Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell: A Philosophical and Ethical Book Review

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell is a spectacular novel. It is a tour-de-force through six stories, each story with its own genre, creating a multigenre whole unlike any work I’ve read before. (There may be other works out there like this, but I don’t know them – I’m an ethicist, not a lit guy – so if you have suggested readings, let me know!)

I picked up this book because I saw the trailer for the movie version by the Wachowskis (of “The Matrix” fame) that is coming out today. I could tell that the story was going to be fascinatingly intricate, and that a movie could not do it justice, so I wanted to read the novel first before seeing the movie. I won’t include the trailer here because it may affect your reading of the story; it did for me (while reading I kept thinking “I wonder who is going to play this character?”). I will review the movie in a few days and include the trailer then.

In this review I am going to try to avoid specific spoilers, however, the generalities of the work will come up and especially what I see as the moral and philosophical core of the work. If you read this review it may spoil the novel for you on that level, so if that concerns you, just go read the book instead, then come back.

But if you want to know anyway, come along. Here’s how we will go: 1) The story itself, its style and composition, 2) Its major themes, 3) Its similarities and differences with a few other works, and a few allusions I picked up, 4) Its movie potential.

1) The Story

The book is extremely well-written. The stylistic quality is very high, not only in the chiastic structure of the entire work, but in the milieu of each story, in the character development, in the vocabulary and dialect used, in the story itself (satisfying developments abound), and in just about every sentence. This is truly a well-crafted novel, like a house where every detail is carefully planned and executed. Few writers could pull off this level of technical skill – it’s one of those things we amateurs look at and can only say “Wow, now that’s art.” Actually, pros look at it and say that too; on the front cover is a quote from Dave Eggers wondering “how-the-holy-hell-did-he-do-it?” I can compare it to when I saw the Tallis Scholars in concert singing renaissance polyphony – there is too much going on to catch it all in one go. If you really want to understand it, it will take several encounters, and effort. Luckily, the material rewards it.

Mitchell’s capacity for genre is amazing. This book is a maritime/nautical – historical/musical – detective – comedy – science fiction – post-apocalyptic hybrid, each story nested inside the others as a tale from the past, recorded and later found, each explaining something about the others. The full complexity is very difficult to grasp in its depth even as a reader, much less to actually execute as an author. Yet despite the difficulty intrinsic to this project, the novel is very readable. It did drag in a few places, to be sure. Not all people will find each story compelling, I certainly found one to be particularly annoying, but it was the character – a character necessary to the story – not the execution by the author.

Overall, the genre of the entire book is speculative fiction and dystopia (dystopia is at the center of the chiasm, and therefore the focal point of the novel). I happen to like both SF and dystopia as genres since they often include great moral elements, and Cloud Atlas certainly does (more below).

While reading this book, do not get tricked into thinking that just because you have reached the end of the sixth story that the rest of the book is just mop-up. This is how I felt as I read it, I got to the end of the sixth story and I thought since it was farthest in the future and the most central story, it must be the “real end” and the rest of the book was just to explain how that real, final ending happened. This is not true – wait for the last page, it is important. Only the last pages make sense of the whole. Cloud Atlas is a morality tale, a warning against real dystopia from the fictional dystopia that Mitchell has created, delivered as a warning to us, hopefully to our benefit. Preachy, but important.

The dialect used in the sixth story is difficult to read, a degenerated form of English appropriate to the barbaric times in which it is spoken. This language can bog you down just when you are most eager to see what happens next, and I have no doubt that this was intentional; it makes the reader pay attention. It definitely shows Mitchell’s powers as an author, he knows a hundred ways to control the story, and he displays who-knows-how-many of these tricks throughout the novel.

The narrative arc of the work runs from overt barbarity to covert barbarity and back to overt barbarity again, making the times in the story most similar to those we live in rather pleasant compared to the past or future. The point, however, is that barbarity just changes forms. It is always there, waiting to erupt.

Importantly, Cloud Atlas is not trying to be non-fiction. It is speculative, not predictive. Many of its settings could have been real places but are instead intentionally imaginary, though a world like it is a possible future for our own. I think Mitchell was wise to do this – it lightens the burden of the work, makes it less personal to us, less investing, less incriminating, reducing our likelihood of psychological rejection. (And it also might save him a lawsuit or two for libel… when truth won’t do, try allegory).

