Book Review: Cloud Atlas

I picked this book up based on its recommendations. A friend at work had read and suggested it. The movie was big in theatres and, according to another friend, it was ‘weird but interesting.’ Also, my mom got it for christmas! With it so easily within my grasp, I figured it was worth checking out.

Cloud Atlas was authored by David Mitchell, who has written two novels (number9dream and Cloud Atlas) that were shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Even though I picked up this book at the recommendation of others, I knew very little about it. For those that know me well, they know I absolutely dislike spoilers. I do not like to know what is going to happen in a book/movie/show before I read/see it. While I enjoy seeing ‘teasers’ for movies, I do not like trailers because trailers reveal FAR too much about the movie. When I go to the movies, I’ll go so far as to close my eyes and plug my ears during previews of movies that I really want to see. Crazy? Maybe. But I like to be surprised. It is such ‘the norm’ nowadays that you know most of it before you see it/read it. What happened to the days of not knowing? Of walking into a movie you’d never heard of? That pleasant surprise of a story line you weren’t expecting? That is what I seek my friends. And the main reason I jumped on Cloud Atlas was because it offered me that rare chance to read something I knew nothing about. All I knew was that it was ‘weird but interesting,’ and a ‘collection of short stories.’ Perfect.*

2013-03-30 18.12.03So before I move on, for those that are like me, there are some spoilers below. Fairly warned be ye, says I. Cloud Atlas is hard to nail down into one genre. But if I had to, I’d call it a fantasy novel. Let me explain.

The book is comprised of 6 different story lines, with 6 different main characters, spread across 6 different epochs of human history, beginning in the 1800’s and extending to the (possibly) far future. Each story line is interrupted by the other. Meaning, you read the first half of the first story, then the first half of the second story, then the third, etc. After you’ve read the first half of each, you then are given the last half of each in reverse order. As you read through the different stories, you find that the main characters are some how connected through time. Each sharing a similar birthmark and subtly playing out small roles in each other’s story lines. You find that the multiple characters in the book are actually one character reincarnated through time. Fantasy? Each of the individual story lines has their own genre. One is south pacific travel log, one is a corporate conspiracy, another deals with dystopian futures.
I really enjoyed the post-apocalyptic story line, as it reached out to my love of astronomy. That story takes place in Hawaii after some global catastrophe (human made, it appears) has reduced humanity to a more prehistoric reality. In this story, the characters make a trek to the top of Mauna Kea. In our time, this summit is home to some of the most advanced research telescopes in the world (one of which I have used for my PhD research). As an astronomer, I enjoyed following the characters to the summit; I enjoyed watching as they inspected the ruins of civilizations passed, and conjecture on what these buildings/domes were for. The role the summit of Mauna Kea played in this story line was very interesting as well, but I won’t spoil it. This actually reminded very much of the short story By the Waters of Babylon by Stephen Vincent Benet. Check that out too, it’s a great read.

My feeling after reading Cloud Atlas is less that I was blown away by the rise and fall of each individual story, and more a sense of enjoyment from the structure of the book. The individual stories weren’t necessarily remarkable on their own, but the way they were interwoven is what satisfied by literary interests. I didn’t have the normal feeling of sadness when finishing this book (usually I get this when I really connect with the story or characters, or themes resonate strongly); this time I felt happy for having had my mind bent a little.

One last thing. The author also made many subtle, and not so subtle, references to his own writing throughout the book. I enjoyed this very much. It felt like not only were the characters reincarnated versions of each other connected through time, but that I was connected through the pages. As if the author and the reader are just more layers of interconnectedness. I almost wanted to check myself for birthmarks!
If you’ve made it this far, I fear I’ve ruined the book for you. I’m sorry. But I still think it worth your time. There is a lot more to discover in Cloud Atlas than what I am able to (poorly) articulate here.
I suppose I should go watch the movie now? It was produced by the Andy and Lana Wachowski! The brains behind The Matrix. Should be very good.

Happy Reading!
*Notable movies/books I knew nothing about before seeing/reading: Inception, The Matrix, Sandman, Fifth Business, and others

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