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Cloud Atlas
by David Mitchell


David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas is not a novel with a single, easily summarized plot. Instead, it's a complex tapestry woven from six interconnected stories spanning centuries, each echoing themes of power, exploitation, and the cyclical nature of history. The novel's unique structure, mirroring the form of a musical sonata, further emphasizes these connections.

Here's a glimpse into each narrative:

1. The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing (1850s): This section, written as the journal of a naive American notary traveling across the Pacific, introduces the idea of "predatory souls" through Ewing's encounters with colonialism, slavery, and religious hypocrisy.

2. Letters from Zedelghem (1930s): We jump to 1931 Belgium, where a young, bisexual composer named Robert Frobisher pens letters to his lover while working as an amanuensis for a renowned but fading composer. This section delves into artistic ambition, exploitation, and forbidden love.

3. Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery (1970s): This thriller follows Luisa Rey, a journalist uncovering a conspiracy surrounding a dangerous nuclear power plant. Themes of corporate greed, scientific responsibility, and the fight for truth come to the forefront.

4. The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish (Late 20th Century/Early 21st Century): A darkly humorous story about a vanity publisher who finds himself trapped in a nightmarish nursing home. This section satirizes ageism, the publishing industry, and the fight for individual freedom.

5. An Orison of Sonmi~451 (Dystopian Future, Korea): Set in a futuristic, corporate-controlled Korea, this story is narrated by a genetically engineered “fabricant” server who achieves sentience and joins a rebellion against the system. It grapples with questions of consciousness, free will, and social control.

6. Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After (Post-Apocalyptic Future): The final story takes us to a primitive, post-apocalyptic Hawaii where Zachry, a goat herder plagued by guilt, encounters Meronym, a member of a technologically advanced society. This section explores the struggle for survival, the power of storytelling, and the enduring nature of humanity.

Interconnectivity and Recurring Themes:

These seemingly disparate narratives are connected in various ways. Characters reappear in different incarnations, often marked by a comet-shaped birthmark, suggesting reincarnation or a shared soul. Objects, locations, and even musical compositions echo across timelines, further strengthening the web of interconnectedness.

The novel explores recurring themes:

  • The battle between predator and prey: This power dynamic appears in various forms, from colonialism and slavery in Ewing's story to corporate control and genetic engineering in Sonmi's narrative.
  • The cyclical nature of history: The novel suggests that humanity is trapped in a cycle of exploitation and rebellion, with each generation grappling with similar challenges.
  • The power of empathy and compassion: Characters who choose compassion and resistance against oppressive forces offer glimmers of hope for breaking the cycle.

The Cloud Atlas Sextet:

Running through the novel is a mysterious musical composition called the "Cloud Atlas Sextet," encountered in different forms throughout the narratives. The music symbolizes the interconnectedness of the stories and the enduring power of art to transcend time and circumstance.

Ending and Interpretation:

The novel concludes with Zachry's story, offering a sense of hope for the future, despite the devastating events that have transpired. Ultimately, Cloud Atlas leaves readers to ponder the nature of humanity, the consequences of our choices, and the possibility of progress, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. It’s a novel that invites multiple readings, with each encounter revealing new layers of meaning and connection.