Cloud Atlas is a difficult book to pin down, a difficult book to explain in any way that makes sense, and ultimately difficult to read.
The book is actually six intertwined stories. Each story is interrupted halfway, and each successive character, further along in history, knows something of the previous character. As the story of the last character completes, he learns the rest of the story of the character previous to him, and so on until we arrive back at the end of the first character’s story.
The first character is Adam Ewing, a public notary on-board a ship in the South Pacific in 1850, whose story is recorded as journal entries.
Robert Frobisher takes over the second story. He is a struggling bisexual musician disowned by his father in 1931 and seeking employment in Belgium with dying composer Vyvyan Ayrs. His story is told by means of letters to his old lover Rufus Sixsmith, and he mentions the discovery of half the journal of Adam Ewing.
Luisa Rey, a journalist in 1975, meets Rufus Sixsmith and subsequently investigates the safety of a nuclear power plant. She receives half of Frobisher’s letters from Sixsmith. Her story is told in the style of a mystery thriller.
Timothy Cavendish, the fourth character, is a vanity publisher in Britain in the present day, who flees his gangster creditors and is tricked by his brother into a nursing home from which he must escape. During the course of his story, he reads a book submission – Half-Lives: the First Luisa Rey Mystery.
The fifth character, Somni~451, is a genetically modified clone in the future. She was designed and created specifically to serve in Papa Song’s restaurants for a period of 12 years, after which each server is released to paradise in Hawaii. Clones are created specific to their role, unable to reproduce, or even think in many cases, and kept sedated and docile to serve the whims of the ‘purebloods’. This story is set in Neo So Copros, which turns out to be Korea, but the ‘corpocracy’ (corporate culture elevated to the status of religion) appears to be world-wide, with references to Africa as a ‘Production Zone’. Her story is told as the recordings of a condemned woman’s last words, and during her tale she mentions watching a film, ‘The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish’.
The sixth character, Zachry, exists in a post-apocalyptic world which has descended back into a largely uncivilised state with limited technological resources. Somni is the goddess to whom his people pray, and during the course of his life, he watches the recordings of Somni’s last words and learns the truth about her. It is at the end of his tale, when he sits down to watch the last half of Somni’s tale, that the order of stories reverses.
While this is clever, and well-executed, and each character has their own distinct voice and way of speaking, it also doesn’t make for the easiest read. Adam Ewing uses the dialect of the time, making it hard to read and difficult to engage. As the first story, it made it difficult for me to get into the book. The last character, Zachry, also uses a distorted version of our language and this was extremely difficult for me to understand at first, although I found eventually my brain became accustomed to it and read it easily.
Once I moved on to Frobisher’s letters, I was far more engaged in the story and keen to keep reading, but each story broke off at a critical point. While this is a common technique to hook the reader, in this case I didn’t know if I was ever going to come back to that character, and I was reluctant to engage with the next character. By the time I came back to each story, particular Frobisher and Ewing, I found I couldn’t even recall what had happened.
The prose is flawless, but perhaps too obviously so, remaining in the foreground to flaunt itself rather than fading invisibly into the background and leaving the reader to enjoy the story. As for enjoying the story, while I did enjoy it, not as much as I could have done. Some of the characters are obviously doomed from the beginning, making it difficult to really commit to that character, and ultimately I found I didn’t care about their ends.
Part of that, I think, is that the book isn’t obviously about anything. After some thought, I had to conclude that what the book was about was the human predilection to violence and selfishness at the expense of our fellows. A worthy topic, but hardly one that inspires enjoyment. A story should be about its characters, so the reader connects with them, empathises with them, and cheers them on.
Many other speculative fiction books deal with difficult topics – Pratchett, for example, deals with racism through the device of speciesism in the city of Ankh-Morpork and specifically the issue of which species can apply to be in the City Watch. But never would anyone pick up a Discworld book and declare ‘this book is about racism’. Because it’s not, it’s about the characters, with themes of racism. Cloud Atlas, however, is about its themes, because the stories are only incidental to the theme. The characters and their ends are not important in and of themselves, but only as a means to make a point.
I’m not saying the book isn’t well-written. It is, impressively so, and the author pulls of literary feats that are technically awesome. I’m not saying the book isn’t enjoyable. It is, and I did, but perhaps not in the same way that I enjoy my favourites.
However, I do believe the book was written for a very select audience, and if you’re not part of that audience, you might not appreciate this book. I don’t believe I’m part of that audience, and while the book was generally enjoyable, perhaps not enough to make up for the effort required to read it.
Ciara is a writer of high fantasy. A fantasy lover from her early years, this loyal, passionate, quirky, strong-willed, confident woman is bent on world domination and already has a couple of minions in the making. Born argumentative and recognizing the long road to make money out of writing, Ciara wisely invested her natural inclinations in a career in law. Her favourite authors include Terry Goodkind, Terry Pratchett, Brandon Sanderson, Robert Jordan and Brent Weeks. She is the official dragon expert of #stabbylove.
More information about Ciara Ballintyne can be found on www.ciaraballintyne.com