It begins in the past. Not one past, but three, and then a kind of present. Then a future. Two futures, but the furthest is so much like the past as to be functionally the same, only reversed. The great ship of the technologically advanced is the image fading in the center of this novel, as if the reader has risen to a height of inevitability that can do nothing now but sink back through the layers that cannot support it. The hyperbolic arc of human trajectory achieves its limit, turns, and falls back to the point where the mirror reality of that insubstantial future rests. We cannot stay in that future because it is built on anticipation and hope, contending with dread and cynicism, which rob it of any force of inevitability. It looks real, substantial, has within its possibilities everything we know and everything we are and everything we can be and everything we should not be.
There were once places in the world (and maybe this is still the case) notated on maps as Obscured By Cloud. Unknown. Protected areas, mostly, in the islands around New Guinea and New Zealand, valleys where the weather systems conspire to keep a permanent layer of cloud cover over them, and which, in somewhat belated attempts at responsible behavior, colonial governments placed off limits. They are not mapped.
Much like the future, even though we have now more than a century of “futurism” behind us, attempts at forecasting, and not simply confined to science fiction. We might be tempted from time to time to believe that the future is knowable, even set. Perhaps we’re not wrong in that, but likely not in the way we might think. Divining the future is very like doing cartography on clouds. The effort is substantive even while the results are necessarily transitory, because in doing so we learn something about the essence of “cloudness” and perhaps something of the predictability of form.
One of the secondary characters in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas explains it this way:
…The actual past is brittle, ever-dimming + ever more problematic to access + reconstruct: in contrast, the virtual past is malleable, ever brightening + ever more difficult to circumvent/expose as fraudulent.
* The present presses the virtual past into its own service, to lend credence to its mythologies + legitimacy to the imposition of will…Symmetry demands an actual + virtual future, too. We imagine how next week, next year, or 2225 will shape up—a virtual future, constructed by wishes, prophecies + daydreams.
Which is what Mitchell has accomplished in this curious novel of nested narratives, linked by the most tenuous of threads, like the fraying tag-ends of clouds pulling apart. The connections between the six distinct—and distinctive—fictions are circumstantial, coincidental, and, on some level, genetic, but unlike novels in which such connections coalesce into resolving tissue upon which the entire plot depends, none of these surface connections does much more than influence the atmosphere. They are clouds contouring the background against which a bigger game is being played.
There is a journal written by a notary on a long sea voyage, which is discovered by a musician who is composing a sextet that will be the crowning achievement of his short life, which is recorded and printed by obscure labels and found by a reporter working to uncover major corporate corruption, whose story informs a book proposal an unlikely specialty publishers reads while trying to free himself from bizarre circumstances, whose life becomes a film seen by a clone-cum-messiah in a corporate future, who is herself the source of a Buddhist-like liberation faith in a future witnessing a collapse of civilization back to the level found in the first narrative.
Another connection is a curious birthmark shared across time, a suggestion of reincarnation. Mercantile concerns dominate the cultures throughout, the making of money a driving force in all but one. Servitude.
On the surface, the novellas comprising the total work, except for these superficial connections, seem as disparate and unique as the styles in which they are written. The journal, written with the stiff formality of a somewhat pretentious educated young man of the 1840s; letters written by a refugee from the Lost Generation to his best friend; a detective story told in third person; a manic tell-all written by an aging publisher with the possibility of a movie in mind; an interrogation session, question and answer; and a first-person oral tale by a semi-literate inhabitant of a future past the collapse of global technical civilization. Mitchell displays enviable skill in each idiom, moving smoothly not just between periods but among the voices of both the times and the genres in which his narrative(s) unfold. (A cloud is always a cloud, regardless its particular shape.)
What links them that they should appear as a unified work, as a novel?
Mitchell, in each and every one of them, is writing about slavery and emancipation, and the costs of both.
Certainly the manifestations are unique to each period, but the essence is there throughout, in some more blatantly than in others, but with rigorous consistency. Freedom, he shows us, means different things to different people, but bondage is the same regardless.
The result of Mitchell’s considerable craft and intelligence is a largely thematic work that doesn’t read like one. Except for a few passages scattered throughout in which circumspection melds with introspection, the stories of these various actors scattered across time are their own, not the theme’s. To do otherwise might perhaps suggest the inevitability (and perhaps desirability) of the very bondage under examination. If not approval, at least acceptance. It would have been easy enough to lose control of his material and produce exactly that validation by writing about his disapproval too obviously. Instead, we find a work in which the judgment is rendered through the lives depicted and not through the author’s too-pointed explications.
Consequently, we have another rarity—a successful work on a profound theme that is actually fun to read.
Mitchell’s pasts are vibrantly-realized, just as the futures are both exotic and familiar at once. As his “theorist” continues, however, in the passage on actual and virtual pasts and presents:
One model of time: an infinite matryoshka doll of painted moments, each “shell” (the present) encased inside a nest of “shells” (previous presents) I call the actual past but which we perceive as the virtual past. The doll of “now” likewise encases a nest of presents yet to be, which I call the actual future but which we perceive as the virtual future.
As has always been the case, fiction is about the present—distorted through the lens of past or future in order to make a particular case about Now. (Nowhere is this distortion more obvious and sometimes poorly-used than in science fiction, but only because of the inherent exoticism of the seemingly unknowable. Mitchell admirably escapes this pitfall.)
Which suggests that in a world wherein actual slavery has been and is being abolished but virtual slavery is on the rise, it is worth trying to distinguish between virtual emancipation and actual emancipation—which is the struggle each one of the people in Cloud Atlas engages. As he carries his theme into the future, he inverts our gaze and shows us that no matter how elusive and indefinite our terms, virtual slavery, if unrecognized, will become actual slavery. In between, we must define what constitutes emancipation and choose between the virtual and the actual.
But the shapes change. Much like clouds in competing fronts.
It is perhaps no accident that the title appears within the novel in relation to only one thing, a piece of music. Music by its nature is infinitely malleable, even while it remains ostensibly the same. Mitchell gives us our map in Zedelghem, Belgium. If we required any further evidence of his thematic telos, here it is. The Cloud Atlas Sextet is composed in a place where, historically, one of the largest complexes of concentration camps was built, and which today remains a largely military area. The ironies implicit multiply under scrutiny.
All of which unfolds and is watched over by the silent judges of history, the dead. In the beginning piece, an alcove is discovered by the narrator of Adam Ewing’s Journal on the island upon which he has been awaiting the repair of the ship he is to take home. Within this alcove, the discovery of which nearly kills him, he finds carved faces along the wall, obscured from above. A collection of memorial carvings, icons, the faces of past denizens of this island. He tells no one, other than those who might read his journal, fearing its destruction (because memory is one of the things conquerors most seek to obliterate). In the far future, where the world is returning to this pre-20th Century condition, the faces are once more present, gathered in a cave where their caretakers go to pray and be in the presence (the Present) of a past (virtual) they no longer remember (actual). The icons of the dead frame the time passing and give us our final connective thread.
History as vapor made momentarily stable, visible.