A Walk in the Clouds of Cloud Atlas, Part 1

Steven F. Hayward04 Mar, 2023 5 Min Read
"The weak are meat the strong do eat."

I read very little contemporary fiction, on the view that there isn’t time, given the classic literature I still haven’t read, not to mention the torrent of current non-fiction I try to follow. Still less am I inclined to read any contemporary fiction that might be colorably considered “postmodern.”

So why would I read David Mitchell’s 2004 novel Cloud Atlas, especially after trying, on airplane flight several years ago, to watch the confusing and borderline incoherent movie based on the book? What’s going on here? Is this some kind of wacky reincarnation story? An overcooked Eastern mystic “everything-is-connected-to-everything-else” pastiche? Did Tom Hanks, Hugh Grant, Hallie Berry, Hugo Weaving, and the rest of the all-star cast get six separate salaries for the six different parts they each played? (The movie’s budget was north of $100 million.)

But here I was a few weeks back, reading Michael Walsh’s concluding chapter to his edited collection Against the Great Reset: Eighteen Theses Contra the New World Order, and came across this:

So entrenched is “transgressive” art that the creative community now bears more than a little resemblance to the sham battles between Union and Unanimity in the “Orison of Somni 451” chapters of David Mitchell’s brilliant 2004 novel, Cloud Atlas. Even those who think they are rebels in fact are being manipulated by government power designed to present the illusion of debate, disagreement and, when necessary, outright rebellion.

Michael added in a helpful footnote:

The 2012 film adaptation defensibly omits this final realization on Sonmi’s part. The audience has become so invested in her parlous slavery, dramatic escape, heroic defiance, and her tragic death would have negated the movie’s overall tone and message.

As it happens, Michael Walsh is not the only Michael who has told me I should read Cloud Atlas. Michael Shellenberger has been saying the same thing to me for several years.

David Mitchell.

So I duly sat down and read it. The Committee of Esteemed Michaels are right: Cloud Atlas is a work of genius, though it does require some careful attention and effort by the reader, similar to James Joyce. I think it has a chance to become the Moby Dick of our age, likely read with interest a century from now and beyond. Moreover I think it is a profoundly small-"c" conservative book, explicitly rejecting the background noise of so-called “progressivism”—the twin pillars of historicism and nihilism—and defending natural right, though this is possibly no purpose of the author. Rather, like all great art, it is an imaginative mirror of nature, in this telling once again “red in tooth and claw.”

The novel comprises six separate stories and timelines spread over five centuries, each with a distinct story genre and prose style, making for an initially jarring reading experience. The first four stories feel familiar because they all belong to the recognizable past or present. The first is a Herman Melville-style ocean-going explorer’s yarn set in 1849 (there are distinct echoes of Typee and Omoo); the second is an interwar take on a striving classical composer whose eventual suicide reminds slightly of Stefan Zweig of The World of Yesterday; the third a Chandleresque thriller-suspense mystery set in 1970s San Francisco; the fourth a comic farce about a slovenly, disreputable London publisher whose later fictionalized film account of his involuntary institutionalization set in 2012 becomes an unlikely bridge to the distant future—a suggestion that it is not necessarily “classic” literature or philosophy that can command consciousness.

The last two stories are set in far distant time—one a dystopian sci-fi tale set in “New Seoul,” Korea, 200 years from now, in which genetically engineered humans known as “fabricants” exist as a brainwashed slave class to serve the materialist needs and desires of “natural” born “pure bloods.” The regime type is self-consciously known as the “Corpocracy,” guided by the ideology of “The Unanimity.” This section reads more vividly amidst our increasingly conformist universities of today, and especially in the aftermath of our recent Covid regime. (The “Corpocracy” of New Seoul is a “bio-state” complete with “DNA sniffers” to detect social deviance through biological markers.)

The prophet of rebellion is fabricant Sonmi 451 (the number surely an homage to Ray Bradbury). She is being interrogated about her views just prior to her execution by an “Archivist” who represents the Unanimity—an homage to Winston Smith’s interrogator O’Brien in 1984 just as “The Unanimity” parallels Big Brother. The Archivist asks Sonmi for “her version of the truth,” to which Sonmi replies: “Truth is singular. Its ‘versions’ are mistruths.” Try saying this on a college campus today, and watch how fast you are cancelled. The bedrock principle of the novel is the metaphysical freedom of the human mind and the importance of individual choice. It implicitly rejects all modern ideologies of a historical dialectic, the easy progressivism of “the right side of history,” and the concomitant leftist materialism that individual choice has no effect amidst the larger forces determining our future. Our universe is not simply random, reduced to matter in motion.

