Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Cloud Atlas is an artistic book, and I respect David Mitchell for that. This book has six different story lines in different parts of the world and in different time periods. He tells each story in halves, starting in the earliest time period and going to the future and then back again. (If that doesn’t make sense, the stories read like this: ABCDE F EDCBA.) As if it weren’t difficult enough to have six different settings with six different narrators, Mitchell created six very different narrators in six very different settings with six very different story lines, and he TIED THEM ALL TOGETHER.

Now, I’m not sure how to go about “reviewing” this book, and I’m even less sure after we had our book club meeting and we each came with a different impression of the book. (Dare I say, six very different impressions? Indeed, the number six was present an astounding and un-ignorable number of times.  I am curious why the number six had such a prominent place in the book. . .  I know that the number six is considered a perfect number because it is neither a square number nor a prime number, and I know that three sixes in succession signal the Most Feared Thing, and I wonder if Mitchell was using both meanings of the number? That his story is a true base for human life and that we should be warned about the current track we humans are on?)

Many reviews of this book claim that Mitchell illustrates the total depravity/selfishness/brutality of mankind. I would agree with that, in part. I think Mitchell is satirizing his view of humans and intends to make his readers re-think they way they live. But I also think he does a masterful job tapping into his creativity, and I am a firm believer that sometimes art is just art.

The first few stories are typical narratives with complicated characters and are neither anything to write home about nor a reason to put the book down. However, things really pick up in the first of the two futuristic stories (that would be story E using the above representation): pollution, cloning, and Big Government show the demise of the modern world, and in the most futuristic story (F), the world reverts back to a primitive state where only those who can work with the land instead of against it survive.

Gah, I don’t feel like I am portraying this book in a way that may want to make you read it. All I know is I talked about this book the whole time I read it. Maybe it was quotes like these that attached me to this book:

Disclaimer: These quotes made me stop and think. I do not necessarily agree with any of them, but I found them all to make me stop reading and ponder. Such is the mark of a good book, I think.

*Said by a very manipulative, secretly murderous doctor: “After years of working with missionaries, I am tempted to conclude that their endeavors merely prolong a dying race’s agony for ten or twenty years. . . Might it not be our duty to likewise ameliorate the savages’ sufferings by hastening their extinction? Think on your Red Indians . . . More humane, surely & more honest, just to knock the savages on the head & get it over with?”

Ouch...more humane to kill than to (pretend to? try to?) help?

*A conversation between a natural-born human and a clone who recently became free-thinking: (The human speaks, the clone narrates.) “These ... xistential qualms you suffer, they just mean you’re truly human.” I asked how I might remedy them. “You don’t remedy them. You live thru them.”

I think this caught my attention because we were never promised a life without stress/trouble/conflict; we were promised that we would have trouble but that someone who overcame that trouble was fighting for us.

*A conversation between an enlightened woman in the future and a “savage” of the future: (The woman speaks first. The Smart refer to those who lived in an “advanced” civilization like we do today.) "Smart mastered sicks, miles, seeds an’ made miracles ord’nary, but it din’t master one thing, nay, a hunger in the hearts o’humans, yay, a hunger for more.” More what, I asked. Old Uns’d got ev’rythin’. “Oh, more gear, more food, faster speeds, longer lifes, easier lifes, more power, yay. Now the Hole World is big, but it weren’t big ‘nuff for that hunger what made Old Uns rip out the skies an’ boil up the seas an’ poisin soil with crazed atoms an’ donkey ‘bout with rotted seeds so new plagues was borned and babbits [babies] was freak-birthed. Fin’ly, bit’ly, then quicksharp, states busted into bar’bric tribes an’ the Civ’lize Days ended, ‘cept for a few folds’n’pockets here’n’there, where its last embers glimmer.”

Yes, I can see how we have lots of gear, lots of foods, fast speeds on land and in the air, long and easy lives, and lots of power. I can also see how we are polluting the ozone, ruining the sea, damaging the soil, and promoting genetically-engineered seeds. I truly hope that my children and my children’s children do not live to see the day when barbaric tribes break out and organized nations disappear into an unruly mess.

Along the same lines, another section of the book describes how the government self-implodes: by over-empowering corporations. Another section mentions that diplomacy is for idiots-- only increasingly bloodier wars bring about change, change that ironically wipes out humanity.

Now that I think about it, each section highlights at least one way that humanity is destroying itself. How happy.

*Again, said by the enlightened woman: “Times are you say a person’s b’liefs ain’t true, they think you’re saying their lifes ain’t true an’ their truth ain’t true.”

When a person’s beliefs are attacked, it is the same as if his or her person were attacked. It is difficult to separate a man and his beliefs; we would do well to remember this.

*In the future, another human is talking to the clone and said, in defense of his party’s rise to totalitarian power: “Think of the disastrous Pentecostalist Coup of North America.”

Is Mitchell referencing today?

*Said by an older man: “We--by whom I mean anyone over sixty--commits two offenses just by existing. One is Lack of Velocity. We drive too slowly, walk too slowly, talk too slowly. The world will do business with dictators, perverts, and drug barons of all stripes, but being slowed down it cannot abide. Our second offence is being Everyman’s memento mori. The world can only get comfy in shiny-eyed denial if we are out of sight.”

*Clasps hands together* Well, those certainly are happy thoughts, aren’t they? I can see why others in the book club didn’t love this book. Somehow, I walked away with three things:
  1. an appreciation for Mitchell’s ambition and ability to pull off such a stunt as this
  2. an enjoyment of the satire that was laced throughout
  3. gladness that I have eternal Hope that has nothing to do with humanity
One more thing: this book was made into a movie. That movie comes out October 25th. You can see the trailer here.


  1. ....over my head, dear Katie. How on earth are they going to translate such a complex book into a two hour movie?

    I guess we will find out.....

    1. I am very interested to see that, Rebecca! Do you think you will go? Our book club has plans to go together, but I don't know if I'd go otherwise. Movies move too fast for me, and this one has so many characters and settings, you almost need a key to keep up!