Book: Cloud Atlas - Livre d'Or








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livredor
Book: Cloud Atlas
Wednesday, 08 June 2005 at 07:20 pm
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Author: David Mitchell

Details: (c) 2004 David Mitchell; Pub 2004 Hodder & Stoughton; ISBN 0-340-82278-3

Verdict: Cloud Atlas is pretty mediocre.

Reasons for reading it: It's a very talked about book at the moment.

How it came into my hands: Congratulation present from the lab on getting my PhD! I believe Boss S chose it. I'm really touched with the fact that they decided to give me books rather than the standard leaving gifts, so thoughtful and I really like being the lab bookworm.

The conceit of Cloud Atlas is that it has what some Biblical scholars of my acquaintance like to call a concentric or chiastic structure, with the first and last sections, the second and penultimate sections and so on matching, and the climax in the middle. To tell the truth, this just didn't work for me. It seems like a series of writing samples, which would be something I might want to read from a really loved author, but Mitchell just isn't that wonderful. IMO it would have worked better as simply a set of short stories; the clever-clever chiasma thing didn't do anything for me. The way it's broken up, stopping at a cliffhanger and jumping forward (first half) or back (second half) in time to an essentially unrelated story made me lose interest. The first half of the book felt like reading six opening chapters, not even complete enough to count as short stories, and every single one of the completions disappointed me.

There are hints of connections between the stories, but they are either silly (person in story 2 finds a manusrcript of story 1, person in story 3 reads the letters of story 2 etc) or not sufficiently developed. The concept of the various protagonists being reincarnations of eachother is tantalizing, but never filled in enough to hold the book together. The whole thing just feels gimmicky. The only other connecting theme is a heavy-handed moral message about how human greed leads to destruction and eventually self-destruction. While this is true, I feel desperately preached at, (not just by the narrative; most of the stories contain at least one long speech in a character's voice to this effect) and I don't need silly little fictions to illustrate the point.

As to the individual stories, well, their main redeeming feature is that Mitchell does a superb job of creating character. There are some deeply unpleasant people who still managed to catch my sympathy, and some very well-done flawed heroes. I also enjoyed the somewhat cynical humour, though that rather dries up in the second half and the narrative gets all earnest and over-dramatic. The actual stories are kind of slight and there are too many miraculous escapes from direly impossible situations, but not quite enough for it to be a true running theme to the book. I wouldn't mind any of them being expanded into a full-length novel, but Cloud Atlas leans too heavily on 'look at me, I'm really clever, I can write in lots of different styles'.

The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, the story with a contemporary setting, is probably the most successful. Its description of how badly society treats the old is actually chilling, and the storyline mostly stays on the right side of dramatic, only the final section spilling over into melodrama. The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing and Letters from Zedelghem are both slightly weird and fall too much into showing off the author's ability to pastiche period novels. Luisa Rey is quite dramatic but takes itself far too seriously. The two pieces set in the future read like very old-fashioned SF, An Orison of Sonmi being basically a re-working of Brave New World, though with nothing like the power of Huxley's understated writing, and Sloosha's crossing an absolutely bog-standard aftermath-of-nuclear-disaster story which ends up being merely depressing.

I see the target audience of Cloud Atlas as being intellectually lazy Guardian readers, basically. If you want to be told what to think it doesn't do a bad job, in a kind of journalistic way. And I can imagine someone who had never read SF enjoying the SF wrapped up in mainstream packaging, with lots of what a habitual SF reader takes for granted being painstakingly explained. Such a person might think Cloud Atlas was highly original, because the kind of books that explore the social consequences of imagined future technologies never normally appear in the parts of book shops that they frequent.

In short, not bad, but definitely doesn't live up to the hype.

Today is the 45th day, making 6 complete weeks and 3 days of the Omer.
Addendum 8.6.05: coalescent has a very nice riposte to this review, which I highly recommend if you're interested in talking about the book: it's about how different types of fiction deal with the fact that human nature leads to destruction.


