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.