Algernon's Reviews > Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
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May 15, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: 2012, favorites
Read from April 25 to May 04, 2012

I finished the book 10 days ago, and I still hesitate to start this review. The first reason is that I loved the book so much, I am left with a feeling of inadequacy :

The second reason is the nature of the story. I can't begin to explain why I think this is important to me without going into the message / the core of the narrative. All the stories assembled into this map of clouds/beliefs/attitudes are variations on a given theme, and the interrupted nature of the narrative is important in maintaining tension and in cloaking the philosophical foundation of the ensemble. So discussing the hidden message can be consider slightly spoilerish. My preference is to read the books first and come to the discussion forums after I formed my own opinion.

This said, the first comment is that very little in the Cloud Atlas is accidental or irrelevant. If the six stories appear initially random of pointless, I would counsel patience : it will all be made clear, eventually. I cannot claim credit for the following analogies - they are part of the text: the author uses the Matryoshka doll style of embedding one story into another in order to illustrate how the present encompasses the past and is in turn enveloped by the future, while the classical sextet composition explains how each of the six characters (piano, clarinet, cello, flute, oboe, and violin) picks up the main musical theme, give it the instrument's specific tonality and introduces variations and soloist cadenzas.

The books opens with The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing - a narrative of the voyage of an American accountant in the Pacific, cca. 1850. A pious, timid and undemonstrative man, he witnesses the effects of modern civilization on the natives of the Polinesian islands and the harshness of life aboard a sailing ship. The precarity of his health turns him toward introspection in morality disertations in his journal, a journal that will be discovered by the protagonist of the second story ( a plot device that will be repeated with each new main character)

Letters from Zedelghem is set in Belgium in 1930 and follow the picaresque adventures of Robert Frobisher, a young rake spurned by his rich family and forced to abandon his musical studies and live outside the law. Penniless, he flees England and tries to find redemption in the sumptuous estate of a celebrated composer whose poor health may prompt him to accept an assistant (amanuensis - a new word I learned today) . As proof of Mitchell's talent in masking the true intent of this second installment, I didn't care much for Frobisher amoral attitude, despite his humorous snarky comments in the letters, but he became my favorite character of all six after reading the second half of his story.

Composers are merely scribblers of cave paintings. One writes music because winter is eternal and because, if one didn't, the wolves and blizzards would be at one's throat all the sooner.

For a cynic and a crook, Frobisher shows quite a lyrical streak once he encounters love:

Because her laughter spurts through a blowhole in the top of her head and sprays all over the morning. Because a man like me has no business with this substance - beauty - yet here she is, in these soundproofed chambers of my heart.

A character from these letters features in the third story : Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery . This one is set in California around 1975 and is another change in form. After an intimate journal and an epistolary exposition, the story is told as an eco thriller of one idealistic journalist fighting the big business bent on destroying the environment and putting thousands of lives at risk.

The unpublished manuscript of Luisa Rey reaches the hands of a contemporary London publisher in the fourth story : The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish . This is another thriller, with a strong flavor of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" . Cavendish is in his 60's, and forced here to admit his age and act accordingly, even if the pill is bitter:

We - by whom I mean anyone over sixty - commit 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.

With the fifth story we arrive finally at the science-fiction part of the novel. An Orison of Sonmi~451 was my favorite initially, with its portrayal of a dystopian society dominated by consummerism and at the mercy of super-corporations that use genetically altered human clones (fabricants) as indentured laborers while the purebloods enjoy unlimited merchandise and entertainment. As a funny commentary of how fast things change in the world economy, the author mentions among the corporations of the future Sony and Kodak, both of which are in dire straits in 2012, only a couple of years after the novel was written.
The story of Somni reminded me strongly of The Wind-Up Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, among other classics of SF literature. (view spoiler)

The dystopian tale of Somni is followed by the sixth and final installment Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After a post-apocalyptic story of the survivors of a global holocaust trying to survive among the Hawaiian islands. This is the core, the innermost Russian doll, and the ambitious plans of the author begin to be revealed. The form of this final tale is the one that gave me some slight problems because the apocalypse brought not only the collapse of the economy, but also the degradation of language. The format is the oldest form of storytelling, orally around a campfire. One aspect of the story that initially bothered me was the inclusion of the supernatural in the form of prophecy (I'm developing an allergy to it as a plot device in most of my fantasy books) , but I believe it is quite a smart move of Mitchell used to illustrate the circular nature of history.