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Discussion: 21 contributions | Contribute something
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rysmiel: words words words
From:rysmiel
Date:June 8th, 2005 07:06 pm (UTC)
45 minutes after journal entry, 03:06 pm (rysmiel's time)
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I had been wondering about this, considering some positive reviews it's got various places, but I think you've pretty much put me off it, which is all to the good considering how much else there is I need to read. Thank you.
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livredor: teeeeeeeeea
From:livredor
Date:June 9th, 2005 08:37 am (UTC)
14 hours after journal entry, 08:37 am (livredor's time)
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I think you've pretty much put me off it, which is all to the good considering how much else there is I need to read
*grin* This is definitely a different way for me to be useful. I have seen lots of positive reviews of it too, and positive in a way that made it seem like the kind of book I'd want to read. Genre bending, good characterization, ideas as well as story are all yay things for me. But actually it's a book with several good elements that don't quite add up to a good whole.
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rysmiel: words words words
From:rysmiel
Date:June 9th, 2005 05:42 pm (UTC)
23 hours after journal entry, 01:42 pm (rysmiel's time)
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*nod* also, I have a really strong reaction against things marketed as mainstream using SF imagery and tropes and either making a pig's ear of it or explaining it all in excruciating detail; laborious wheel-reinventing annoys me, particularly if it's reacting to SF as if nothing had happened in SF since the 1920s. [ Show me a mainstream novel that's reacting to the best of SF. Show me one informed by Triton rather than Flash Gordon. ]
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livredor: bookies
From:livredor
Date:June 9th, 2005 06:59 pm (UTC)
1 days after journal entry, 06:59 pm (livredor's time)
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I have a really strong reaction against things marketed as mainstream using SF imagery and tropes and either making a pig's ear of it or explaining it all in excruciating detail;
That's overly harsh for the Mitchell, but it is in that sort of direction; even if coalescent is right and it's deliberate pastiche it's just not done as well as the originals.

laborious wheel-reinventing annoys me,
Very much agreed, especially when the resulting product is trumpeted as being all original.

particularly if it's reacting to SF as if nothing had happened in SF since the 1920s
Huge swathes of Cloud Atlas have a very 60s feel to them, even (perhaps especially) the bits that aren't set in the 60s. The doom-mongering about how humanity is going to destroy itself, and the racism is bad moralizing put the mentality much later than the 20s but still not modern. Also, to be fair, Brave New World was way, way ahead of its time in lots of ways.

I also wonder how many people have read "classic" SF (I mean, really restricted to pre-war) and not anything more recent than that. A lot of the stereotypical complaints about genre are more applicable to HG Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs and Jules Verne than even Asimov and Clarke.

Show me a mainstream novel that's reacting to the best of SF.
I keep mentioning these two, but Babel Tower and The Ground Beneath her feet seem to me to fall into that category. Hesse and Iris Murdoch are doing something like that, but very subtle. I'll keep thinking about this one because I think the stuff does exist.

Show me one informed by Triton rather than Flash Gordon.
That I think is too hard. I simply can't imagine doing anything with Triton in a mainstream-y way, nor can I think of anything I've read in any genre that's like it. The book of Ebenezer le Page and some of Jane Gardam and Rose Macaulay have vague points of connection, but the similarity probably only exists in that they make my skin prickle in similar ways, it's not something I could actually justify.
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lethargic_man: default
From:lethargic_man
Date:June 9th, 2005 07:25 pm (UTC)
1 days after journal entry, 07:25 pm (lethargic_man's time)
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Show me a mainstream novel that's reacting to the best of SF.
I keep mentioning these two, but Babel Tower and The Ground Beneath her feet seem to me to fall into that category.

Er, how? It's not something I noticed (or at least, remember noticing) in either of those.
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rysmiel: words words words
From:rysmiel
Date:June 9th, 2005 08:31 pm (UTC)
1 days after journal entry, 04:31 pm (rysmiel's time)
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I have a really strong reaction against things marketed as mainstream using SF imagery and tropes and either making a pig's ear of it or explaining it all in excruciating detail;
That's overly harsh for the Mitchell, but it is in that sort of direction; even if coalescent is right and it's deliberate pastiche it's just not done as well as the originals.


I'm entirely happy to grant that it might be overly harsh on this particular book, but it is a thing to which I am particularly sensitive so Cloud Atlas having even some tendencies in that direction os more of a negative for me than it might be for many people.

laborious wheel-reinventing annoys me,
Very much agreed, especially when the resulting product is trumpeted as being all original


And sometimes the tone of said trumpeting is such as to remind me of the exchange in The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy where the head of the sub-commitee developing the wheel gets all snotty in the fdirection "OK, if you're so clever why don't you tell us what colour it should be ?"

