Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Amazingly innovative, Cloud Atlas is a book that’s hard to describe and even harder to put down. I didn’t like it, but I absolutely think you should read it because it’s that interesting.

The (presumably rather Westernized) Buddhist themes of reincarnation and interconnectedness didn’t really bother me, though I prefer their opposites, transience and individuality. I think the movie scores better on individuality: there’s maybe as much emphasis on the line, “What is any ocean but a multitude of drops?” as there is on “Our lives are not our own; we are bound to others, past and present.” In both the book and the movie, the nature of truth is a major theme, and one I like.

In the book (but not the movie), two of the six protagonists were rather despicable, and the book’s view of humanity is bleak: the message seems to be that we keep repeating the same mistakes and don’t deserve a civilization, since we keep wrecking it in various ways, heroes notwithstanding.

For a kind of overview and more on what I thought including SPOILERS, keep reading, but only if you’ve read the book or don’t intend to.

Also see my post on the movie Cloud Atlas (2012).

The novel consists of six narratives (that’s why there are six kinds of clouds on this cover of the book). The stories are are cleverly nested, all but one of them being split in half and somehow passed on to the next character through time. Two are historical, two are approximately contemporary, and two are futuristic. They go from past to future back to past again.

“In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in teh second, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan’t know until it’s finished.”
Letters from Zedelghem (page 445)

This bit is clearly self-referential; Mitchell is talking about Frobisher’s Cloud Atlas symphony and his own Cloud Atlas book at the same time!


Time 1 (Pacific)

  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Conflict: Abolitionism vs. Slavery
  • Protagonist: Lawyer Adam Ewing
  • Soulmate: stowaway Moriori slave Autua
  • Outcome: Ewing and Autua survive; Ewing and his wife vow to fight slavery
  • Document: The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing
  • Connection: composer Robert Frobisher reads the first half of the journal

Time 2 (Belgium)

  • Genre: Romance
  • Conflict: Music vs. Homophobia?
  • Protagonist: Composer Robert Frobisher
  • Soulmate: former university classmate and lover Rufus Sixsmith
  • Outcome: Frobisher completes his symphony and commits suicide
  • Document: Frobisher’s letters to Sixsmith
  • Connection: journalist Luisa Rey reads the letters (and locates a record of the symphony)

I found Frobisher difficult to like because he unabashedly steals from his host.

Time 3 (San Francisco, 1970s)

  • Genre: Political Thriller
  • Conflict: Feminism vs. Big Oil
  • Protagonist: Journalist Luisa Rey
  • Soulmate: nuclear scientist Isaac Sachs
  • Outcome: Sachs is killed but Rey gets the report and stops the plant
  • Document: a manuscript for a novel about Luisa Rey written by her neighbor
  • Connection: publisher Timothy Cavendish reads the manuscript

An article on says the name of the character Luisa Rey is a reference to Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Never would have spotted that.

Time 4 (London, contemporary)

  • Genre: Comedy / Farce
  • Conflict: Writing vs. Unjust Incarceration?
  • Protagonist: publisher Timothy Cavendish
  • Soulmate: former girlfriend Ursula?
  • Outcome: Cavendish escapes and writes a screenplay
  • Document: Cavendish’s screenplay about his experience
  • Connection: Sonmi sees the movie about Cavendish

I find Cavendish impossible to like. The way he expresses himself strikes me as crude and pretentious. In my view, he is more or less to blame for his insolvency; he’s a liar and a fraud. I even have trouble sympathizing with him about being locked up. If he hadn’t slept with his brother’s wife, his brother probably wouldn’t have had him locked up. Long before that, he ran away from the love of his life because he was caught in her bed by her parents and felt embarrassed. Basically, he’s spineless. I hate spineless characters. Or maybe I just don’t have any appreciation for farce.

Time 5 (Korea, future)

  • Genre: Science Fiction / Dystopia
  • Conflict: Free Will vs. Corporate Greed
  • Protagonist: Korean diner clone Sonmi-451
  • Soulmate: General Hae-Joo Chang of the Union rebellion
  • Outcome: Sonmi and Chang are killed but the message goes forth
  • Document: a recording of Sonmi’s manifesto broadcast
  • Connection: Zachry sees the recording

I think this timeline is the most explicitly philosophical, though all the characters do have some deep things to say here and there. Ironically, this timeline is the most action-oriented in the movie.

