Cloud Atlas is a novel of colossal ambition. It is an interweaving saga of six different stories that take you on a journey from the beginnings of the nineteenth century to a post-apocalyptic future called “The Fall”.
What is curious about this novel is that its reception has been generally polarizing, some readers and critics praise the author David Mitchell for his eclectic writing style, noting that Mitchell can “become any writer he chooses to” and that the novel displays his command over multiple genres, other readers and reviewers, however, were less impressed and have panned the novel as “pretentious” in its spiritual themes, “weak” in its narrative and “tenuous” in the connection it creates between the six stories.
I just finished reading the novel and decided to share my own version of what this novel is like, so without further ado, I shall begin:
I think that Cloud Atlas does take the reader on an epic journey and some of the stories such as The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing are written exceptionally well, in a style reminiscent of classics such as Melville’s Moby Dick – Letters from Zedelghem is another one of the six stories, written uniquely in the form of one sided letters from a 20th century composer to his best friend and fascinates the reader with its wit, humor and charm.
But not all of the six stories the novel is divided into are written equally well, where Mitchell begins to struggle are the futuristic and post-apocalyptic parts of the novel, such as the Orison of Sonmi and Sloosha’s Crossing – these parts seem unabsorbing, , lacking in depth and poorly written – generally speaking. Some parts of these futuristic and post-apocalypttic stories such as the pidgin tongue Sloosha’s crossing is written in just feel contrived (it is just English with a few letters from a few words omitted) and other parts of these stories are just plain unconvincing.
What is even more noteworthy is that the links between the six stories should have been (& very well could have been) better-thought-of as they were the most crucial yet the weakest element of the whole narrative. The stories are connected by silly happenstance and mystical matching birthmarks borne by the main characters, makes me roll my eyes, seriously.
Overall, I do recommend the novel to any avid reader of fiction, I think it is a novel that is generally well-written and deserves praise due to its high ambitions. But do I think Mitchell can become any writer he chooses and displays mastery over diverse styles and genres? No, not at all, in fact this is where he fails miserably, he is great at some styles but lacks the same brilliance in others.
Film adaptations have always disappointed me, so I don’t watch movie adaptations of novels I’ve read with high expectations any more. One recent examples is the novel Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer which was an amazing sci-fi-horror-thriller that kept me on the edge as i leafed through it, every page is haunting and terrorizing in an eerie way, but the Movie was so weak & altered in so many ways that I would say it is just another forgettable, cliched Hollywood sci-fi movie. (Central to the novel is a mysterious “Tower” and most of the novel is centered around it, it is completely missing in the movie)
Coming back to the topic after that brief digression, Cloud Atlas (movie) might still stand a good chance if you haven’t read the book – but if you have, the stark differences and the omissions will annoy you. Some of the important characters in the novel do not exist in the movie, the structure of the movie is not the same as that of the novel, actors are repeated in roles for reasons I cannot comprehend (budget issues, maybe?), many substantial (and very interesting) parts of the story that are crucial to the plot are left out in the movie, the ending has been changed, and this is just a list of the few things I can remember off the top of my head.
The movie is lackluster compared to the novel, which film adaptations almost always are, so hardly a surprise there. Honestly if you ask me, I would rather never have watched the movie at all, but it would be unfair not to consider this: It is almost impossible to cram a novel of this scale into a 2 hour movie without making a few sacrifices.
With all that said, if you have not read the book yet, and you do like reading fiction, I highly recommend that you pick up a copy of Cloud Atlas even if you skip the movie.
In an earlier post on my blog, i shared an excerpt from Richard Dawkin’s “The God Delusion” in which he explored the roots of morality.
Dawkins argues, at first that religious and non-religious people alike arrive at more or less the same decisions when presented with a series of moral dilemmas, and then expounds on his argument by suggesting that religious people, no matter what they like to think, do not draw moral guidance strictly from scripture.
This is where the concept of a moral zeitgeist is put forward by Dawkins. He asserts that there is a widely agreed-upon and prevalent moral consensus among people living during a particular epoch.
