Cloud Atlas (novel)

Cloud Atlas  
Cloud atlas.jpg
First edition cover
Author(s) David Mitchell
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre(s) Fiction
Publisher Sceptre
Publication date 2004
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 544 (first edition, hardback)
ISBN 0-340-82277-5 (first edition, hardback)
OCLC Number 53821716
Dewey Decimal 823/.92 22
LC Classification PR6063.I785 C58 2004b
Preceded by number9dream
Followed by Black Swan Green

Cloud Atlas (published in the United States as Cloud Atlas: A Novel) is a 2004 novel, the third book by British author David Mitchell. It won the British Book Awards Literary Fiction Award and the Richard & Judy Book of the Year award, and was short-listed for the 2004 Booker Prize, Nebula Award, Arthur C. Clarke Award, and other awards.


Plot summary

The novel consists of six nested stories that take the reader from the remote South Pacific in the nineteenth century to a distant, post-apocalyptic future. Each tale is revealed to be a story that is read (or watched) by the main character in the next. All stories but the last one get interrupted at some moment, and after the sixth story concludes at the center of the book, the novel "goes back" in time, "closing" each story as the book progresses in terms of pages but regresses in terms of the historical period in which the action takes place. Eventually, readers end where they started, with Adam Ewing in the Pacific Ocean, circa 1850.

The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing

Pacific Ocean, circa 1850. Adam Ewing, an American notary's account of a voyage home from the remote Chatham Islands, east of New Zealand. The next character discovers this story as a diary on his patron's bookshelf.

Letters from Zedelghem

Zedelgem, Belgium, 1931. Robert Frobisher, a penniless young English musician, finds work as an amanuensis to a composer living in Belgium. This story is saved in the form of letters to his friend (and implied lover) Rufus Sixsmith, which the next character discovers after meeting Sixsmith.

Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery.

Buenas Yerbas, California, 1975. Luisa Rey, a journalist, investigates reports of corruption and murder at a nuclear power plant. The next character is sent this story in the mail, in the form of a manuscript for a novel.

The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish

United Kingdom, early 21st century. Timothy Cavendish, a vanity press publisher, flees the brothers of his gangster client. He gets confined against his will in a nursing home from which he cannot escape. The next character watches a movie dramatisation of this story.

An Orison of Sonmi~451

Nea So Copros (Korea), dystopian near future. Sonmi~451, a genetically-engineered fabricant (clone) server at Papa Song's diner (a proxy for McDonald's), is interviewed before her execution after she rebels against the capitalist totalitarian society that created and exploited her kind. The next character watches Sonmi's story projected holographically in an "orison," a futuristic recording device.

Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After

Hawaii, post-apocalyptic distant future. Zachry, a tribesman living a primitive life after most of humanity dies during "the Fall," is visited by Meronym, a member of the last remnants of technologically-advanced civilization. This story is told when the protagonist is an old man, to seemingly random strangers around a camp-fire.


F&SF reviewer Robert. K. J. Killheffer praised Mitchell's "talent and inventiveness and willingness to adopt any mode or voice that furthers his ends," but noted that "for all its pleasures, Cloud Atlas falls short of revolutionary."[1]

Linking themes

Mitchell has said of the book: "All of the [leading] characters are reincarnations of the same soul ... identified by a birthmark. ... The "cloud" refers to the ever-changing manifestations of the "atlas", which is the fixed human nature. ... The book's theme is predacity ... individuals prey on individuals, groups on groups, nations on nations."[2]

Many other themes permeate the book. Movements of ascent and descent, for example, appear in each of the six stories. They are suggestive of humanity's larger moral epiphanies and failings. Adam Ewing, whilst ascending the volcano on the Chatham Islands loses his footing and tumbles down into a hollow (p19); Robert Frobisher is forced to jump from the first floor of hotel to avoid paying his bill (p43); the car of Luisa Rey is shunted off the edge of a bridge and falls into the water around Swannekke Bridge (p144); the author whom Timothy Cavendish publishes ejects a literary critic from the 12th floor of a hotel (p151); the clone, or fabricant, called Sonmi~451 ascends from the underground shopping mall in which she works (p208), and her growing self-consciousness is also explicitly described as an "ascension". Finally, Zachary Bailey and Meronym climb and then descend the Hawaiian mountain of Mauna Kea, Zachary confronting the temptations of the devil (named as Ol' Georgie in the book) (p282 onwards).[3]

Moreover, many of the stories have their authenticity challenged in the narrative that succeeds them. Robert Frobisher, for instance, feels that Ewing's purported journal is too neatly structured to be genuine; "Half Lives" is implied to be a fictional adventure novel submitted to Timothy Cavendish's literary agency.

