Cloud Atlas (novel)

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Cloud Atlas
File:Cloud atlas.jpg
First edition cover
Author David Mitchell
Cover artist E.S. Allen
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre Sci-Fi
Published 2004 (Sceptre)
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 544 (first edition, hardback)
ISBN 0-340-82277-5 (first edition, hardback)
OCLC 53821716
823/.92 22
LC Class PR6063.I785 C58 2004b

Cloud Atlas is a 2004 novel, the third book by British author David Mitchell. It consists of six nested stories that take the reader from the remote South Pacific in the nineteenth century to a distant, post-apocalyptic future. 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.

A film adaptation of the same name was released in 2012.

Plot summary

The book consists of six nested stories, whereof each is read (or observed) by a main character of the next. The first five stories are each interrupted at a pivotal moment. After the sixth story, the other five stories are closed, in reverse chronological order, and each ends with the main character reading or observing the chronologically previous work in the chain. Each story contains a document, movie, or tradition that appears in a previous story.

The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing (Part 1)

The first story begins in the Chatham Islands in 1850 where Adam Ewing, a guileless American notary from San Francisco during the California Gold Rush, awaits repairs to his ship. Ewing witnesses a Moriori slave being flogged by a Maori overseer. During the punishment, the victim, Autua, sees pity in the eyes of Adam Ewing and smiles. Later Ewing ascends a high hill called Conical Tor, and stumbles into its crater, where he finds himself surrounded by faces carved into trees. Reasoning that those who carved the faces must have had egress from the crater, he escapes. As the ship gets underway, Dr. Goose, Ewing's only friend aboard the ship, examines the injuries sustained on the volcano and Ewing also mentions his chronic ailment. The doctor diagnoses it as a fatal parasite, and recommends a course of treatment. Meanwhile, Autua has stowed away in Ewing's cabin; and Ewing breaks this news to the Captain, to whom Autua proves himself a first class seaman, whereupon the Captain puts him to work for his passage to Hawaii.

Letters from Zedelghem (Part 1)

The next story is set in Zedelghem, near Bruges, Belgium, in 1931. It is told in the form of letters from Robert Frobisher, a recently disowned and penniless, bisexual young English musician, to his lover Rufus Sixsmith, after Frobisher journeys to Zedelghem as an amanuensis to the reclusive composer Vyvyan Ayrs, who is dying of syphilis and nearly blind. Soon, Frobisher and Ayrs produce Der Todtenvogel ("The Death Bird"), performed nightly in Kraków, and Frobisher has begun composing his own music again. Frobisher and Ayrs' wife Jocasta become lovers, but her daughter Eva remains suspicious of him. Frobisher sells rare books from Ayrs' collection to a fence, including half of The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing, and reveals that Dr. Goose is poisoning Adam. Once, Ayrs has Frobisher write a song inspired by a dream of a "nightmarish cafe", deep underground, wherein "the waitresses all had the same face", and ate soap. As the summer comes to an end, Jocasta thanks Frobisher for "giving Vyvyan his music back", and Frobisher agrees to stay until next summer.

Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery (Part 1)

The third story is written in the style of a mystery/thriller novel, set in the fictional city of Buenas Yerbas, California, in 1975, where Luisa Rey, a young journalist, investigates reports that a new nuclear power plant is unsafe. Rufus Sixsmith meets Luisa in a defective elevator and listens to her life story, wherein her late father was one of the few incorruptible policemen in the city. After the elevator's motive power is restored, Sixsmith expresses to Luisa his concern that the Seaboard HYDRA nuclear power plant is not safe. He is murdered shortly after this admission, and Luisa learns that the businessmen in charge of the plant are assassinating potential whistle-blowers. From Sixsmith's hotel room, Luisa acquires some of Frobisher's letters. Before Luisa can report her findings on the nuclear power plant or Sixsmith's murder, a Seaboard-hired assassin who has been following her forces her — along with Sixsmith's incriminating report — off a bridge.

