Cloud Atlas is the first book I’ve read in a while which left me grinning with delight when I finished it. Not grinning because it was funny—most of the time, it was far from funny—but because it was at once both a literary feast for the senses and a profoundly moving challenge to the reader to rediscover the “true north” of our era’s flickering moral compass.
Mitchell expertly braids together novellas from six different eras of our past and future, each story interrupting and/or continuing another to flesh out how humanity arrived at the present time, and perhaps more importantly, where we are likely to end up if we continue on the same path. Like any good mystery novelist, Mitchell drops clues along the way, and like any good sci-fi writer, he intrigues us with glimpses of a chilling future based on an all too disturbing present. The themes of greed and excess, slavery and power, religion and superstition, creation and destruction creep into the reader’s mind and take hold, forcing one to examine the hard truths of our own time from the broader vantage point of both our past and the future.
There have been enough reviews of the book in Cannnonball Read, such that I don’t feel it necessary to go into the individual sub-plots of the book. Suffice it to say that Mitchell has tossed six distinct “genre,” if you will, into his sandbox, ranging from political thriller to dystopic interrogatory, from colonial history to romantic epistolary, from comedic drama to post-apocalyptic nightmare, and what absolutely amazes is Mitchell’s brilliance in stepping into and out of the individual eras he paints for us with such apparent ease. Even while I chafed a bit at the familiarity of some of the plots—The Mystery of Luisa Rey (to my mind the weakest of the stories) smacked too much of Grisham’s The Pelican Brief, for example, and Sonmi-451 borrowed rather heavily from Orwell’s Brave New World—I nonetheless thrilled to the authenticity of the language, the evocative settings, the exhilarating experience of time travel while sitting still, and all the puzzle parts just begging to be pieced together.
I especially loved the language that Mitchell invented for the tribes living after “The Fall,” which did more to reveal the state of that post-apocalyptic world than mere description ever could. The language of “Sloosha’s Crossin’” depicted a culture in decline and yet it was surprisingly metaphorical, both poignant and extremely funny, a language meant to be heard, not read, a language of both post-history and pre-history. And therein, I think, lies the genius of Mitchell, because “Sloosha’s Crossin’” tells the story of humanity’s end, but also of humanity’s beginning, and leaves it up to the reader to consider what direction that beginning should take.