Cloud Atlas

I’ll admit: I picked up the Cloud Atlas novel mostly because the trailer for the movie adaption of the same name looked pretty interesting, a juxtaposition of what seemed like many different places and time periods and themes. Indeed, the novel is a series of Russian nesting doll stories, set in both the past and the future, with fairly distinct writing styles and telling fairly different stories that ultimately tie back onto each other via small but not insignificant means.

It’s unique and unlike anything I’ve read1.

What I found impressive about the book was that the author, David Mitchell, was able to write each mini-story, in its own time and place, with a very distinct protagonist who has his/her own voice. Voice is hard to precisely define; subtleties like tone and vocabulary and grammar all play a contributing role. For the vast majority of us, the way we write has been shaped and refined by years of writing, reading, and speaking, and it takes effort to establish a convincing fictional penmanship.

J.R.R. Tolkien famously created new languages for the world of Middle Earth, and set the standard for the fantasy genre in how the fiction around a story fleshes out the main plot. Cloud Atlas achieves a similar goal with the presentation of each character, in that the illusion of a character is amplified by how they choose their words, how they apply grammar (particularly the made-up English derivatives of the future), and how the story hints at vague milestones that we, readers in the 21st century, can relate to. It’s a difficult technique to pull off, and rare in science fiction.

  1. I also liked the movie, which managed to retell much of the separate stories as one long feature film while cleverly recasting the same actors to provide that feeling of continuity and connection. I suspect, though, that people who have not read the books will find the interleaved narratives too chaotic to follow.

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