After this point, the author ramps up the philosophical discussion and turned most of my expectation on their head. Every page written turns out to be a debate on the Meaning of Life: the nature of civilization, the human nature and the survival of mankind. According to David Mitchell, the battle between good and evil, right and wrong, is fought not in the war rooms of superpowers or in the secret hideouts of secretive organizations bent on world domination, but inside each and every one of us, choosing to give in in the face of aggression or to stand up and affirm the belief in a better option. Starting with the central story, and going back to the first, here are what I consider the relevant quotes:

So, is it better to be savage'n to be Civlized?
What's the naked meanin bhind them two words?
Deeper'n that its this. The savage satfies his needs now. Hes hungry, hell eat. Hes angry, hell knuckly. Hes swellin, hell shoot up a woman. His master is his will, an if his will say-soes, Kill! hell kill. Like fangy animals. [...]
Now the Civlized got the same needs too, but he sees further. Hell eat half his food now, yay, but plant half so he wont go hungry morrow. Hes angry, hell stop'n think why so he wont get angry next time. Hes swellin, well, hes got sisses an daughters what need respectin so hell respect his bros sisses an daughters. His will is his slave, an if his will say-soes, Don't! he wont, nay.
So, I asked gain, is it better to be savage'n to be Civlized?
Listn, savages and Civlized aint divvied by tribes or bliefs or mountain ranges, nay, evry human is both, yay.


Rights are susceptible to subversion, as even granite is susceptible to erosion. [...] In a cycle as old as tribalism, ignorance of 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.


What sparks war? The Will to power, the backbone of human nature. The threat of violence, the fear of violence, the actual violence is the instrument of this dreadful will. You can see the will to power in bedrooms, kitchens, factories, unions, and the borders of states. Listen to this and remember it. The nation state is merely human nature inflated to monstrous proportions. QED, nations are entities whose laws are written by violence.


the weak are meat, the strong do eat.


Scholars discern motions in history and formulate these motions into rules that govern the rises and falls of civilizations.
My belief runs contrary, however. To wit: history admits no rules; only outcomes.
What precipitates outcomes? Vicious acts and virtuous acts.
What precipitates acts? Belief.
Belief is both prize & battlefield, within the mind & in the mind's mirror, the world.
Why fight the natural (oh, weaselly word!) order of things? Why?
Because of this: one fine day, a purely predatory world shall consume itself. Yes, the Devil shall take the hindmost until the foremost is the hindmost. In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction.


I will end my review with a commentary on the title. I see Cloud Atlas as the antithesis of Atlas Shrugged , probably not intentional on Mitchell's part, but this here is the ultimate argument against selfishness. One of the six characters, looks back at his younger days and muses on the volatility of happyness and meaning:

Three or four times only in my youth did I glimpse the Joyous Isles, before they were lost to fogs, depressions, cold fronts, ill winds, and contrary tides. I mistook them for adulthood. Assuming they were a fixed feature in my life's voyage, I neglected to record their latitude, their longitude, their approach. Young ruddy fool. What wouldn't I give now for a never-changing map of the ever-constant ineffable? To possess, as it were, an atlas of clouds.

