  • 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 Nea So Copros, and are passed down word-for-word until they are regarded as sacred texts.
  • Catapult Nightmare: Zachry awakens from a bad dream prophetic dream in this manner in the last story.
  • 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 dependent 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.
  • Continuity Nod: Timothy Cavendish and Luisa Rey appears as a minor character in Ghostwritten, and also to point out that Katy Forbes had the same comet-shaped birthmark.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Grimaldi and Lloyd in the 1975 storyline, apparently the entire leadership of Nea So Copros.
  • 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.
  • Cross Through: Basically Cross Through: The Novel.
  • Cult Classic: In-Universe, The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish is considered something like this by 2144.
  • Direct Line to the Author: 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.
  • Deadly Doctor: Henry Goose, though Ewing eventually doubts that he was anything more than a murderous confidence trickster.
  • Deconstruction: Of a large number of tropes (see the entire page).
  • Deface of the Moon: In the 22nd century, the moon has been turned into a nightly projection screen, and the idea of a "naked" moon freaks the characters out.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance:
    • 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 told at length about how their own pacifism has nearly driven the tribe extinct.
    • 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.
  • Diary: The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing is written this way, although Frobisher notes it's a bit too well-structured to be a real journal.
  • 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.
  • Doomed Moral Victor: Sonmi cooperated with the Government Conspiracy to spread her message, despite knowing it would lead to her death. To the point that she's worshiped as a god in the future.
  • Door Stopper: The hardcover stands for 544 pages long.
  • Downer Ending: Zachry’s tale ends with the extinction of all free tribes on the Big Island, the Kona expanding across the Hawaiian archipelago, and the collapse of the last advanced civilization on Earth. It's implied that the reason the novel doesn't continue further into the future of the human race is because there isn't any future for it to probe. The only thing that saves the entire book from being an example of this is that after his story concludes, the Nested Story moves back in time and shows that despite its faults and failings, humanity perseveres.
  • Driven to Suicide:
    • Frobisher shoots himself in the mouth.
    • In Adam Ewing’s storyline, Rafael, after being repeatedly raped by the First Mate and his goons.
  • Dystopia: Nea So Copros. How dystopic? Sonmi refers to other dystopian authors as "optimists."
  • Epistolary Novel: Letters from Zedelghem is comprised of Frobisher detailing his life in a series of letters to Sixsmith.
  • 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.
    • Ewing's poisoning is mockingly spoiled by Frobisher.
    • The post-apocalyptic wasteland and deification of Sonmi spell out the end of her chapter
    • Zachry's asides to others listening to his story imply from the start that he survives the ordeal, since he's the one telling the story.
  • Foreshadowing: All over. Just a few examples:
    • 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".
  • Framing Device: Adam Ewing's story was documented in his journal, which is being read by Robert Frobisher, whose story is in turn unfolding in letters he writes to his lover Rufus Sixsmith. Sixsmith is also a character in Luisa Rey’s story, the events of which are packaged into a novel and are being read by Timothy Cavendish. A film based on his shenanigans is eventually made, which Sonmi-451 watches. Sonmi tells her own story in the interview leading up to her execution, which is viewed by Zachry and the rest of the characters of Sloosha’s Crossin’.
  • 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.
  • Funetik Aksent: Zachry’s narration.
  • Future Slang:
    • 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.
  • Genre-Busting: Each story is a completely different genre and written in a different format, from letters to semi-screenplay to interview transcription. Genres include Period Drama, Historical Fiction, Cyberpunk, Film Noir, Adventure, Satire, Comedy, Dystopia, Science Fantasy, Space Opera, Romantic Comedy, Romance, Spy Fiction, Mystery Fiction, Tragedy, Magical Realism, and about everything inbetween.
  • Genteel Interbellum Setting: Frobisher's era. His letters read like a particularly bitter P. G. Wodehouse novel.
  • 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.
  • Great Offscreen War: An Orison of Sonmi~451’s Skirmishes.
  • Happiness in Slavery: A running motif. Slavery appears in some form or another in every story:
    • Adam Ewing slowly comes to realise that social darwinism is wrong.
    • The entire Moriori race becomes enslaved to the Maori.
