Cloud Atlas had been on my to-read list for some time and when the movie came out, it instantly got bumped up to my read-right-away list. It’s a great book, but a bit of a flop at the same time. It’s great in that I thoroughly enjoyed reading it as it was imaginative, fascinating, and totally ambitious. It was a flop, however, in that it didn’t achieve what it set out to do terribly effectively.
The novel is divided into six separate stories each set in a different time period commencing in the 1850’s. For the first half of the book we read only half of each story, working our way up through time until we reach the post-apocalyptic centre. After this we cascade back down through each story again to understand each in its entirety. Each story is tenuously linked to give the overarching theme of the book, but at times the connection is so trifling as to be drowned out by the enthralling quality of each story. In a nutshell, though: Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others – past and present – and by each crime and each kindness, they birth our future. Mitchell wants us to see the rippling effects of one era’s actions on another combined with the fleeting notions of justice and freedom.
Be that as it may, Mitchell is obviously an extremely gifted writer. He provides a wonderful authenticity to each time period, and his characters are likeable and, at times, amusing. The first story describes a Notary’s Pacific voyage and from there we jump to 1930’s Belgium where a young, precocious musician applies to be the amanuensis of a blind, well-known and connected composer. In another story, a small-time publishing agent is institutionalised by his brother into a Hotel California-style nursing home. You can check in any time you want but you can never leave. He and some fellow “inmates” plan an hilarious escape.
While I enjoyed each story, the one I found most intriguing was set in the future, before the apocalypse. It involves a world where foods are 100% guaranteed to be genetically engineered; where companies like Ford and Sony have dominated the world market to the extent that car parks have been replaced by ford parks. Japan is referred to as East Korea and genetically engineered fabricants or clones have been created to ensure maximum leisure time for pure bloods. This section revolves around once such fabricant – Sonmi – 451 as she tells her story from death row.
I can’t wait to see the movie, and having watched the trailer (see below) the major theme seems to be better explained, with the links between the people in each story being more clearly observable. As others have suggested, read the book first, as without some background the movie may feel like a total blur.