Cloud Atlas consists of six interconnected stories beginning with a voyage through the South Pacific in the nineteenth century and ending in a primitive post-apocalyptic Hawaii. Each story is a completed tale within itself, yet their true significances lies in the connections between them, forming a collective whole. The stories are vastly different in style, plot, and perspective, encompassing the lives of a nineteenth century notary, a post WWI musician playboy, a strong willed journalist in 1970s California, an aging literary editor in the early 21st century, a clone who sets out to instigate a rebellion, and a primitive youth surviving in a post-apocalyptic world. No two stories are set in the same location, ranging from the English countryside to a futuristic Korea. Each story segways into the next through character connections via letters, books, films, etc. The main characters do not directly interact with one another but their lives are infinitely connected and affected by the actions of the others. There is also an underlining spiritual thread which binds the main characters to one another, be it through past life experiences or the novel’s greater proposal, that all beings on Earth, past and present, are eternally linked through the human condition.
Each of the six stories of Cloud Atlas are broken into two parts with the exception of Sloosha’s Crossin’: An’ Ev’rythi’ After, which is completed in one central section. The first half of each section introduces the main themes, style, and plot. The second half concludes each tale. The stories are interrupted or halted in their first sections and are followed by the next story in chronological sequence. For example The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing, which takes place in the 1800s is followed by the Letters from Zedelghem set in post World War I Belgium. The main characters are also linked in spirit through the reoccurring image of a comet shaped birthmark, serving as a visual representation of the reincarnation of most of the main characters. The author, David Mitchell, called the connection between the main characters “pointillistic mosaic” described as a combination of several stories that, when combined, create a larger whole. The sections of Cloud Atlas are as follows:
The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing
The first section of Cloud Atlas is The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing and follows the traveling adventure of Adam Ewing, a young notary from California on his way home from a business trip to New South Wales, Australia. This section is written in journal format and is set in the South Pacific during the mid nineteenth century. Ewing befriends the manipulative Dr. Goose and sails with him on the ship the Prophetess which is crewed by a mostly corrupt band of men including the captain and first mate. Ewing and his associates go ashore several times to interact with the locals and Ewing is both fascinated and horrified by the cultural hierarchy which places Natives or Aboriginal people at the bottom of the civilized world, creating a gateway for slavery and moral depravity. The reader learns in the second half of the section that Ewing is slowly being poisoned by Goose, who wants to steal his money in an example of the “eat or be eaten” philosophy of dominance that repeats in the text. Ewing is eventually rescued by Autua a slave he saved from being killed. Ewing concludes his two sections (the first and last of the entire novel) with a promise to help the Aboriginal cause in an attempt to better the world.
Letters from Zedlghem.
The second section of Cloud Atlas is composed of a series of letters written by an immodest and lusty musician named Robert Frobisher in 1931 to Rufus Sixsmith his friend and lover. Frobisher, an Englishman, has been cast aside by his family for his debts and eludes his debt collectors by escaping to Belgium from London, where he sets out to meet and profit from Vyvyan Ayrs a noted composer well past his prime. After establishing himself as Ayrs’ assistant and houseguest, Frobisher benefits from Ayrs’ tutelage and begin to compose his own work.. Frobisher is no saint and he has an affaird with Jocasta, Ayrs’ wife and falls in love with his daughter, Eva. Despite their rocky relationship both Frobisher and Ayrs appreciate one another and are able to compose beautiful must together. Yet their egos prevent them from a true collaboration. In the second half of Letters from Zedelghem Frobisher leaves Ayrs and composes his own masterpiece, the Cloud Atlas Sextet. In his last letter to Sixsmith, Frobisher reveals he plans to kill himself now that his sextet is finished. He also believes he and Sixsmith will meet again in another life.
Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery,
The third section is Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery, a pulp fiction styledized story of an investigative journalist and her overthrown of a corrupt power company in fictionalized 1970s California. Luisa Rey, the main character, befriends Rufus Sixsmith, former lover of Robert Frobisher of Letters from Zedlghem. She quickly learns that Sixsmith has written a report about the negligence of his employers at Seaboard Inc. and their new nuclear reactor. After Sixsmith is killed, Luisa fights to find the truth. She goes to great lengths to infiltrate Seaboard and succeeds in obtaining a copy of Sixsmith’s report, only to be driven off a bridge by one of Seaboard’s hired hands. In the second half of Luisa’s section, she survives the crash but endures several others attempts on her life. She eventually gets a hold of Sixsmith’s report and brings Seaboard’s executives to task through a telling exposé. It is also revealed that Luisa is the reincarnation of Robert Frobisher and has a similar comet shaped birthmark. She has several strong instances of deja vu and recalls experiences from her past life in Zedlghem.
The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish
The forth section of Cloud Atlas is the memoir of Timothy Cavendish, an English vanity publisher in the last half of the 20th century. The memoir chronicles a series of misfortunes steaming first from Cavendish’s financial troubles and later the disintegration of any familial ties. Cavendish’s brother, with whom he has a troubled relationship, tricks Timothy into signing himself up for assisted living in a nursing home in the north of England. Cavendish is badly mistreated by the staff but never loses his wit or gumption and plans escape. Unfortunately he suffers a stroke at the end of the first section. After Cavendish’s recovery in the second half of the section he befriends several other residents and they escape together in a stolen Rove Ranger and flee to Scotland. After his escape Cavendish edits and publishes Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery, a manuscript he read on and off during his time at Aurora House.
The Orison of Somni-451
In the far future, corporations govern what is left of Korea. Fabricants or clones are the primary workforce, providing services to the consumer driven culture. Sonmi-451, the main character, is a female fabricant at Papa Song’s, one of the largest restaurant corporations in Neo So Corpos‘. After her friend, Yoona-939 is killed for acting like a consumer, Sonmi-451 begins questioning the role of fabricants and concludes they are nothing more than slaves to corpocrasy. An underground abolitionist group, called Union, enlists her help and opens her eyes about the unjust social structure of Neo So Corpos. Escaping from Papa Song’s, she attends University and witnesses the repercussions of slavery and consumerism on a vastly deteriorating world. In the second half of the section Sonmi-451 composes a set of declarations for fabricant rights and is arrested. Her testimony is the format for the narration of The Orison of Sonmi-451 as Sonmi-451 reveals her life story to an Archivist for preservation purposes. Her interview takes places hours before she is to be executed for treason.
Sloosha’s Crossin’ An’ Ev’rythin’ After
In a post-apocalyptic future, young Zachry Bailey and the Valleymen live on Big I, near modern Hawaii. Their tribe is governed by a faith based set of principals that focus on the purity of the soul. The Valleymen worships the God Sonmi who protects them against the evil influence of the devil, Old Georgie. Sonmi helps Valleymen guide their souls toward rebirth. The worst fate a Valleyman can endure is to have a soul so weighed down by stones (thrown by Old Georgie) that Sonmi is unable to guide it toward new life. Zachry, the main character, tells his life story to his children from age nine when he witnessed his the death of his father by the wild Kona tribe and ending with the destruction of his village years later. Meronym, a woman from the Prescients, the last civilized race in the world, comes to Big I to study the ways of the Valleymen and to secretly determine if the area is suitable for her people’s cohabitation. Zachry’s suspicions of the outsider focuses the core of Sloosha’s Crossin’ An’ Ev’rythin’ After but he eventually comes to respect and befriend Meronym. After his village is destroyed by the Kona he goes to live with Meronym and the Prescients, leaving the Valley behind. Despite the doubts of his new hosts, Zachry believes he will be reborn again and that Meronym is the reincarnation of Sonmi-451, the inspiration for his tribe’s God.