    • Vyvyan Ayres tries to blackmail Frobisher into remaining his assistant and supplying him with music to steal.
    • Luisa and Joe stumble on a sweatshop.
    • The retirement home that Cavendish is sent to is essentially a prison. Residents are expected to pretend to be happy with their "new life."
    • Sonmi and her fabricant sisters are engineered to be happy in slavery.
    • Zachry's brother was enslaved when he was very young, and the slavers come back for the rest of the island.
  • Hidden Elf Village: Meronym's civilization is strongly implied to be this, due to the fact that they've retained technology from Sonmi's time.
  • Humans Are the Real Monsters: Played straight, subverted, invoked, played straight again, and discussed at length. Arguably, the degree of truth to this trope is the main theme of the novel.
  • Human Resources: Fabricants are turned into food for new fabricants.
  • 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").
  • I'm a Humanitarian: Cannibalism, both literal and figurative, is a running motif through most of the stories.
  • Impairment Shot: From the POV of a man who is being poisoned.
  • Intrepid Reporter: Luisa Rey is the classical example of this trope.
  • In Your Nature to Destroy Yourselves: Discussed. "Human hunger birthed the Civlize, but human hunger killed it too."
  • Kafka Komedy: Cavendish’s story. A book publisher is being tormented by a bunch of east end thugs, his older brother, and an evil nurse. This is also the lightest segment of the book, thanks to its playful narration and its absurdity.
  • Kick the Dog: The assassin in 1973 shoots the dog of a woman who is annoying him by not speaking English.
  • Knuckle Tattoos: Dermot Hoggins (Tom Hanks) in the 2012 story.
  • Kukris Are Kool: Autua has one in the scene where he asks Adam to kill him rather than give him up to the Captain.
  • La Résistance:
    • The Union in Nea So Copros which may just be a puppet of the Corpocracy.
    • Cavendish mounts a minor one in the retirement home.
  • Last Breath Bullet: A heroic example shown from the perspective of the one firing it.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: When he finds out he's been locked into a mental hospital, not a hotel, Cavendish relates that the reader probably figured that twist out long before he did.
  • Lighter and Softer: Cavendish’s story is the most comedic, though its narrator is also the most curmudgeonly.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters: It features six stories that take place in six different periods of time, each with its own principal cast. Needless to say, it ends up being quite a lot.
  • 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.
  • London Gangster: Dermot "Duster" Hoggins is such a criminal. And he'll do anything to get the returns from his autobiography.
  • 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.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Frobisher, very much so. As is Ayrs.
  • Magical Realism: The protagonist of each story appears to be a reincarnation of 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.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Two of the Corrupt Corporate Executives of Seaboard in the Luisa Rey story have the last names "Hooks" and "Wiley".
    • 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.
    • Bill Smoke’s surname evokes his status as a shadowy assassin.
    • Unanimity, the government ruling Nea So Copros, means the uniting of an undivided opinion. This foreshadows the fact that Union, the rebellion against Unanimity, is actually a part of it.
    • In Greek, "néa sou kopros" would be "your new shit".
  • Mega-Corp: The Corpocracy in 2144. Doubles as The Government and Police State.
  • 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 exactly overlapnote ... unless they’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.
  • 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 Communities Were Harmed: Half-Lives is set in Buena Yerbas, a fictional Californian metropolis somewhere between LA and San Francisco. It gets a callback later on when Meronym mentions having lived among the Swannekke tribe.
  • 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.
  • No-Paper Future: 2144. The Fabricants thought a book was a broken computer, and where surprised to inside find "the grimy server serving three ugly sisters; seven stunted fabricants carrying bizarre cutlery behind a shining girl; a house built of candy".
  • Not Quite Dead
  • Nu Spelling: 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.
  • Only a Flesh Wound: "The bullet went right through and killed nothing but his appetite."
  • 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.
  • Planet of Hats: Sonmi's time period. The hat in question? Capitalism.
  • Postmodernism: Yes. Pushed further with this meta joke:
    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.
  • Reassigned to Antarctica: As a way around Morton's Fork, Fay Li in Half-Lives transfers the employee mentioned to Kansas as punishment.
  • 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.