The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish (Part 1)

The fourth story is comic in tone, and is set in Britain in the present day, wherein Timothy Cavendish, a 65-year-old vanity press publisher, flees the brothers of his gangster client. Cavendish's own brother, exasperated by Timothy's pleas for financial aid, books him into a nursing home from which Timothy cannot escape. He attempts flight, but is stopped by a security guard. Timothy briefly mentions reading a manuscript entitled Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery, but is not impressed by the prospective author's manuscript. Timothy settles into his new surroundings, while still trying to plot a way out. One day, he is struck by a seizure, just as the chapter ends.

An Orison of Sonmi~451 (Part 1)

The fifth story is set in Nea So Copros,[1] a dystopian futuristic state in Korea, derived from corporate culture. It is told in the form of an interview between Sonmi~451 and an "archivist" recording her story. Sonmi~451 is a fabricant: one of many grown to work, among other places, at a fast-food restaurant called Papa Song's.[2] Fabricants are slaves used by "pureblood" (natural-born) society, who retard the fabricants' consciousness by chemical manipulation. In her own narration, Sonmi encounters members of a rebellion, disguised as students, who assist her to become self-aware, or "ascended"; describes watching The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish as a pre-Skirmishes film (wherein the "Skirmishes" are a major global disaster or war that destroyed most of the world except Nea So Copros (East Asia); and foreshadows "The Fall" in the subsequent chapter "Sloosha's Crossin", in which Nea So Copros, and most of humanity's technological ability, have ended in disaster; the destroyed areas are identified as "deadlands" full of disease, ruins, and radioactive contamination). When Cavendish suffers his seizure, a student tells Sonmi and her rescuer Hae-Joo Im that Professor Mephi, Hae-Joo's professor and handler, has been arrested, and that policy enforcers have orders to interrogate Hae-Joo and kill Sonmi on sight. Hae-Joo then identifies himself as a rebel to Sonmi.

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

The sixth story occupies the central position in the novel and is the only one not interrupted, wherein Zachry, an old man, tells a story from his youth. It is gradually revealed that he lived in a post-apocalyptic society on the Big Island of Hawaii. His people, called the valley folk, are peaceful farmers, but are often raided by the Kona tribe. Zachry's people worship a goddess called Sonmi, and recall a 'Fall' in which the civilized peoples of Earth — known as the 'Old Uns' — were destroyed, and left the survivors to primitivism. Big Island is occasionally visited and studied by a technologically sophisticated people known as the Prescients, whereof a woman called Meronym comes to stay with the villagers. Zachry becomes suspicious of her, and sneaks into her room, where he finds an 'orison': an egg-shaped device for recording and holographic videoconferencing. Later, Zachry's sister Catkin is poisoned by a scorpion fish, and Meronym reluctantly gives her medicine. When Meronym later requests a guide to the top of Mauna Kea volcano, Zachry reluctantly guides her there to the ruins of the Mauna Kea Observatories. Here, Meronym explains the orison, and reveals Sonmi's history (introduced in the prior chapter). Upon their return, they go with most of the valley-folk to trade at Honokaa; but Zachry's people are imprisoned by the Kona. Zachry and Meronym eventually escape, and she takes him to a safer island. The story ends with Zachry's child recalling that his father told many unbelievable tales; whereas this one may be true, because he has inherited Zachry's copy of Sonmi's orison, which he often watches, even though he does not understand her language.

An Orison of Sonmi~451 (Part 2)

Guided by Hae-Joo Im, Sonmi learns that the fabricants are not released after serving their time at work, but recycled into food for more fabricants. At the rebels' encouragement, she writes a series of abolitionist Declarations and calls for rebellion, knitting in the themes of greed and oppression first brought up in the diary of Adam Ewing.

The final tale shows what could happen if greed and corruption is allowed to take over, ending in a big bang scenario. She is then arrested, and finds herself telling her tale to the archivist, to whom she reveals that everything that happened to her, including the rebellion, was instigated by the government to encourage the oppression of fabricants by purebloods; but her Declarations will be inspirational nonetheless. Her last wish before her death is to finish watching Cavendish's story, which she is presumed to do.

