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Book Notes 2: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Yes, and only a day after the last one.  It took me a bit longer than that to read it, mind you.

A science-fiction book that was nominated for the Booker: amazing. And have no doubt about it: this is a science-fiction book. Just as Nineteen Eighty Four is; and Orwell’s masterpiece is perhaps the best reference point for Cloud Atlas. The appearance of O’Brien’s Goldstein‘s book within Winston Smith’s story may well have been a model for Mitchell’s multiply-embedded stories.


And like Nineteen Eighty Four, Cloud Atlas is ultimately a bleak vision, though it contains many life-affirming moments on its way.

The interleaved narratives spread across the history and future history of civilisation, from Victorian missionaries ‘civilising’ the ‘savages’ of Polynesia, to the Hawaian islanders after the fall of civilisation, trying desperately to hold on to the ‘Smart’ of the ‘Old’uns’.

Each story contains a reference to the the one in which it is immediately embedded, and there are echoes and references across various of the layers: probably many more than I got on a first reading.

Mitchell’s command of the different styles is good, though there are one or two places where it slips, and where you wonder how reliable the narrators are.

I found it slow to get going, though: at first I put this down to not being terribly engaged with the Victorian opening section. Then I thought it was just pacing: the speed of the segments increases, it seems to me, as you work towards the centre.  But on the way back out I found the final section, back in the Victorian journals, just less interesting than any of the others.  I find the idea of historical novels deeply uninteresting, so we probably have a common theme there.

Also related to the “is it genre” question is this curiousity: in the section entitled Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery, the title character’s dead father is called Lester. Lester Rey. Sounds an awful lot like Lester del Rey, the science fiction writer and editor. Of, course, it may mean nothing: but writers don’t choose characters’ names for nothing, and it sems likely to me that you would at least check that the major characters’ names don’t relate to any real people.  So perhaps Mitchell is suggesting something.

But all of this matters little. What does matter is that this is a damn fine book.

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