Zeitgeist is a German word which means “spirit of the times” – and as we can easily observe, there is a somewhat mysterious yet strong consensus on what is good and what is bad, what is right versus what is wrong, among people living during a certain age.
This zeitgeist, it seems, morphs and changes, and it seems to do so rather swiftly as appreciable progressive changes can be seen over the course of a few decades, what is also strikingly apparent is that this zeitgeist moves in a rather consistent direction.
As this zeitgeist progresses, some of us lag behind the advancing wave while some of us are slightly ahead of our times. But most of us in the twenty-first century, collectively, are way ahead of our counterparts in the Middle Ages or people living as recently as the early twentieth century.
Let us quote some of the most progressive minds of the early twentieth century and see for ourselves how these people, enlightened and forward as they were for their times, would be considered extremely unpleasant and racist today for their words:
T.H Huxley wrote the following in 1871:
No rational man, cognizant of the facts, believes that the average negro is the equal, still less the superior, of the white man. And if this be true, it is simply incredible that, when all his disabilities are removed, and our prognathous relative has a fair field and no favor, as well as no oppressor, he will be able to compete successfully with his bigger-brained and smaller-jawed rival, in a contest which is to be carried on by thoughts and not by bites. The highest place in the hierarchy of civilization will assuredly not be within the reach of our dusky cousins.
Abraham Lincoln, the US president that led his country through the civil war and emancipated the slaves, in a debate in 1858 with Stephen A Douglas, said the following:
I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races; that i am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people, and I will say, in addition to this, that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And in as much as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.
H.G Wells, a futuristic writer during his own time, writes about his uptopian New Republic:
And how will the New Republic treat the inferior races? How will it deal with the black? the yellow man? the Jew? those swarms of black, brown and dirty-white, and yellow people, who do not come into the new needs of efficiency? Well, the world is a world, and not a charitable institution, and I take it they will have to go .. And the ethical system of these men of the New Republic, the ethical system which will dominate the world state, will be shaped primarily to favor the procreation of what is fine and efficient and beautiful in humanity – beautiful and strong bodies, clear and powerful minds … and the method that nature has followed hitherto in the shaping of the world, whereby weakness was prevented from propagating weakness .. is death .. The men of the New Republic … will have an ideal that will make the killing worth the while.
The foregoing comments by Wells, Huxley and Lincoln, would make for acceptable dinner-table arguments back in early 1900’s, modern listeners or readers by contrast wince and feel horrified and nauseated by these statements.
We might also consider the fact that enlightened, progressive and liberal leaders such as Washington and Jefferson were slave-owners during their own times.
This of course brings us to the all too important question: where does this moral consensus originate from? And secondly, what could be the factors that contribute to such widespread synchronization and agreement among people of a certain age on questions of right versus wrong?
The question of origin requires a detailed analysis. As for the synchronization and the widespread reach of this moral consensus we can say that it might be attributed to conversations in bars and dinner parties, magazines and books, newspapers and broadcasting, political speeches and activism movements, soap operas and stand-up comedians, social media and the internet.
In the old testament (Exodus 31:14), the punishment for working on the Sabbath is clearly prescribed as death. Modern adherents of Judaism or Christianity would laugh at the suggestion of someone being stoned to death for not observing the Sabbath.
Let’s examine the zeitgeist in our own context. The question can be put rather simply : Do we advocate a strict interpretation and implementation of the shariah and scripture given morality knowing that it means whipping and lashing, mutilation of the limbs for theft, public stoning for infidelity and capital punishments for crimes such as apostasy? And do we, in the twenty first century, having our social consciousness raised by decades of feminist activism, support that a woman should only have half the testimony or share in inheritance or that a husband should be allowed to hit his wife if she is disobedient? Have we indeed, with the passage of time, adopted a more muted approach towards issues such as homosexuality due to the zeitgeist? And do most of us cherry pick what we can from the scripture based on what we think is peaceable and compatible with modern morality instead of adopting it strictly as it is handed down in order to avoid being labeled as fundamentalist or extremist?
The changing moral zeitgeist seems to exist universally, something seems to impel it in a consistently progressive direction and it seems to be affecting all of us regardless of our religious beliefs or inclinations.