The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish (Part 2)

Having mostly recovered from his stroke, Cavendish meets a small group of residents also anxious to escape the nursing home: Ernie, Veronica, and the extremely senile Mr. Meeks. He assists their conspiracy to trick Johns Hotchkiss, a fellow-patient's grown son, into leaving his car vulnerable to theft. They seize the car and escape, stopping at a bar to celebrate their freedom. They are nearly recaptured by Hotchkiss and the staff, but are rescued when Mr. Meeks exhorts the local drinkers to come to their aid.

It is thereafter revealed that Cavendish's secretary Mrs. Latham blackmailed the gangsters with a video-record of their attack upon his office, allowing him to return to his former life in safety. Subsequently, Cavendish obtains the second half of Luisa Rey's story.

Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery (Part 2)

Rey escapes from the sinking car, but is still pursued by Smoke, the assassin working for Seaboard. She picks up her copy of Robert Frobisher's obscure Cloud Atlas Sextet and is astonished to find that she recognizes it, even though it is a very rare piece. Smoke lures her with a copy of Rufus Sixsmith's report about the power plant; but Joe Napier comes to her rescue, and Smoke and Napier kill each other. Later, Rey exposes the corrupt corporate leaders to the public. At the end of the story, she receives a package from Sixsmith's niece, which contains eight more letters from Robert Frobisher to Sixsmith.

Letters from Zedelghem (Part 2)

Frobisher continues to pursue his work with Ayrs while developing his own Cloud Atlas Sextet; becomes besotted with Ayrs's daughter after she subtly flirts with him; and tries to end the affair with Ayrs's wife. While packing his things to leave Ayrs, he discovers the second half of The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing. After embarrassing himself with the discovery that Ayr's daughter was in love with another person altogether, Frobisher secludes himself in a hotel to finish the Sextet, and ultimately decides, with his magnum opus finished and his life now empty of meaning, to kill himself. Before committing suicide in a bathtub, he writes a last letter to Sixsmith and includes his Sextet and The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing.

The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing (Part 2)

Ewing visits the island of Raiatea, where he observes missionaries oppressing the indigenous peoples. On the ship, he falls further ill, and realizes at the last minute that Dr. Goose is poisoning him to steal his possessions. He is rescued by Autua, and resolves to join the abolitionist movement. In conclusion (of his own journal and of the book), Ewing writes that history is governed by the results of vicious and virtuous acts precipitated by belief: wherefore "a purely predatory world shall consume itself" and "The devil take the hindmost until the foremost is the hindmost", and imagines his father-in-law's response to his becoming an abolitionist, as a warning that Adam's life would amount to one drop in a limitless ocean; whereas Ewing's proposed reply is: "Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?".


Cloud Atlas had positive reviews from most critics, who felt that it managed to successfully interweave its six stories. The BBC's Keily Oakes said that although the structure of the book could be challenging for readers, "David Mitchell has taken six wildly different stories ... and melded them into one fantastic and complex work."[3] Kirkus Reviews called the book "sheer storytelling brilliance."[4] Laura Miller of the New York Times compared it to the "perfect crossword puzzle," in that it was challenging to read but still fun.[5] The Observer's Hephzibah Anderson called the novel "exhilarating" and commented positively on the links between all six stories.[6] Author and Booker Prize winner A. S. Byatt in a review for The Guardian wrote that it gives "a complete narrative pleasure that is rare."[7] The Washington Post's Jeff Turrentine called it a "highly satisfying, and unusually thoughtful, addition to the expanding 'puzzle book' genre."[8] In its "Books Briefly Noted" section, The New Yorker called the novel "virtuosic."[9] Marxist literary critic Fredric Jameson viewed the novel as a new, science-fiction-inflected variation on the historical novel now "defined by its relation to future fully as much as to past."[10]

Criticism focused on the book's failure to meet its lofty goals. F&SF reviewer Robert K. J. Killheffer praised Mitchell's "talent and inventiveness and willingness to adopt any mode or voice that furthers his ends," but noted that "for all its pleasures, Cloud Atlas falls short of revolutionary."[11] The Daily Telegraph gave the novel a mixed review, focusing on its clashing themes, with Theo Tait noting: "In short, Cloud Atlas spends half its time wanting to be The Simpsons and the other half the Bible."[12]