Lastly, there is a recurring birthmark in the story which I found to be a cumbersome plot element. Luckily, Mitchell actually has a character point it out and make fun of it at one point, and that lightened the mood considerably. Once again, this guy is an expert. He can even make fun of his own plot elements in the act of using them.

2) The Themes

The exploitation of others through slavery and various other forms of violence and dehumanization is the major theme of this work. In each story there is some sort of exploitation going on, often many kinds, and these evils – personal or institutionalized, but rampant – eventually destroy civilization. Humans are exploited, the environment is exploited, and eventually both end up dead.

By the temporal end of the story, “Deadlands” have spread across the globe until only a few last human refugia remain; the rest of the Earth too lethally poisoned for human life. This might seem like a remote possibility for the future, until we remember that Chernobyl, Fukushima, parts of Nevada, Siberia, and the Marshall Islands, and no doubt other places, actually already are Deadlands – too contaminated for human life due to radioactive accident. And that is just in the last 70 years, and with only one kind of technology. As our technological powers grow, I think we may not unreasonably expect these dead areas to grow as well due to pollution, climate change, invasive bioengineered species or diseases, and so on, and perhaps eventually join, as Mitchell proposes here. This is unfortunately not too far-fetched. Hopefully this Deadland future will remain very limited, but our own record so far on creating these places is not good.

The few humans left alive in refuges are disrupted and warring. Technology has fallen, and furthermore it was technology – coupled with human hubris, lust for power, and vice – that enabled this Fall in the first place. Even in desperation, competition and not cooperation rules the day; humans are still up to their old exploitative tricks.

Religion and philosophy are major themes in this book. Reincarnation ties the stories together through recurring characters. Christianity is the most frequently encountered religion, and its adherents are depicted as both highly moral and highly immoral. Just like real life – some Christians are good and some are bad.

Despite this mixed depiction of Christians, which I think we Christians should acknowledges as the truth and not pretend otherwise (our religion being a hospital for sinners and all), the overall message of the book is highly Christian friendly. The message of this book is solidarity, mutual support, love, cooperation, respect, human dignity, and all that great stuff. In giving away ourselves and our lives, we gain them back again. Individual Christians might be variable, but the Christian message of human dignity is invariable depicted positively.

It’s not only altruism, however, but also common sense (and of course Catholicism captures both sides of this revelatory altruism / common sense though its use of both revelation and natural law). At one point a first character saves the life of a second, and points out to a second that really the second character, by earlier saving the first, allowed the first later to save him in turn, and thus the second character basically just saved himself. (Whew, that was complicated.) The message is that we are all in this together, and that isn’t just good morality, it’s just plain good thinking.

The opposing camp to the one of altruism and common sense is presented in clear and stark terms as Nietzschean will to power. It is purest evil, reducing human life to mere tools and means, without any moral value at all. The “natural order” of kill or be killed, the strong consuming the weak. People are exploited, raped, murdered, used for parts, completely dehumanized. These grotesque acts are presented in the book just vividly enough to make us hate them, but they are not overdone. I get the sensation that Mitchell wants evil to be explicit and crystal clear, but he does not want to glorify or hurt us with it. Of course, writers know that sometimes the story writes itself more than we write it, so I might be over-emphasizing the intention, but never-the-less that’s how it seemed to me.

By the way, this is not a kids or even a young teenagers book; this is for college-level maturity or greater.

The ontological status of religion in general is something of a mystery in the work (as it is in many ways in real life). While relying on reincarnation as a tool for connecting the tales (and perhaps a little too contrived in places – but the limits of explaining hard-thought intricacy are hard to find), and using a tiny bit of supernatural connectivity at other places, the work is also religiously ambivalent. Religions can go extinct and be replaced, thus indicating that they have no independent ontological status. Materialism is proposed as a real possibility, though not with any evidence. Overall, metaphysics is used by the story and not fully explained, nor need it necessarily be.

Political and economic powers clearly influence religion as well, so there is some Marxist, Weberian, and Durkheimian influence here – if not necessarily with Mitchell himself, then among the characters in the world he has created. In one story, corporations destroy the old religions and replace them with a religion based on materialistic consumption, including equating the human soul with a computer chip linked to one’s bank-account. Awesome social commentary, and in this story the old religions get some respect just for the very fact that at least they didn’t do that to people.

