I came to this book late, and for the past couple of years I often felt like I was the only of my friends that still hadn’t read it. Fortunately Bobby left is paperback copy with me after his visit (I hadn’t read a paperback in over a year) and every evening since I thumbed through thirty or so pages before falling asleep.
So much has been written about this book; there is nothing I could add beyond yet another devoted endorsement. I agree with John Mullan’s pleasant surprise that the novel has been so well received, and what it says “about the contemporary reader’s willingness to accept what would once have been thought experimental narrative technique.”
It’s also worth noting, as Lee Konstantinou did in Slate last year, that the dystopian sci-fi has officially been welcomed into the gates of highbrow literature. (I’m especially thinking of Super Sad True Love Story — the last book I gave 5 stars — and Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, which I haven’t read but it’s on the list.)
Cloud atlas is divided into six (just barely) connected stories that each represent a different genre and narrative style, spread out across the Pacific in the 1850s, 1930s, 70s, 80s, and then far into the dystopian future. As all reviewers have written, the book is much more than the sum of its parts. By the middle of the book we begin to piece together a coherent moral thesis. Mitchell himself has claimed that the novel’s theme is “predacity, the way individuals prey on individuals, groups on groups, nations on nations, tribes on tribes.” But our relationship with technology, and its influence on our ethical decisions is another theme that surfaces its head in all the stories.
We could frame the novel’s moral inquiry with this question: What happens when the greatest risk to humanity’s survival is our own invention? This, of course, was the great question of the anti-nuclear movement of the 1960s and 70s, which occupies a substantial portion of the novel and foreshadows humanity’s ultimate downfall due to our inability to prioritize ethics over profits in our relationship with technology.
The novel places a moral challenge to all non-vegetarian readers (and I’ve found no evidence that Mitchell himself is vegetarian). It depicts the conquest and enslavement of the Moriori by the Maori, of the Polynesians by the Europeans, and of the genetically-engineered clones by the non-genetically-engineered humans. (I was disturbed when I realized that I felt more sympathy for the enslaved genetically-engineered clones than the enslaved Moriori or Polynesians.) The reader is forced to conclude that the we can only rein in our tendency to conquer and enslave by treating those we perceive to be beneath us with empathy and respect. This is true for 19th century Europeans who assumed that Polynesians were lesser beings, and for our future selves who will surely assume that genetically-engineered clones are lesser beings than organically born humans. Yet every time we eat meat, we are also assuming that other animals are lesser beings than ourselves. If one day those genetically-engineered clones decide to turn on us and enslave the humans, what moral argument can we make?
The philosopher Huw Price has founded the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at Trinity College in Cambridge to explore these very questions. As he wrote in a recent piece for the New York Times:
I do think that there are strong reasons to think that we humans are nearing one of the most significant moments in our entire history: the point at which intelligence escapes the constraints of biology. And I see no compelling grounds for confidence that if that does happen, we will survive the transition in reasonable shape. Without such grounds, I think we have cause for concern.
If this all sounds so far away, most likely it’s not. Cloud Atlas is a sublime depiction across centuries and the Pacific of how it became too late for us all.
I’m soooo excited to see the film adaptation.