Huge swathes of Cloud Atlas have a very 60s feel to them, even (perhaps especially) the bits that aren't set in the 60s. The doom-mongering about how humanity is going to destroy itself, and the racism is bad moralizing put the mentality much later than the 20s but still not modern.

*nod* and SF has done that, sometimes very well, to my mind as much as it needed to be done then.

A lot of the stereotypical complaints about genre are more applicable to HG Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs and Jules Verne than even Asimov and Clarke.

Agreed entirely. [ With the occasional leavening in recent years of mainstream authors who've also seen Blade Runner. ]

Show me a mainstream novel that's reacting to the best of SF.
I keep mentioning these two, but Babel Tower and The Ground Beneath her feet seem to me to fall into that category.


Babel Tower is on my long list. I liked Possession a lot and do intend to get around to it soon.

I'll keep thinking about this one because I think the stuff does exist.

Come to think of it, I had an example in mind but it has melted from my brain like dew.

Show me one informed by Triton rather than Flash Gordon.
That I think is too hard. I simply can't imagine doing anything with Triton in a mainstream-y way, nor can I think of anything I've read in any genre that's like it.


OK, I'll readily admit Triton's a bloody high bar to set; but if mainstream authors have axes to grind or interest to serve by treating SF poorly or in a shallow fashion, I think that's the standard their work deserves to be compared to.
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coalescent: default
From:coalescent
Date:June 9th, 2005 09:35 pm (UTC)
1 days after journal entry, 09:35 pm (coalescent's time)
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I also wonder how many people have read "classic" SF (I mean, really restricted to pre-war) and not anything more recent than that.

For reference, David Mitchell doesn't fall into this camp. He was a member of the BSFA in the 80s/90s, and reviewed for Vector on a not-infrequent basis.
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livredor: teapot
From:livredor
Date:June 10th, 2005 08:12 pm (UTC)
2 days after journal entry, 08:12 pm (livredor's time)
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Oh, I wasn't meaning to imply that Mitchell was ignorant of SF; I just think he's writing for an audience who are. But thanks for the background, it's cool to know that.
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lethargic_man: default
From:lethargic_man
Date:June 9th, 2005 10:46 am (UTC)
16 hours after journal entry, 10:46 am (lethargic_man's time)
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Your description of the chiastic structure actually sounds more like Use of Weapons than how I understand chiasticity in the Bible...
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livredor: letters
From:livredor
Date:June 9th, 2005 11:13 am (UTC)
16 hours after journal entry, 11:13 am (livredor's time)
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Fair enough. It's not entirely analogous to the structure of certain narrative arcs in the Bible, and it's not entirely analogous to Use of Weapons either. But that was the simplest way I could explain it without actually drawing a diagram. It runs from the early 19th century to the unspecified far future, and then goes back in time completing each of the stories in turn, earliest story last. Only the far future story is present as a single story, with the others being broken up with one half on each side of the central hinge.

*shrug* Whatever you want to call it I think it's just silly. The book would have made perfect sense in normal chronological order, and would probably have been less annoying. It took me forever to finish because I'd get to the end of a section and have no motivation to start the next section until I started going stir-crazy from not having read anything for a few days.
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coalescent: default
From:coalescent
Date:June 9th, 2005 11:18 am (UTC)
16 hours after journal entry, 11:18 am (coalescent's time)
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The clearest description of the structure I've seen is that it's a cross-section through a Russian doll.

The book would have made perfect sense in normal chronological order

Perhaps, but I do think you'd lose something by only travelling in one direction through time.
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livredor: letters
From:livredor
Date:June 9th, 2005 07:10 pm (UTC)
1 days after journal entry, 07:10 pm (livredor's time)
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a cross-section through a Russian doll.
I've seen that metaphor used quite a bit and I just don't see how it could be described like that. I mean, for a start Russian doll doesn't say anything more than concentric, really. And it doesn't seem to me like the outer pairs of stories contain the inner ones in any meaningful sense.