Corporations are major villains in the book, providing a running theme of villainy, so if you love corporations you might not like those aspects of Cloud Atlas. But, then again, who really loves corporations anyway? They’re a soft target. (In this way, perhaps, Mitchell exploits a non-human entity as a moral bogey-man in his story, to highlight the exploitation of the human person by the non-human institution). Mitchell’s point here is, I think, that human persons are the locus of moral concern, not human aggregations (corporations or institutions) or human disaggregations (human psychological or physical parts ascendant to the detriment of all else, e.g. human will to power at the expense of morality and a whole soul). Groups or parts run rampant will dehumanize not only others, but also the persons involved in these groups or parts. Attacked or seduced by these forces of deformation, eventually there are no real humans left, both figuratively and literally.

As a final theme, I am reminded of the saying of one of my professors here at GTU.  When you are discussing morality “Don’t tell people what to do, tell them who they are.” Throughout Cloud Atlas we are told who we ought to be as much by negative as by positive example. We are to be the good guys, the cooperators, those who respect life, and not those who exploit or kill. The most morally upstanding character is explicit in his instructions at one point in the novel (and he can get away with it after what he’s been through…), but other than that we are shown, not told, about the world, which is the first rule of writing fiction.

3) Its Relationships to Other Works

I am a fan of Philip K. Dick, and I never thought I would see the day when another writer was compared to PKD as though that were a good, mainstream, thing. But that day has come; the back cover of Cloud Atlas actually does this. But if you are reading Cloud Atlas as a fan of PKD I have a warning: I think Cloud Atlas, contrary to its back cover, is not really “in the tradition of” PKD’s works. (Seriously, nothing is.) Dick’s novels are more grasping and exploratory and implicit (though often still highly morally charged), while in this novel Mitchell has a moral message from the first page and takes it all the way to the last. The moral message infuses every aspect of the book, and it is not implicit, it is clear and explicit. And honestly, Mitchell is in some ways a better writer than Dick. Dick’s brilliance was in his ideas and story execution, in the honesty and humanity of his characters, and not in his prose style. Mitchell has those positives (though in different ways) and the style with it. More literary and different ideas at play.

PKD was brilliant in his ability to probe certain very crucial and hard to explore areas, generally to do with “what is an authentic human?” and “what is ultimate reality?” That is not what Mitchell does in this work. Both those questions are confronted, but only peripherally, not in their essences, and not with the same existential angst that Dick confronts them with. Mitchell is presenting a serious moral work trying to modify human behavior towards the good, in the spirit of narrative ethics, and in the mindset of Richard Rorty’s idea that we ought to use “sentimental tales” to spark human moral imagination and concern.  PKD could do that as well, but in his humanity, I think PKD was actually somewhat less clear in his message, and that has its own benefits too. In its complexity, Cloud Atlas can seem a bit superhuman and in a story meant to humanize humanity that can be a flaw.

What other stories can Cloud Atlas be compared to or does Cloud Atlas call on for inspiration or allusion?

Mitchell’s use of reincarnation recalls The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson which is also a good book (worth reading, but not as outstanding as Red Mars and Green Mars). It is similar to Collins’s The Hunger Games in that a high tech future can still wallow in the lowest moral standards. There are elements of Orwell’s 1984 (false resistance movement), Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (Sonmi’s number, and the role of words in human culture), Sinclair’s The Jungle (exploitation and slaughterhouse), Golding’s Lord of the Flies (a barbarous degenerate island), Huxley’s Brave New World (technological dehumanization), Bester’s The Stars My Destination (redemption), and Quinn’s Ishmael (primitives can be smarter than we are, and a moral plea for action). There is even, I think, an allusion to Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher, though it could be that I am making it up (but I would like to know!). And of course, it is a sort of anti-Atlas Shrugged, by Rand, if one wants to look for oppositions with similar titles. There are tons more connections, this is just what I can think of off the top of my head. [Update: I just remembered another good connection – to Graham Green’s novel Monsignor Quixote, which mixes reality and fiction in a very humorous way.]

4) As a Movie?

What will the movie be like? The novel is ambitious and it will not translate easily to the screen. Using actors playing the reincarnating characters will stifle what can be done in terms of suiting particular milieus and overdetermine the viewer’s imagination in places, I expect. If they manage to avoid that it will surprise me. Also, being a dystopia, there will be a lot of “whoa, bummer” aspects of the novel to sort out.  Hollywood is usually not good at that, there always has to be hope at the end, and in the novel while that is present (this is not our world after all, it is a warning to our world, as I said above), it will be hard to execute on the screen.

Movies are also always intrinsically more amusement and pleasure-centered, so a story about exploitation will be hard to convey in its full strength when people really just want to be eating their popcorn and being entertained. It also runs the risk of glorifying the exploitation, which I really hope the movie does not do because it would entirely ruin the moral message of the story.