My recommendation - read this and don't give up before the final page because, like Robert Frobisher says, A half-read book is a half-finished love affair
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Quotes Algernon Liked

David Mitchell
“History admits no rules; only outcomes.”
David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

David Mitchell
“Three or four times only in my youth did I glimpse the Joyous Isles, before they were lost to fogs, depressions, cold fronts, ill winds, and contrary tides... I mistook them for adulthood. Assuming they were a fixed feature in my life's voyage, I neglected to record their latitude, their longitude, their approach. Young ruddy fool. What wouldn't I give now for a never-changing map of the ever-constant ineffable? To possess, as it were, an atlas of clouds.”
David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

David Mitchell
“We are only what we know, and I wished to be so much more than I was, sorely.”
David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

David Mitchell
“How vulgar, this hankering after immortality, how vain, how false. Composers are merely scribblers of cave paintings. One writes music because winter is eternal and because, if one didn't, the wolves and blizzards would be at one's throat all the sooner.”
David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

David Mitchell
“Luisa rolls her napkin into a compact ball. "I ask three simple questions. How did he get that power? How is he using it? And how can it be taken off the sonofabitch?”
David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

David Mitchell
“Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.”
David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

Reading Progress

02/06 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-22 of 22) (22 new)

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B0nnie if Cloud Atlas is the antithesis of Atlas Shrugged, then it must be excellent indeed ;-)

message 2: by Richard (new) - added it

Richard Algernon, this review made me want to read the book.

Algernon the sign of a good book for me is that I can't stop thinking about it, days after I finished it and in the middle of other books I'm reading.

Stephen M Awesome review. Really made me re-connect with why I loved it so much. I can't wait to read it again.

Algernon it is a good candidate for a re-read for me , too. knowing now the scope and the overall vision of the author will surely change the way I read the first halves of each novella.

Stephen M I started again a few months ago (only read the Ewing section), but everything made a whole lot more sense. Especially because how discombobulating a read it can be at the beginning, antiquated language and everything.

Steve This is a top-notch review owing not only to your insights, Algernon, but also to the book itself for its inspiration. I'm excited to re-read it now, too, making it maybe the third one ever I would deem worthy of the time and effort.

Christine Excellent review.

Caryn Fantastic review, Algernon! I'm hosting this book for a book club and am copying and quoting some of your review here as I could certainly never say it better. Hope you don't mind. Cloud Atlas/Atlas Shrugged? I doubt a single word in this book is happenstance, so I'm not sure the contrast to Atlas Shrugged is purely by accident. It IS the complete contrast of the manifesto of selfishness, but also the complete contrast of Rand's manifesto of extreme individualism. "We are all connected". Thanks for this review!

Algernon no problem, thank you for encouraging me to keep writing, and check out some of the other reviews here, for a more varied discussion.

Freddie Bates Great review. My feelings were the same as yours having finished the book. I struggled to concentrate on any other book. I did settle for one afterwards but only after I bought Cloud Atlas on Audio and listened to it at work ( my job allows it. I'm the Boss).

message 12: by Ema (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ema And I learnt from your review what dire straits means (I never looked it up)! I loved the book, too. Now I'm watching the movie and I'm glad I can decipher the mess in there.

message 13: by julio (new) - added it

julio Staggeringly good review. Outstanding.

Algernon thank you julio, I hope I did a good job promoting the book, and hope you will enjoy the experience.

message 15: by julio (new) - added it

julio I've been in a kind of paralysis; I didn't want to watch the movie without reading the book. thought maybe the movie could be a more effective vehicle for the message.

I didn't do either—but now I want to start with the book :-)

message 16: by Zanna (new) - added it

Zanna antithesis of Ayn Rand does it for me... I will be reading this = )

Algernon I look forward to your review. I think it will be better not to watch the film beforehand.
As for me, It's been two years since I finished it, but I still think sometimes about the storylines in the book.

message 18: by Zanna (new) - added it

Zanna I rarely watch films... I don't think this would appeal as a film... I watched The Life of Pi film by mistake though and now I wouldn't touch the book with a barge-pole...

Algernon Whereas I have only read the book about Pi and his tiger.

message 20: by Katie (new)

Katie Fabulous review, Algernon. Reminded me how much more compelling the characters and the writing were in this novel than in Ghostwritten. Understandable the latter being his first novel.

Algernon Thank you for the kind words. I have been looking at ghostwritten just this last weekend, considering if I might start it now or later. I believe I will enjoy it, even if it is an early effort from Mitchell.

message 22: by Katie (new)

Katie Just don't get your hopes up TOO much! I think maybe if I had started off with the idea that it probably wasn't going to be brilliant I might have liked it a lot more.

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