I do think you'd lose something by only travelling in one direction through time.
Can you describe what, exactly? Because this is precisely what I disagree with. I mean, what does it add to reading about Ewing's narrow escape from Dr Goose to know that in another few centuries the world will destroy itself in fire?
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coalescent: default
From:coalescent
Date:June 9th, 2005 11:30 am (UTC)
17 hours after journal entry, 11:30 am (coalescent's time)
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The way it's broken up, stopping at a cliffhanger and jumping forward (first half) or back (second half) in time to an essentially unrelated story made me lose interest

Interestingly, it's one of the things that held my interest, because it means there's essentially no fat; you're always reading a beginning or an ending. Something is always happening.

We also had quite different reactions to most of the individual stories. I found Cavendish's story to be lightweight farce, whereas I loved 'Letters from Zedelgehm' and found that narrator to be the most interesting character. And I don't think the Luisa Rey mystery took itself seriously at all--quite the opposite, in fact, it was a deliberately absurd pastiche of airport detective novels, to the point of being a little too over the top at times.

I think the important point about the stories is that they are all pastiche, to a certain extent. It's not laziness that makes Sonmi-451's tale a riff on Brave New World; it's deliberate reference, as 'Sloosha's Crossin' is homage to Riddley Walker (and as I'm sure the historical sections are deliberate homage, although I'm not well-read enough in that genre to know for sure). That's actually a large part of why I rate the book as highly as I do. It's not trying to be an accurate portrait of different periods of history, it's set in the land of fictions--hence the twisty metafictionalness where one story suddenly becomes more or less 'real' when it's discovered in a subsequent story. So while I agree it's heavy-handed (I read the whole second half in one sitting, which was a bit like being kicked repeatedly in the head) I don't think it's about how human nature leads to destruction so much as it's about how different types of fiction deal with the fact that human nature leads to destruction.

It's variations on a theme, deliberate artifice, and it works for me. But it's a very cold book, because it is so meticulously constructed and detailed. There isn't a lot of warmth to latch on to. I'd be interested to know what you make of his first novel, Ghostwritten, which is also made up of short stories but on a spacelike track rather than a timelike one, and much less heavily stylised.
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livredor: livre d'or
From:livredor
Date:June 9th, 2005 12:32 pm (UTC)
18 hours after journal entry, 12:32 pm (livredor's time)
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This is a really fascinating response to my review! I had the idea that you'd raved about Cloud Atlas, but I couldn't quickly find the relevant post; any chance you could link me?

there's essentially no fat; you're always reading a beginning or an ending. Something is always happening.
This would still be the case if there were 6 novellas in chronological order, though. Cliffhangers annoy me as a fairly general thing, admittedly.

I found Cavendish's story to be lightweight farce
Some of it is, I agree, but there's something about it that just drew me in emotionally, and I don't normally even like farce.

I loved 'Letters from Zedelgehm' and found that narrator to be the most interesting character.
I think this is probably the best written of the stories, from a technical point of view. I just found Frobisher too unsympathetic, and that threw me out of the story. Cavendish is quite clearly a bastard, but he's a bastard who happens to be in a really horrible situation, whereas Frobisher's problems seem to be much more of his own making.

And I don't think the Luisa Rey mystery took itself seriously at all--quite the opposite, in fact, it was a deliberately absurd pastiche of airport detective novels
That does actually make sense, as a reading. I really don't read a lot of airport detective novels, so that's one where I likely missed the reference. I found it too pantomime good versus evil, where the good happen to be young and female and cute and the evil are fat and capitalistic and corporate. Also, the implausibly happy ending when so many of the stories end either badly or tragically, and the context of all the terribly earnest injunctions throughout the book to value morality and other people over material gain made it look serious to me.

they are all pastiche, to a certain extent. It's not laziness that makes Sonmi-451's tale a riff on Brave New World; it's deliberate reference, as 'Sloosha's Crossin' is homage to Riddley Walker
Which kind of leaves the question of why I would want to read second-rate pastiches of these two novels. I mean, if a book has something else going for it then clever allusions can be an additional feature, but if a book is only pastiche, what's the point of it? I did wonder about Riddley Walker actually, but then I decided that it's not distinctive enough from a whole heap of other post-apocalyptic stuff.

