Book Club book #6: Cloud Atlas

The time finally came around for me to pick a book, and it was around this time that I started hearing about a movie making the rounds in the US called Cloud Atlas. The trailer had me intrigued, so I thought I'd be one of the people who was trying to cram the book version into their heads before they tried to cram the movie version into their heads.

At the time, the release schedule for Cloud Atlas in New Zealand was for the end of February 2013, so our book club planned to have our first book club movie night, watching Cloud Atlas the movie, just after we had finished reading Cloud Atlas the book. February came, and Cloud Atlas mysteriously vanished from movie listings. After another month of waiting, I started ringing-up cinemas to find out what happened. Nobody had any explanation for what happened, but they repeated what I had started to fear: that the movie had been pulled from being released in New Zealand, possibly due to poor overseas performance at the box office.

If there was anything to learn from Cloud Atlas, both the book and the lack of a movie, is that they were both exercises in setting my expectations, and to be ready when things start to disappoint.

Cloud Atlas

Book, $11.10 USD on Kindle, written by David Mitchell,
Cloud Atlas cover

Cloud Atlas seems to me like a strange little experiment in an alternative story-telling method. The overall story is about the lives of several people throughout the span of human history: from the age of sail and exploration, to a very distant post-apocalyptic future. Each of the individual stories told across the ages are connected in some way.

When it comes to telling each separate story, David Mitchell does this by starting the one furthest in the past first, then at the half-way point it cuts-off to start telling the second story. When the second story reaches about half-way, it stops to then tell the third story, and so on until we get to the sixth story which gets told to completion. When that one finishes, the fifth story concludes, then the fourth, and so on until we complete the first, and thus all, the stories.

The first story is about a man sailing across the Pacific, the second story is about a young man trying to find his fortune as an assistant to a master composer, the third story is about a woman reporter uncovering some kind of corporate conspiracy, the fourth is of an older man down on his luck as a publisher, the fifth is about a female... synthetic human (??? It's like super AI and cyborg technology), and the last is about a young man on some island in a post-apocalyptic world.

The way I was introduced to the 'everything is connected' idea in the movie trailer, I thought the book was really going to play on how each of those lives had some direct effect on the others. The reality however, was that the connections weren't pretty few and tame: an artefact from one life was present in another, some of the characters maybe shared the same birth mark... and that was about it. No life really had any direct effect on the other as each life was more of a passive observer into the life that came before.

It was my greatest expectation that this interconnectedness was critical to the plot, and as I read through each new story I had more and more hopes that something was actually going to happen with it. But after I passed the mid-way point in the book and each story started unravelling in reverse chronological order, my expectations were shattered again, and again, and again.

By the end of the book, I instead felt that I had just read 6 very separate stories, in some ridiculous order, bundled together under some title that barely featured in the book at all! Hell, even the last sentences had nothing to do with 'clouds' or 'atlases', and we instead get some metaphor about the ocean?

What. The. Fuck.

My expectations for the book had been broken six times over, and I was telling the book club at our next meeting that I seriously hoped that the movie was going to be better. Of course, that was before I learned that the movie had been pulled from NZ cinemas and had my expectations broken for a seventh time.

Is there anything good I can say about this book? Plenty: the writing was top-notch (styles varied depending on the era, even going so far as to create a dialect for the far-flung future eras), the characters I could sympathize with, and the individual stories were all enjoyable to read in their own right. So I was never bored as I made my way through each of the stories.

However, as each story ended, I was never happy either. The overall package made no sense, and I struggle to think of what the reason is in putting all these stories together. I didn't come away from the book feeling enlightened, and I didn't really learn anything new. It all just felt meaningless.

I look forward to having a meaningless conversation with you

That might just be me though: the movie had me expecting one thing, and when I went to the book for it, it failed to deliver. If I ever get the chance to watch the movie, I really hope it'll be better. Then again, given the movie was pulled due to poor overseas performance, maybe I'm just setting myself up for disappointment again.

5.5 out of 10.