Structure and style

Like its predecessor Number9Dream, the book's title is connected to Yoko Ono.[4] The book's style was inspired by Italo Calvino's If On A Winter's Night A Traveller, which contains several incomplete interrupted narratives. Mitchell decided to add a 'mirror' in the centre of his book so that each story could be brought to a conclusion.[5][6]

Apart from the central story (Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin After), which is uninterrupted, each story breaks abruptly off half-way through, to be followed by the first half of the next story. The interrupted story then appears within the next one, with the protagonist reading or watching the first half of its text; for example, in "An Orison of Sonmi~451," Sonmi~451 describes watching a film about the life of Timothy Cavendish, but she is only able to watch 50 minutes before her story is also interrupted. Each story ends with its protagonist finding the second half of this story, which is then printed after it.

Cloud Atlas's six novella structure has been described as nesting in a Matryoshka doll fashion, a description perhaps imprecise, as the plots, themes, and especially voice and setting vary greatly (not merely the size and scope). The stories do bracket and interlock one another into a whole stronger than its constituent parts, but each story could be successfully read independently of the related other five.

It can also be noted that "Cloud Atlas" is often also written using purple prose. While Mitchell's style and narration changes with each novella, he is apt to use extremely descriptive and at times esoteric references. His choice of diction encompasses everything from "nonce" to "balderdash," and he refers to figures such as Herman Melville and Friedrich Nietzsche, among many others.

Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After, is science fiction reminiscent of the post-apocalyptic world of Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban, also contains echoes of Toni Morrison's slave narratives and The Chrysalids by John Wyndham.

An Orison of Sonmi~451, also science fiction, recalls the futuristic Orwellian dystopias of Yevgeny Zamyatin, Aldous Huxley, Philip K Dick and Margaret Atwood.

The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish revisits a minor character from Mitchell's earlier novel Ghostwritten in a modern comedy.

Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery also uses a Ghostwritten character and is written in a style reminiscent of an airport novel or a Hollywood film.

Letters from Zedelghem sees Robert Frobisher compose the Cloud Atlas Sextet, which consists of six nested solos arranged in the same manner as the narratives in Cloud Atlas. Mitchell has noted that the characters Robert Frobisher and Vyvyan Ayrs were inspired by Eric Fenby and Frederick Delius (Fenby was an amanuensis to the great English composer).[5] In addition, the daughter of Ayrs appears in Black Swan Green as an elderly woman befriended by the main character.

The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing was inspired by the works of Herman Melville.

Film adaptation

Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis are directing a film adaptation of the novel. With an ensemble cast to cover the film's multiple storylines, production began in September of 2011 at Studio Babelsberg in Germany. The film is scheduled to be released in October of 2012.

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  1. ^ "Books", F&SF, April 2005, pp.35-37
  2. ^ "Bookclub". BBC Radio 4. 2007-06. Retrieved 2008-04-19. 
  3. ^ Page references from 2004 paperback edition, published by Sceptre
  4. ^ Paris Review interview with David Mitchell: "Cloud Atlas is the name of a piece of music by the Japanese composer Toshi Ichiyanagi, who was Yoko Ono’s first husband. I bought the CD just because of that track's beautiful title. It pleases me that Number9Dream is named after a piece of music by Yoko’s more famous husband, though I couldn’t duplicate the pattern indefinitely."
  5. ^ a b Turrentine, Jeff (2004-08-22). "Washington Post". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2008-04-19. 
  6. ^ Mullan, John (2010-06-12). "Guardian book club: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 2010-08-06. 

External links

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