I'm sure the historical sections are deliberate homage, although I'm not well-read enough in that genre to know for sure
Defoe, was my guess. The opening paragraph is pretty much a direct parody of the famous scene in Robinson Crusoe, and the rest sounds Defoe-ish too, though it's been years since I last read Defoe so I can't be sure.

it's set in the land of fictions--hence the twisty metafictionalness where one story suddenly becomes more or less 'real' when it's discovered in a subsequent story.
I'm not entirely sure what metafictional means, to be honest. The main thing I can think of that comes to mind is Natalie Sarraute's Les fruits d'or which is a deeply pretentious thing from the 70s, being a novel about the eponymous novel. And yes, the way Cloud Atlas playing with levels of reality is quite clever, but it's just not clever enough IMO to carry the book.

I don't think it's about how human nature leads to destruction so much as it's about how different types of fiction deal with the fact that human nature leads to destruction.
I like that, that's a really interesting take on it, thank you.

But it's a very cold book, because it is so meticulously constructed and detailed. There isn't a lot of warmth to latch on to.
I didn't find it so, actually. It creates sympathetic characters, and there's a lot of humour and also a lot of (melo)drama, so if anything it's intensely emotive, rather than cold. At the same time I think it definitely comes under the heading of 'too clever for its own good'. I don't really care that it has an unusual structure or that Mitchell is good at imitating lots of different styles, if the book isn't enjoyable as well.
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coalescent: default
From:coalescent
Date:June 9th, 2005 12:55 pm (UTC)
18 hours after journal entry, 12:55 pm (coalescent's time)
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I had the idea that you'd raved about Cloud Atlas, but I couldn't quickly find the relevant post; any chance you could link me?

Unfortunately, the reason you couldn't find the relevant post is that there isn't one, really. :) I never posted anything to LJ about it, really; I wrote a review for Vector, but it didn't say much more than I said above.

This would still be the case if there were 6 novellas in chronological order, though. Cliffhangers annoy me as a fairly general thing, admittedly.

Fair enough. To be honest, I'm a bit of a sucker for the clever-clever aspects of it all. And I read the Guardian fairly often. I hope I'm not too intellectually lazy, though. ;-)

I think ['Letters from Zedelgehm'] is probably the best written of the stories, from a technical point of view.

Agreed.

Cavendish is quite clearly a bastard, but he's a bastard who happens to be in a really horrible situation, whereas Frobisher's problems seem to be much more of his own making.

Again, this seems about right. What it says about me that I sympathise with a screw-up, I'm not sure.

I found [The Luisa Ray mystery] too pantomime good versus evil, where the good happen to be young and female and cute and the evil are fat and capitalistic and corporate.

Absolutely, it was. And all the plotting is much larger than life, too (to a greater extent than the other stories, even). I seem to recall there's a bit where someone has an epiphany and then gets blown up, isn't there?

Which kind of leaves the question of why I would want to read second-rate pastiches of these two novels. I mean, if a book has something else going for it then clever allusions can be an additional feature, but if a book is only pastiche, what's the point of it?

I think the juxtaposition of all the different pastiches is meant to be the extra thing going for it. Because it inspires exactly the sort of thing you talk about with reference to the end of the Luisa Rey story versus all the other stories--the implausibility of the happy ending. If the Luisa Rey story was on its own, you wouldn't get that contrast.

I did wonder about Riddley Walker actually, but then I decided that it's not distinctive enough from a whole heap of other post-apocalyptic stuff.

Well, it's the one that famously has the degenerate language. I can't think of any other post-apocalyptic books that do that, although they may be out there.

I'm not entirely sure what metafictional means, to be honest.

I don't know if there is a precise definition, or if everyone uses it to mean something slightly different. I mean stories that in some way address the fact that they are stories; I don't know if that's what Les Fruits D'or does or not. Jeff Vandermeer's collection City of Saints and Madmen is the best recent example I can think of.

In the case of Cloud Atlas, I don't think it's a coincidence that the shift between fictional-within-the-novel's-universe and fictional-in-our-universe comes after Luisa Rey. In other words, the three stories set in the past are made up by someone in our present. You could argue that all the shifts are about offering different ways in which the past is remembered, and how those are necessarily incomplete and different from the actual experience of the time.

