Some months ago, we reviewed the genre-spanning movie adaptation of Cloud Atlas. The film features some excellent moments, strong performances, and brilliant editing but, like many, I found it flawed—especially the two SF segments.
To use that oft-delivered phrase, the book is better.
Title: Cloud Atlas
Author: David Mitchell
Original Publication Date: 2004
ISBN: 0375507256, 978-0375507250
Six disparate stories set in different times and places comprise Cloud Atlas. The first five divide into halves; the novel returns to them once we pass through the sixth.
“The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing”
An American encounters adventure and treachery after helping a stowaway on the high seas, in this nineteenth-century tale of missionaries, sailors, and slavery.
“Letters from Zedelghem”
In this epistolary tale, set in the 1930s, a young auteur stumbles through problematic sexual and personal relationships and creates a work of startling beauty while employed by a famous composer.
Twice, he reads and comments on Adam Ewing’s journal.
“Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery”
In the mid-1970s, an intrepid reporter finds herself in danger when she stumbles onto a conspiracy, thanks in part to a tip from the original recipient of the Letters from Zedelghem.
“The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish”
A British publisher falls into danger and dark comedy in present-day UK after a criminal author murders a critic, and his associates come looking for their share of the money generated by the ensuing publicity.
He has the manuscript for Half Lives, and considers publishing it.
“An Orison of Somni-451”
A genetically-engineered fabricant working in twenty-second-century Korea becomes involved with an experiment and then a revolution. Matters prove more complex than she at first imagines in this story, which takes the form of a pre-execution interview.
Somni finds some of her inspiration in the movie adaptation of Timothy Cavendish’s experiences.
“Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After”
In post-apocalyptic Hawaii, a primitive tribesman and a member of a technologically advanced society join forces, in a tale being retold a couple generations after the fact.
The tribe venerates Somni.
Remember postmodernism? The term has a long history and wide application, but its use in literary circles peaked in the 1970s and 80s. This novel features all of the characteristics ascribed to postmodern texts: fragmentation, pastiche, self-reflexivity, metafiction, and unreliable narrators. Mitchell uses these effectively, producing a highly readable and frequently thought-provoking novel.
I have nothing against a text featuring weighty ideas (or playing with reincarnation), but these work best, in a novel, when subsumed to story and character. In places, Cloud Atlas becomes awkwardly didactic with reference to themes it only partially explores.
Originality: 4/6: How does one comment on the originality of this novel, when it is a deliberate pastiche of several genres and styles, with acknowledged influences? I give credit to Mitchell for finding a way to combine so many disparate genres into something like a coherent whole.
Characterization: 5/6 The narrators are believable if not always trustworthy. Secondary characters have not always been given consistent depth.
Emotional Response: 5/6.
Editing: 6/6 Mitchells proves a master of voice and genre.
Overall Score: 6/6 Give Mitchell credit for attempting so much and succeeding so often. Those who have only viewed the film should be assured, the novel tells more satisfying stories, and the key objections to the SF tales (most changed by the adaptation) do not apply to the novel.
In total, Cloud Atlas receives 36/42