  • Reincarnation-Identifying Trait: It is heavily implied that five of the six protagonists of the Nested Story are all the same soul (the exception is Zachry; it's Meronym who's got the mark), and are identified by their comet-shaped birthmark.
  • 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.
  • Self-Deprecation: Cavendish finds a manuscript of Luisa Rey's adventure and dismisses the Reincarnation angle as far too New Age-y, despite having a similar birthmark himself. He also describes the birthmark in decidedly less romantic imagery than the comet everyone else seems to see it as.
  • Screw Destiny: Zachry intentionally ignores his personal prophecy and murders a man, believing that his soul is already doomed to never reincarnate and that it therefore won't matter what he does. Adam Ewing's description of the Moriori culture already foreshadowed that this would stop reincarnation; Zachry's tribe has the same belief, almost to the letter.
  • Shout-Out: Many and varied, since Mitchell writes in just about every genre going. Each genre is more or less explicitly compared to what inspired it:
    • Frobisher compares Adam Ewing’s diary to Herman Melville.
    • In one story, The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, the protagonist quotes Soylent Green, which becomes horribly relevant in the next story.
    • The name of one story's title character, Luisa Rey, is an apparent reference to the book The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder.
    • Sonmi~451's number.
    • 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
  • The Social Darwinist: Another running theme throughout multiple stories.
  • Stab the Salad: Zachry looks like he's about to stab Meronym but instead stabs a weird hologram thing next to her.
  • Stepford Smiler: The fabricant waitresses are genetically engineered to always smile. Even if they wish they could kill themselves.
  • Sticky Bomb: Hae-Joo uses sticky bombs to dispose of some Corporacy aircrafts.
  • Stop, or I Will Shoot!: “Excessive force authorised.
  • Stylistic Suck:
    • 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.
  • Technicolor Eyes: Sonmis have white irises in the novel.
  • Teeth Flying: At the previously-mentioned Bar Brawl.
  • Thematic Sequel: The six stories come together to form three thematic pairs. The two stories within each pair are united by a common thematic/plot element. To paraphrase Kyle Kallgren:
    • A strongly moral woman learns of a great societal injustice committed by greedy businessmen and sets out to right it (Luisa and Sonmi).
    • A Pacific Islander meets a person from an advanced civilization, and they save each other's lives (Adam Ewing and Zachry).
    • An artist (Frobisher) creates a piece of work, only to be screwed over by his supervisor and cause the artist's downfall/An artist creates a piece of work, which screws over his supervisor (Cavendish) and cause the supervisor's downfall
  • There Are No Therapists: Frobisher has the bad luck of being a manic-depressive in 1931.
  • Thicker Than Water: Cavendish refers to this pretty much word-for-word.
  • Timey-Wimey Ball: The narrative structure of the novel weaves together themes, ideas, and people forward and backward in time.
  • Title Drop:
    • 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.
  • Translation Convention: "An Orison of Sonmi~451" is presumably actually in a future version of Korean.
  • The Un-Favourite: Robert Frobisher is this to his parents, who much prefer his older brother who died in World War I. 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.
    • Robert Frobisher's ending seems initially arbitrary, as it doesn't fit the cavalier tone of his letters, until you realize the space between letters increase and he's being *overly* glib about events and it makes sense.
  • 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.
  • Violence Is Disturbing
  • Violent Glaswegian: Cavendish and his co-conspirators manage to throw off their captors for good in a pub in Scotland by appealing to this trope. The Scots Rugby team have just lost a televised match against England, and the escapees turn the patrons' built-up anger against the mostly English hospital staff (by saying that the latters are trying to claim 'dominion' over them).
  • Whole Plot Reference:
    • "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 the protagonist opposing the regime due to exposure to literature from a previous era. 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.
    • Cavendish’s story to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (he saw the film once).
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Adam Ewing. At one point he sees a sailor carried off by the First Mate and his cronies and assumes they're taking him down to his lodgings to get some sleep. They actually rape him. This, and the man's subsequent suicide, goes some way towards shaking Ewing out of his naiveté.
  • William Telling: Boom-Sook Kim and his friends get drunk and use Sonmi for this. This is what convinces Mephi to get her away from Boom-Sook as soon as possible.


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