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Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas 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 placing it among the most-honored works of fiction in recent history.

Plot summary

The book consists of six nested stories that take us from the remote South Pacific in the nineteenth century to the far future after a nuclear apocalypse. Each tale is revealed to be a story that is read (or watched) by the main character in the next.

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. 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, is interviewed before her execution after she rebels against the society that created and exploited her kind. The next character sees this story projected holographically in an "orison," a futuristic recording device.

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

Hawaii, post-apocalyptic distant future. Zach'ry, 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 civilisation. This story is told when the protagonist is an old man, to seemingly random strangers around a camp-fire.

Linking themes

Mitchell has said of the book: "All of the [leading] characters except one 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.

Structure and style

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.

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. Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After, is science fiction reminiscent of the post-apocalyptic world of Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban.

An Orison of Sonmi~451, also science fiction, recalls the futuristic dystopian worlds of Aldous Huxley 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.

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 (very) loosely inspired by Eric Fenby and Frederick Delius (Fenby was an amanuensis to the great English composer).

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

References

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