That said, I have mixed expectations for the movie. There is a lot of action and atmosphere in the book that will translate easily to the big screen, and a lot of subtleties and concepts that will not – they will either be overdone or have to be dropped out. Such is life translating between media.

In any case, despite my mixed expectations, I can’t wait to go see the movie. The book is certainly worth it. I am thankful to Mitchell for writing it, it is a gift, though a hard one in many ways.

A warning is always a hard gift. But lacking it is worse. I hope that the movie, which will no doubt reach many more people than the book, serves the story well. In many ways this is an evangelical novel, sharing the gospel of life, but doing so in a way compatible with the world as it is now, beset with problems, confusions, and constrictions on what can be acceptably said.

Nearing conclusion, all of this review literally barely scratches the surface of the book. There is a lot of substance here, much to chew on for those with the appetite. It really needs to be read twice – and even with the warning that you’ll need to read it twice, you still won’t get it all the first time.

So definitely read Cloud Atlas. It is one of the most thought-provoking and well executed books I’ve read in a long time.


15 responses to “Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell: A Philosophical and Ethical Book Review

  • Lauren Smith

    I am a bit embarrassed to say that I haven’t heard of the book or the movie. Great review. I am going to read the book soon. Another great book that I just finished is called, “The Power of a Virtuous Woman” by author Paula Penn-Nabrit. This a non-fiction book written for Christians, which explores Proverbs 31 and the issue of virtue for women with examples used from King David, Bathsheba and King Solomon. It honestly talks about the challenges of marriage from a woman’s perspective.

  • Gabriella Lettini

    Thank you for your review of the book. I will definitely read it now. I watched the movie and now I am really curious to read your review of it! Gabriella Lettini

  • Robyn

    I will be reading it too!

  • Joe

    Hey Brian,
    I saw the movie and thought it was pretty good. The movie makes a lot of references to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Im not familiar with his philosophy but I know him to be devout Christian. Did the book make any references to him or was that something added by the screenwriters? Why would he be significant to the story?

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  • samantha

    i have a question thats been bothering me and i hope you can give me the answer. the quote given by sonmi about our lives are not our own… is that written by david mitchell or is it from another writer?

    • Stella

      I have been searching online for this answer. Will someone please confirm if this was in the book. If it was in the book, could you please state the page number. I just finished the book and I don’t recall the quote being in there. Thanks.

      • Brian Green

        Thank you for your question. Short answer is – I don’t know. I don’t remember it in the book, but I haven’t read it looking for it either. Maybe someone else here does.

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  • deme church

    I will read the book asap. My new favorite movie. A little fyi, Christians don’t believe in reincarnation or supernatural events so how can you people say its for “Christians”? I mean if you’re referring to the evils and destructive patterns of humanity in the story yeah sure its Christian like, but I believe its origin if any is based on Theosophy. Madame Blavatsky would have enjoyed this story.

  • Elley

    Well written, friend! I have Cloud Atlas (CA) on (TV) at the moment, and am overlapping to look up the character/actor list. I came across your Book Review. I’ll be ordering this book now. I was undecided, but now, and only because I’ve seen and studied the film a dozen times, I’m ready for the novel. Thank you for trying to assure me that it has been written clearly – because it IS complicated… good grief, it has six story-lines! I love it and have an attachement to it now. PS, many years ago, my Grandmother gave me a book to read; it covered the lives of five women. Each story intersected somehow with another. A small impact or something life-changing, and I found all of it intriguing. Finally, after a week of glue-eyed reading, I was finished. Now here I am, 40 years later, telling someone about that book. In conclusion, we used to say, “read the book – then see the movie”. Most do the opposite now, oh well. I cannot wait to start, thank you!/Elley

  • geb

    I saw Cloud Atlas in the theaters when it first came out and I decided to read the novel just last month and finished it today. I loved the movie and the novel was amazing… I’ve been poring over various analyses of the book, and it has all been very interesting. I just wanted to leave this comment to recommend another book that, to me, is like a sister book to Cloud Atlas. The book is “Voice of the Fire” by Alan Moore. It is 12 stories that are set in a region of central England over a span of 6000 years. There are themes of reincarnation, of redemption, of the barbarism of humankind to one another, of the fall of all empires,of dreams and the connections between the dreamers and the dream. I really liked this book and maybe you will too. 🙂

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