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Cloud Atlas – Book Review

CloudAtla750by David Mitchell

Publisher: Random House Trade Paperback Edition

Copyright: 2012, 2004

Cover: Warner Bros. Pictures

Reviewed by: Lynard Barnes, December 8, 2012


Summary:  It’s complicated.  It is an enormously entertaining, superbly written work of fiction that is an experience in and of itself.

We meet Adam Ewing, a lawyer and the protagonist in CLOUD ATLAS, as he is about to embark upon the ship Prophetess on his way back to the San Francisco of 1849. We meet him again, and again, and again, until finally we meet a version of Adam Ewing after he is ravaged by the ups and downs of life at sea in which he must weigh his actions relative to the acts inflicted upon the lives of others, from slavery to sexual abuse.  That’s one way of looking at the story told by CLOUD ATLAS.  Another way to look at the story is as a simple exposition where life is the protagonist and Adam Ewing is the event which happens to it.  By the end of the story, it is not so much the perspective on the story we remember but the incredible skill of the writer and the characters he creates.

When we reviewed Winston Groom’s FOREST GUMP (reviewed November 1994), we observed that the movie managed to infuse spirit into a story which the book, in the telling, lacked.  The possible problem with the movie CLOUD ATLAS is the opposite problem—sucking the spirit out of a story that relies heavily upon the magic of the written word. We have not as yet seen the movie.

In each of the six incarnations of Adam Ewing, Mitchell captures the atmosphere of the times of his character by skillful, manipulative use of language.  For instance, in a distant future of 2144 in Neo Seoul (Korea), we meet a character named Sonmi-451.  Sonmi-451 is a female genetic clone whose only purpose in life is to be a server at a fast-food restaurant.  Everything we learn about Sonmi-451 and her society is relayed during what we discover an interrogation conducted after her arrest. She tells her story to an Archivist and it is this telling that we are privy to.

It is through the art of fiction that we discover that all the characters in the life vignettes presented in CLOUD ATLAS are in fact the reincarnation of Adam Ewing.  The voice in the back of our mind nags with the question of what exactly is reincarnation. It is estimated that between thirty and forty percent of Westerners believe in reincarnation. The only two religious groups with a theological argument against reincarnation are Christianity and Islam.

The Western concept of reincarnation dates from theologian Origen of Alexandria (184 to 254).  Origen was ex-communicated precisely because he managed to insert reincarnation into the Christian concept of redemption. There is a fairly strong argument to be made that reincarnation was a part of early Christian theology. By 500 A.D., promoting the idea of the individual as part of a community, the idea of reincarnation just did not fit. Reincarnation provides too much room for exhibition of individualism. All behavior must be centered on the community (religious tenets, unity of the Roman Empire, etc.) and not life experiences—present or past. When the Dali Lama was asked what would happen to Buddhists belief if science proved that reincarnation did not exists, the Dali Lama said that Buddhists would have to change their belief in reincarnation. He also said that it would be very difficult for science to prove that reincarnation does not exist.

NBC News science reporter Melinda Wenner reported in April, 2007 that researchers at Masstricht University in The Netherlands found that people who believe that they were once “Indian princesses or battlefield commanders” or other “past lives” personas are most likely suffering from memory errors. The memory errors, so the report goes, are most likely the result of a creative imagination.  Saying that people who believe in reincarnation are suffering from “creative imagination” is the same as saying that having a creative imagination can result in a belief in reincarnation.  This is a near-perfect example of going from amorphous to fog with a single thought.

Whether David Mitchell believes in reincarnation or not, he is certainly gifted with “creative imagination”.  Whether others who believe in reincarnation are similarly gifted is open to discussion.  However, it is really irrelevant. Science is just now, within the last twenty years, addressing the question of the origin of the mind.  This new endeavor arises only after recognition that the brain as a biological component within the machinery of biological life is more a filter than an engine of reality.

CLOUD ATLAS is extraordinary entertainment. For those of us who believe that there is more space than grains of sand out there, CLOUD ATLAS nudges us to examine what we do now to make the tomorrows better.


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