Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle wrote that some human communities are meant to dominate others. David Hume in the 18th century carried the theory further by suggesting that Blacks are inferior to the Whites. There were others like the French naturalist Georges Cuvier and British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper who produced variations of this racist theory. In Cloud Atlas the movie, Hugo Weaving’s various characters remind the tormented that there is a natural order for things and it cannot be upset and Tom Hanks who plays Henry Goose tells Adam Ewing that the strong always prey on the weak as he tries to kill him.

This exploitation of the weak by the strong runs as a thread across David Mitchell’s epic novel Cloud Atlas. Though the movie is out now, let’s start with the book. Unlike any other book I have read both due to the structure and the topics it handles, the book has six novellas set in different time periods. While The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing is set in the 1850s on a ship sailing the pacific ocean towards San Francisco, Letters from Zedelghem is about Robert Frobisher, who becomes an apprentice to a great musician in Belgium. Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery is about an impending nuclear disaster and is set in the 70s in California and The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish is set in the present in London. The futuristic pieces are An Orison of Sonmi~451 set in Seoul in the near future and Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After is set in the post-apocalypse period.

It is not six novellas one after the other, but more like one inside the other. The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing ends abruptly and the second one starts. The second one is left incomplete and the third one starts. As the Russian dolls come out one after the other and it reaches Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After,  the stories go backwards till they finish with The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing. Though they are set in different periods, they are not disconnected. Thus the journal of Adam Ewing is discovered by Robert Frobisher. Luisa Rey gets hold of Frobisher’s music piece and her own story lands as a novel on Cavendish’s desk. Sonmi~451, the heroine of the Neo Seoul piece watches a movie adaptation of Cavendish’s life and Sonmi~451 herself becomes a goddess for the folks who survive the Fall. But the connection among the characters is beyond this simple technique; the characters are the same people who are born across centuries and the connection is much deeper. Or as Mitchell said, “Literally all of the main characters, except one, are reincarnations of the same soul in different bodies throughout the novel identified by a birthmark.”

Now that’s not it. Each of the pieces is written in the literary style of that period among which the language spoken after the Fall is the most difficult to comprehend. Also, the amount of detail that has gone into each section immerses you into that period. As you get sucked into that story, it abruptly ends and you are transported to another period where you make all the connections with the characters in the previous story. Also the topic dealt with are vast: it goes all the way from slave trade to missionaries converting the natives to corporations feeding fabricants with fabricants to racial and economic issues. Reading the book was a mindblowing experience.


In the movie, the treatment is a bit different. While the book spends lot of time in one episode before moving to the next, the movie cuts from one to another abruptly. It goes back and forth in time connecting events logically and visually. But the most interesting decision the directors made is to cast the same set of people across the stories and thus we get to watch Tom Hanks as the villain in the Adam Ewing story and as a good hearted shepherd in the post-apocalypse world. Some portions of the movie differ from the book (There is no Eva for Frobisher to fall in love with; Sonmi~451 does not realize that her escape was choreographed by the totalitarian administration; the post-apocalypse characters do not leave earth), but the new versions do not irritate a bit.

Since I had read the book, the movie was easy to follow, but I am not sure if it was the same experience for folks who came without prior knowledge. While reading the book, the thought that comes to mind is that this book is not filmable, but they managed to make a good movie out of it.

See Also:  “Cloud Atlas” author David Mitchell: Adaptation is TranslationReview: ‘Cloud Atlas’ is the Most Daring & Satisfying Film of the Year, Movie Trailer

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