Sonmi 451 ( Doona Bae).

In the film version Sonmi goes on to explain: “’You can maintain power over people as long as you give them something. Rob a man of everything, and that man will no longer be in your power.’” The Archivist knows the reference: “Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, 20th-century philosopher, complete works banned by Unanimity. How do you know about him?” One of her seditious thoughts: “No matter if we are born in a tank or a womb, we are all pureblood. We must all fight, and if necessary die, to teach people the truth.” Just as Lincoln might have put it to Douglas—or at a futuristic Gettysburg.

The final story line in the chronology, though appearing as a complete, standalone central chapter of the book (all the other story lines come in two separate installments), is set in the distant future, and written in a made-up, oral tradition language that takes a while for the reader to grasp. What would Leo Strauss make of this placement and the linguistic equivalent of a “new mode and order” of storytelling?

It features a post-apocalyptic scene set some centuries after the “Corpocracy” has somehow ended—whether through war or revolution is left vague, though Sonmi’s manifesto had some important role in it, like Solzhenitsyn and the Soviet Union. But there was “The Fall” (apparently a global nuclear war whose contamination threatens the survival of the human race, but clearly redolent of the original Fall of Man of the Old Testament), leaving a handful of primitive survivors on the big island of Hawaii. These survivors are split between a peaceful agrarian and pietistic clan who follow the dimly understood teachings of the prophet Sonmi, and a barbaric, cannibalistic tribe they preys on the former in the most violent and gruesome ways. This is a callback to the opening story of novel set in 1849, where the seafaring American lawyer Adam Ewing observes two indigenous South Pacific tribes of similarly contrasting impulses, with the warlike tribe slaughtering the peaceful tribe. Ewing writes in his diary: “What moral to draw? Peace, though beloved of our Lord, is a cardinal virtue only if your neighbors share your conscience.”

But somewhere in this distant post-apocalyptic world of the central story there are a handful of technologically advanced survivors too, who periodically travel to the island on their fusion-powered ships for some mysterious purpose only slowly disclosed. In other words, barbarism in the state of nature remains a fundamental prospect no matter the state of technology or “progress.” No sentimental Rousseau to be found in this grand sweep of several centuries.

Many readers, and especially viewers of the film version that differs from the book in significant ways (as film adaptations must do), primarily take away a theme of reincarnation or the unity of the soul over time. But even if the filmmakers saw it this way, the rich moral-political teaching is more central to the book, and it survives in the film version. That so many readers and viewers miss this is another indicator of the mis-education of our time. This will be the subject of the second installment tomorrow.

Steven F. Hayward is a resident scholar at the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley, and lecturer at Berkeley Law. His most recent book is "M. Stanton Evans: Conservative Wit, Apostle of Freedom." He writes daily at Powerlineblog.com.


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7 comments on “A Walk in the Clouds of Cloud Atlas, Part 1”

  1. Sonmi: "Rob a man of everything, and that man will no longer be in your power.’”
    Kris Kristofferson (1969): "Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose."

  2. I loved the movie, but I see I'm going to have to read the book, now. Thank you, Prof. Hayward!

  3. You make a case for at least looking at it, though I'm skeptical about such an effort based on my impressions of modern fiction and science fiction, and a quick look at the reviews on Amazon.
    (I had some more pertinent comments here but accidentally lost them when I didn't click the captcha)
    But even "Neuromancer" started out as basically a writing exercise and succeeded wildly, so you never know.

  4. Wonderful column. I persisted through Cloud Atlas several years ago and remember being moved and excited by it. After reading at it for a while, the ideas come together, and it's worth the effort. Strangely, Mr. Mitchell's novel The Bone Clocks has been bubbling up in my memory lately asking to be reread. Some synchronicity perhaps? I remember it as terrific and, like Cloud Atlas, challenging. A couple of the same characters appear throughout Mr. Mitchell's books, linking them in a tantilizing way, explaining things, in a way. I'll reread both books for the pleasure of it while pondering your take on CA, and I will look for your follow-on column to this.

  5. I have seen truths transparent as they are made opaque by turbulence of competing narratives, all false, obscuring the beauty of the simple clarity of truth.....time to die.

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