Time 6 (Hawaii, far future)

  • Genre: Science Fiction / Post-Apocalyptic
  • Conflict: Civilization vs. Savagery
  • Protagonist: goatherd Zachry Bailey of the Valley
  • Soulmate: Meronym? Actually, she’s the one with the comet birthmark…
  • Outcome: Zachry and Meronym flee the Valley, which is overrun by fierce cannibals
  • Document: oral stories of Zachry’s Valley
  • Connection: Zachry tells them to his son

Each of the six sections, in addition to being a different genre, has its own quirks of spelling and word choice that help build the character’s unique voice. However, this section is the hardest to read; I’m reminded of Riddley Walker by Russel Hoban.

In Time 1, human teeth from cannibal feasts are found on the beach, suggesting a full circle from barbarism to high technology back to barbarism; an inescapable cycle, apparently.


“As many truths as men. Occasionally, I glimpse a truer Truth, hiding in imperfect simulacrums of itself, but as I approach, it bestirs itself & moves deeper into the thorny swamp of dissent.”
—The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing (page 17)

“Whoever opined ‘Money can’t buy you happiness’ obviously had far too much of the stuff.”
Letters from Zedelghem (page 75)
[My favorite version of this proverb: Lack of money buys unhappiness every damn time.]

“Truth is singular. Its ‘versions’ are mistruths.”
An Orison of Sonmi-451 (page 185)

“I believe that ascension merely frees what Soap represses, including the xpression of an innate personality possessed by all fabricants.”
An Orison of Sonmi-451 (page 187)
[This makes the killing of fabricants like a killing of people rather than a killing of robots or even animals, but fabricants are not consistently depicted as having self-awareness and individuality.]

“Archivist: You said you envied your unthinking, untroubled sisters. Sonmi-451: That is not quite the same as wishing to be one.”
An Orison of Sonmi-451 (page 199)
[She is the anti-Cypher; she does not believe that ignorance is bliss.]

“If losers can xploit what their adversaries teach them, yes, losers can become winners in the long term.”
An Orison of Sonmi-451 (page 225)

“[A]n impulse can be both vaguely understood and strong.”
An Orison of Sonmi-451 (page 229)

“The savage sat’fies his needs now… Now the Civ’lized got the same needs too, but he sees further.”
Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After (page 303)

“Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies.”
Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After (page 308)
[Here’s where you finally get an explanation of the book title, seven twelfths of the way through the book.]

“An abyss cannot be crossed in two steps.”
An Orison of Sonmi-451 (page 327)

“Siddhartha is a dead man and a living ideal.”
An Orison of Sonmi-451 (page 332)
[This is where I hear the author preaching anti-materialism.]

“Archivist: Are you saying your whole confession is composed of… scripted events?”
An Orison of Sonmi-451 (page 348)
[This is where I hear the author say, “gotcha!” and a major reason the movie is happier than the book is that there is no such twist in the movie.]

“What I wouldn’t give now for a never-changing map of the ever-constant ineffable? To possess, as it were, an atlas of clouds.”
The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish (page 373)
[Here’s the title again.]

“The woman was sincere—bigots mostly are—but no less dangerous for that.”
The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish (page 387)
[I think it’s important to point out that people who are prejudiced do not simultaneously believe their prejudice is somehow wrong. Every opinion is correct in the eyes of those who hold it.]

“Like Utopia, the actual future + the actual past exist only in the hazy distance, where they are no good to anyone.”
Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery (page 393)
[Isaac Sachs writes some really interesting thoughts in his notebook right before his plane explodes… this sentence is particularly relevant and particularly sad.]

“Water vapor rises from the Swannekke cooling towers like malign genies.”
Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery (page 396)
[I like this simile though not the aim it serves.]

“Joe Napier: I lied, yes, but that doesn’t make me a liar. Lying’s wrong, but when the world spins backwards, a small wrong may be a big right.
Luisa: That doesn’t make sense.
Joe Napier: You’re damn right it doesn’t, but it’s still true.”
Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery (page 400)

“Only professional diplomats, inveterate idiots, and women view diplomacy as a long-term substitute for war.”
Letters from Zedelghem (page 444)
[Here a minor character foreshadows the inevitable implosion of civilization. And it’s on page 444, which is funny to me. The number ‘four’ is unlucky in Chinese culture because it sounds like ‘death’.]

When and Why I Read It

Borrowed it from a neighbor after having seen the movie because I wanted to understand the movie better.

Genre: fiction
Date started / date finished: 22-Jun-16 to 29-Jun-16
Length: 509 pages
ISBN: 9780375507250 (paperback)
Originally published in: 2004
Amazon link: Cloud Atlas