It creates sympathetic characters, and there's a lot of humour and also a lot of (melo)drama, so if anything it's intensely emotive, rather than cold. At the same time I think it definitely comes under the heading of 'too clever for its own good'.

Interesting--I think for me, the cleverness (much as I enjoy it) is emotionally distancing. It's hard to get involved in characters when you're (more than normally) aware that they're just words on a page.

Great review, though, thanks.
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rysmiel: words words words
From:rysmiel
Date:June 9th, 2005 05:39 pm (UTC)
23 hours after journal entry, 01:39 pm (rysmiel's time)
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Interestingly, it's one of the things that held my interest, because it means there's essentially no fat; you're always reading a beginning or an ending.

That last sentence makes it sound even less my thing; always reading a beginning or an ending, IME, does not feel like lack of fat but like lack of momentum, lack of time to build up caring about people, and so on. Though on the other hand I am almost tempted to read it for contrast with what Stephen King is doing in the later Dark Tower books [ I have just read 5 and 6 for the second time in anticipation of the imminent paperback release of 7 ] which I am finding better and better as it goes on, for all that it's uneven, lumbering, and misses a couple of things it could really have done with having.
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livredor: livre d'or
From:livredor
Date:June 9th, 2005 07:19 pm (UTC)
1 days after journal entry, 07:19 pm (livredor's time)
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always reading a beginning or an ending, IME, does not feel like lack of fat but like lack of momentum, lack of time to build up caring about people, and so on.
Mmmmm. Yes indeed. That's exactly my problem with Cloud Atlas which you've put into words better than I managed. I was all distracted by the cleverness of coalescent's reading and lost sight of this point. Thank you. *smile*

By the way, are you getting emails to your work address ok? You've been unusually quiet recently, and Occam's razor suggests there's probably an obvious reason like you're incredibly busy, but might as well rule out silly technical problems.
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rysmiel: default
From:rysmiel
Date:June 9th, 2005 08:20 pm (UTC)
1 days after journal entry, 04:20 pm (rysmiel's time)
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I have replied to two mails today, one from you and one from lethargic_man, in our three-way conversation, and having done that, I have no unanswered mails from you. If there are mails I should have that I have not seen, do please resend to my hotmail address ? There was a shift-about of servers here a couple of weeks back; I'd not been aware of it losing anything sent me, but it might well have. It's certainly allowing a pile of spam through, hell take it.
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coalescent: default
From:coalescent
Date:June 9th, 2005 09:44 pm (UTC)
1 days after journal entry, 09:44 pm (coalescent's time)
(Link)
always reading a beginning or an ending, IME, does not feel like lack of fat but like lack of momentum, lack of time to build up caring about people, and so on

This is something I don't buy. If it were true, a large number, perhaps the majority, of short stories wouldn't work, and they do. As it is, I think 'stuff happening' and 'character development' are not mutually exclusive concepts--and I think that even if the settings are constructed pastiches, the characters in Cloud Atlas are largely well-drawn and interesting.
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rysmiel: words words words
From:rysmiel
Date:June 10th, 2005 03:02 pm (UTC)
1 days after journal entry, 11:02 am (rysmiel's time)
(Link)
This is something I don't buy. If it were true, a large number, perhaps the majority, of short stories wouldn't work, and they do.

The vast majority of short stories do not work for me for precisely this reason. Which is a statement of personal preference and not meant to have any weight past that.
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From:(Anonymous)
Date:October 30th, 2005 01:27 pm (UTC)
143 days after journal entry

Cloud Atlas

(Link)
The claim that cloud atlas is pretty mediocre. is surprising and quite frankly, downright wrong. The format, skipping forward then back through time, is bold and original and works well to complement the underlying theme of the book; that although the oppressive and predatory nature of human beings may ultimately lead to our destruction, there is a good in human beings that will remain through the ages, struggling to make the world a better place. I found the links between the characters rather hazy, yes, but the suggestion of reincarnation of the characters is intriguing. The cynical, dark humour employed by Mitchell is brilliant, utilised particularly successfully in "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish". Cloud Atlas is a triumph, it is refreshing to see a deeper message explored in a mainstream novel, reaching out to Sci-Fi fans and intellectually lazy Guardian readers alike!
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