Cloud Atlas: A Review

After being captivated enough by the film Cloud Atlas to watch the 172-minute film three times in a week, I stopped by my local bookstore for David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas novel.

The book mesmerized me even more than the film did. Putting aside that the book pulls into one spine my love for the classic literature style and character development of Melville's Moby Dick, science fiction, mystery writing and post-apocalyptic musings, the book is a wonderfully successful experiment in form and language, and experiment in the extension of ideas, movements and human actions through centuries and generations.

As in the best science fiction, Mitchell takes some of the most influential components of human nature - greed and power, sacrifice and kindness - and shows the forces that these can create in future societies, cultures and mindsets. I think of Cloud Atlas as showing readers how the best and the worst outcomes of human society - slavery, religion, cooperation and language itself - may take on different forms across different ages, may ascend and descend, but they are never entirely victorious or defeated. Greed and slavery may constantly rear their ugly heads, and must constantly be battled by the best of us. Language, spirituality and acts of kindness may look very different in different ages of time, but they are never squashed completely by more savage human forces.

I don't want to ruin the story of Cloud Atlas for others, so if you are reading the book or watching the movie, I will recommend you to this wonderful readalong by Editorial Eyes (@dh_editorial on Twitter).

But I'd like to leave you with some of my favorite quotes from Cloud Atlas (the novel). Through the unique structure of 6 interweaving stories, the struggles and small victories of 6 individual souls that touch each other through the ages, Mitchell paints a picture of reincarnation, eternal recurrence, wars never completely won and martyrdom never dead nor forgotten. If Mitchell can teach anything, it's that a single act of kindness or sacrifice can reverberate down the ages of time.


"What was knowledge for, I would ask myself, if I could not use it to better my xistence?" p. 224

"Ignorance of the Other engenders fear; fear engenders hatred; hatred engenders violence; violence engenders further violence until the only 'rights,' the only law, are whatever is willed by the most powerful." - Sonmi-451 in Cloud Atlas

“One may dress plagiarism up however one wishes, it’s still plagiarism.” p. 455

“Will never write anything on-hundredth as good. Wish I were being immodest, but I’m not. Cloud Atlas Sextet holds my life, is my life, now I’m a spent firework; but at least I’ve been a firework.” p. 470

“Another war is always coming… they are never properly extinguished. What sparks wars? The will to power, the backbone of human nature. The threat of violence, the fear of violence, or actual violence is the instrument of this dreadful will. You can see the will to power in bedrooms, kitchens, factories, unions, and the borders of states. Listen to this and remember it. The nation-state is merely human nature inflated to monstrous proportions. QED, nations are entities whose laws are written by violence. Thus it ever was, so ever shall it be. War, Robert, is one of humanity’s two eternal companions.” p. 444

"I watched clouds awobbly from the floor o’ that kayak. Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an’ tho’ a cloud’s shape nor hue nor size don’t stay the same, it’s still a cloud an’ so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud’s blowed from or who the soul’ll be ‘morrow? Only Sonmi the east an’ the west an’ the compass an’ the atlas, yay, only the atlas o’ clouds." p. 308

“If we believe that humanity is a ladder of tribes, a coliseum of confrontation, exploitation & bestiality, such a humanity is surely brought into being… […] If we believe that humanity may transcend tooth & claw, if we believe divers races & creeds can share this world as peaceable as the orphans share their candlenut tree, if we believe leaders must be just, violence muzzled, power accountable & the riches of the Earth & its Oceans shared equitably, such a world will come to pass.” p. 508


I highly recommend this book. Read on.