Book Review: Cloud Atlas (2004)

Cloud Atlas is a novel perhaps unlike any other I’ve read. In essence, David Mitchell links six novellas together in one fashion or another and, thus, seeks to form a whole.

The novel starts with the diary of an American traveling on a schooner in the South Pacific in the 1850s. The story suddenly (mid-sentence, in fact) shifts to 1930s Europe and a series of letters from a ne’er-do-well bisexual with ambitions of being a famous composer to a friend, Rufus Sixsmith. The next chapter is 1970s America, where Sixsmith is one of the focal points of a mystery/thriller about a reporter investigating corporate wrongdoing. Just as we think the mystery is coming to a abrupt end, we jump to modern England and the memoir of the proprietor of a vanity press who thinks his estranged brother has confined him to a prison-like nursing home. Next, we jump a couple centuries into the future and a dystopian, corporate-dominated Korea where the publisher’s memoir plays a role in the life of a revolutionary. The revolutionary ends up also playing a role in the final novella, a story of survival in a post-apocalyptic Hawaii.

Yet the sixth novella is not the culmination of the book. By that point, the only story that has been completely told (or so it seems) is the sixth one. Mitchell then proceeds in reverse order back to the original diary of the seafaring American, completing the story begun previously in each novella. Each narrative could be separated from the others and read on its own because they are all in a different and unique style and voice. But each installment of each story lends something not only to the next, but also to the ones that preceded. Ultimately, the whole does become more than the sum of the parts.

The range of this book is demonstrated by the shortlists it made. These include the shortlist for the 2004 Man Booker Award, the 2004 National Book Critics Circle Award, the 2004 Nebula Awards and the 2005 Arthur C. Clarke Award. It also won two British book awards.

Frankly, it was the fact the book made the shortlists for the Nebula and Clarke awards, both science fiction awards, that attracted me. While one-third of the stories certainly fit the sf genre, the book is much more than that. Its scope is as sweeping as the genres it employs. Ultimately, Mitchell’s reach does seem to exceed his grasp but the innovative approach and strong writing make you glad he made such an ambitious effort.

[I]gnorance of the Other engenders fear; fear engenders hatred; hatred engenders violence; violence engenders further violence until the only “rights,” the only law, are whatever is willed by the most powerful.

David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

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