I first heard of this book when I saw the poster for the movie bearing the unmistakeable face of Tom Hanks and the phrase 'everything is connected' underneath. I must admit that the poster really didn't inspire me, particularly since I have never really been a huge fan of Tom Hanks. Okay, he did have a couple of interesting movies back in the 80s, such as Big and Turner & Hooch (though K9 was much better), but as an actor he really didn't inspire me. In any event I preferred Bill Murray (but then again he did do Ghostbusters and Beatlegeuse). As for the phrase, well, it reminded my of this incredibly boring George Clooney movie called Syriana, and every time I see the phrase 'everything is connected' I end up recoiling in horror at the flashbacks from that movie (if I could erase anything from my memory, it would be that movie, but then again if I did do that I would probably end up watching it again).
I ended up watching the movie while I was stuck in a flying coffin travelling between Hong Kong and Frankfurt, however since I was dead tired I only managed to catch glimpses of it before drifting back into sleep propped up against the window in economy class. The main reason why I decided to watch this movie is because I later discovered that it was nothing like Syriana, and it also had a Keanu Reeves' science-fiction story in it (though they probably should have cast him in a number of other parts as well – but it might have given it away, considering this):
Anyway, when I woke up while flying across the Ukraine I decided to start watching it again, but said 'stuff it' and grabbed my book instead. I did end up getting to watch it in its entirety on my return trip back to Australia and I must say that I was pleasantly surprised. However during the time where I was attempting to watch this film in its entirety, I discovered that it had been based on a book, and the book (along with the Life of Pi had earned the distinction of being a very difficult book to turn into a film – which is why Hollywood then made the attempt to do so). However, upon discovering that it was a book I decided that I wanted to read it just to see how it compared to the film, so I set my status on Goodreads to 'want to read' and promptly forgot all about it, that is until one of the science-fantasy book groups selected it as the 'book of the month' (which I couldn't read at the time since I was making my way through Ulysses).
Well, I seem to have rambled on about absolutely nothing, except describing my adventure in attempting to get around to watching the film and reading the book. As such I should probably say a few things about this book. It wasn't a bad book by any means, and I did quite enjoy it, however I can't say that it was one of the best (especially since I had just finished reading Ulysses). However, one thing that I must mention is that Mitchell, in writing this book, had set himself a herculean task, and a part of me simply cannot say that he had succeeded in what he set out to accomplish.
The structure of the book it quite interesting: it is a collection of short stories that seem to have no connection with each other. Each of these stories is written using a different literary device, is set in a different era, and are about different things. The first is the diary of a missionary on a ship travelling across the South Pacific during the early 19th century and how he discovers a stowaway in his cabin. The second is a collection of letters written during the 1930s and is addressed to the author's homosexual lover back in England. The letters, written almost stream of consciousness style, tell of the author's numerous affairs as he composes a musical masterpiece.
The third is a spy thriller, set in the late 70s, and is about how an investigative journalist is attempting to uncover the faults in this nuclear powerplant, all the while trying to stay one step ahead of the corporate thugs that want to stop her. The forth is a rather farcical story (and it is supposed to be a film) of a down on his luck author who finds himself imprisoned in an old folks home (and the story is reminiscent of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest). The fifth is set in a dystopian corporate future where a clone who has 'ascended' from being little more than a kitchen hand (clones are second-class citizens in this world and are engineered to perform only one task) to a revolutionary leader. The story is told as an 'orison', which is a recording of her interrogation. The final story is an oral tale told around a campfire in a post-apocalyptic world of how the speaker's father discovered the past.
The thing that connects each of these stories is that the protagonist in the following story inevitably comes across the previous protagonist's writing and becomes quite enthralled with it. As such the previous story ends up having a significant affect upon the life of the protagonist of the next story. Each of them (with the exception of the first) finishes with the protagonist appending the story to the end of the particular story.
While this could simply be a collection of short stories which interact with each other, Mitchell uses another technique to keep the previous story in the mind of the reader. Basically halfway through the story, at an appropriate cliff-hanger, Mitchell stops telling that story and begins to tell the next one. This continues right up until the last story, which he tells completely, and when he finishes that story, he then goes back to the previous story, continuing from where he left off until he gets back to the first one. It seems that what Mitchell is doing is bringing us across the mists of time, and then tying each of these stories together as he goes and finishes off each of them. In light of this there are a few things that come out of this technique.
The thing about literature is that it acts as a form of memory, and this is what I believe he is exploring here. The concept of memory comes out particularly in the last (or should I say middle, since it does occur in the middle of the book) story when they discover the orison from the previous story. However the problem is that the language has changed, which means that even though they can use the device, they are not able to understand what is being said. As I mentioned, each of the stories are picked up by the main character in the subsequent story, who then passes the story along to the next reader. Thus what is happening is that the stories are being preserved, so when they are discovered down the track they can then, once again, be passed on to the next person.
I felt that it did break down a bit here because even though the story might have been passed on, by the time we reached the forth story (which is supposed to be a film) it would have been difficult to pass on the three subsequent stories since they had all been written down. We learn that the diary is appended to the letters (along with the music for his sextet, ironically called The Cloud Atlas Sextet), and we suspect that the letters are then passed on by the journalist after she writes up her report, but when learn in the fifth story that the story of Timothy Cavendish's ordeal comes to her as a film, it seems to me that it is somewhat difficult to translate the previous three stories across.
Another interesting thing that I noticed is how Mitchell changes the language through each of the stories. Okay the change is subtle for the first four, however once we reach the fifth the language has changed dramatically. One instance is that objects have now taken the name of one of the corporations that used to produce them. For example shoes are now referred to as Nikes and televisions are referred to as Sonys. This is not at all surprising since in the United States photocopiers are referred to as Xeroxes, after the name of the company that invented them.
However, another gripe I had with the book is that by the time we reached the sixth story the change in the language made it almost unreadable. I felt that this was a major flaw in the novel because while I appreciate that language does change over time, I still feel that we should be able to read what is being said, especially when we are talking about contemporary novels.
The final thing I wish to touch upon with this book is the idea of slavery, and it is something that seems to be explored throughout. Okay, a couple of stories I had trouble seeing the link (namely the second) however the other stories it was quite clear. The first story has the pacific islanders being treated as slaves, and even an argument (spoken by a Christian mind you) that they have not ascended beyond being an animal. In the third story we have people being enslaved by the media to believe what is in effect a lie. The wonderful technology of this nuclear power plant is actually quite dangerous, however the corporation goes to great lengths to keep this fact a secret. The forth one we have Timothy Cavendish imprisoned in an old folks home.
The dystopian future is one where we have reverted to a society based on class. You have the execs at the top of the chain, then the consumers, and at the bottom are the clones, who are created simply to perform repetitive tasks and to not question their lot in life. In a way society has come full circle from the slavery of the 18th and 19th centuries where people of different skin colour are treated as being property (as are the clones – they are the property of the corporation) and are forbidden to question about their lot in life. The final story also has an aspect of it as well, where they live in fear of another war-like tribe who ends up capturing our protagonists.
As such each of these stories is a quest for liberation, whether it be escaping one's bindings, freeing others, or uncovering the truth. The quest for freedom is also a quest for ascension, for that is in essence what freedom is. Even the second story has our protagonist finally liberate himself, releasing his idea into the world to allow the world to take hold of it to mould and transform it. This is the Cloud Atlas – the cloud is forever changing, but the atlas is forever the same.