Rich's Reviews > Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
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Jun 01, 2012

it was amazing
Read in January, 2004

Cloud Atlas is a fascinating novel, both technically adept and interesting (rather a tour-de-force, indeed) and emotionally involving. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in the UK, and indeed was the betting favorite, though it did not win. I thought it quite wonderful -- I would say teetering on the edge of greatness but falling just short.

It opens with a section called "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing". This is about an American travelling in the South Seas in about 1850. This stops abruptly, and the novel continues with "Letters from Zedelghem", about a bisexual Englishman, Robert Frobisher, a composer, who flees to Belgium to escape creditors, and inveigles his way to a job with the great composer Vyvyan Ayrs. Frobisher's letters are to his lover, physicist Rupert Sixsmith: and the next section, "Half Lives: the First Luisa Rey Mystery", purports to be a thriller, in which journalist Luisa Rey meets the aging Rupert Sixsmith, who has written a suppressed report concerning the flaws in the design of a new nuclear reactor. This "novel" stops literally with Luisa in midair, and we jump to "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish", in which Cavendish, a vanity press publisher, lucks into a bestselling mobster's memoir, only to run into trouble when his family demands a cut, by force. Cavendish flees but somehow is committed to a strange geriatric home. But before we learn how his story comes out, we proceed to "An Orison of Sonmi-451", set in a future Korea, in which Sonmi-451, a "fabricant", one of many enslaved by the Unanimity government, dictates her memories to an archivist before her execution. Finally, the center of the novel is taken up with "Sloosha's Crossin' and Ev'rythin' After", in which Zachry, a resident of Hawaii after technological civilization has collapsed, part of a bucolic society that worships Sonmi, tells of the visit of a "Prescient" woman (from an island which has managed to retain some technological knowledge), and the terrible changes coming to his people. From there the novel cascades down through the first five sections in reverse order, completing each half-finished narrative. There are cunning links between each section, and an overall thematic pattern.

As I said, I liked it a great deal. The main weakness is some plot missteps, particularly in the Luisa Rey and Sonmi-451 segments. The middle section drags a bit (and it is written in a dialect that is well done but that makes reading a bit difficult), and the first/last section (the Adam Ewing stuff) is also less involving than the rest. The SFnal ideas are not precisely new, but they are well-handled, particularly the Sonmi-451 stuff, especially the revelations of Sonmi-451's nature (which does have some nice original touches).
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