Linking themes

Mitchell has said of the book:

Literally all of the main characters, except one, are reincarnations of the same soul in different bodies throughout the novel identified by a birthmark...that's just a symbol really of the universality of human nature. The title itself "Cloud Atlas," the cloud refers to the ever changing manifestations of the Atlas, which is the fixed human nature which is always thus and ever shall be. So the book's theme is predacity, the way individuals prey on individuals, groups on groups, nations on nations, tribes on tribes. So I just take this theme and in a sense reincarnate that theme in another context...[13]

Structure and style

In an interview, Mitchell stated that the title was inspired by the piece of music of the same name by the Japanese composer Toshi Ichiyanagi, Yoko Ono’s first husband: "I bought the CD just because of that track's beautiful title." Mitchell's previous novel, Number9Dream, had also been inspired by a piece of music by Yoko Ono's more famous husband, John Lennon; Mitchell has said this fact "pleases me ... though I couldn’t duplicate the pattern indefinitely."[14]

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's innovation was to add a 'mirror' in the centre of his book so that each story could be brought to a conclusion.[15][16]

Mitchell said that Robert Frobisher and Vyvyan Ayrs were inspired by English composer Frederick Delius and his amanuensis Eric Fenby.[16]

The book contains links with Mitchell's other works. The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish and Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery revisit minor characters from his novel Ghostwritten, and Eva, the daughter of Ayrs in Letters from Zedelghem, reappears in Black Swan Green as an elderly woman befriended by the main character.[original research?]

Film adaptation

The novel was adapted to film by directors Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis. With an ensemble cast to cover the multiple storylines, production began in September 2011 at Studio Babelsberg in Germany. The film was released in North America on 26 October 2012. In October 2012, Mitchell wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal called "Translating 'Cloud Atlas' Into the Language of Film" in which he describes the work of the adapters as being like translating a work into another language.[17]


  1. A future version of the proposed Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere with the Juche as the highest power.
  2. — a future McDonald's: mention is made of Golden Arches.
  3. Oakes, Keily (17 October 2004). "Review: Cloud Atlas". BBC. Retrieved 2 August 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. "Cloud Atlas Review". Kirkus Reviews. 15 May 2004. Retrieved 2 August 2012. Italic or bold markup not allowed in: |publisher= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Miller, Laura (14 September 2004). "Cloud Atlas Review". New York Times. Retrieved 2 August 2012. Italic or bold markup not allowed in: |publisher= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Anderson, Hephzibah (28 February 2004). "Observer Review: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell". The Observer. Retrieved 2 August 2012. Italic or bold markup not allowed in: |publisher= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Byatt, A. S. (28 February 2004). "Review: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell". The Guardian. Retrieved 2 August 2012. Italic or bold markup not allowed in: |publisher= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Turrentine, Jeff (22 August 2004). "Fantastic Voyage". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2 August 2012. Italic or bold markup not allowed in: |publisher= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. "Cloud Atlas". The New Yorker. 23 August 2004. Retrieved 2 August 2012. Italic or bold markup not allowed in: |publisher= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Fredric Jameson, The Antinomies of Realism, London and New York: Verso, 2013, p. 305.
  11. "Books", F&SF, April 2005, pp.35-37
  12. Tait, Theo (1 March 2004). "From Victorian travelogue to airport thriller". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 2 August 2012. Italic or bold markup not allowed in: |publisher= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. "Bookclub". BBC Radio 4. June 2007. Retrieved 19 April 2008.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. "Paris Review - The Art of Fiction No. 204, David Mitchell".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. Mullan, John (12 June 2010). "Guardian book club: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 6 August 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. 16.0 16.1 Turrentine, Jeff (22 August 2004). "Washington Post". The Washington Post. Retrieved 19 April 2008.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. Mitchell, David (19 October 2012). "Translating 'Cloud Atlas' Into the Language of Film". Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 19 October 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

External links