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Mitchell has said of the book:
Literally all of the main characters, except one, are reincarnations of the same soul in different bodies throughout the novel identified by a birthmark...that's just a symbol really of the universality of human nature. The title itself "Cloud Atlas," the cloud refers to the ever changing manifestations of the Atlas, which is the fixed human nature which is always thus and ever shall be. So the book's theme is predacity, the way individuals prey on individuals, groups on groups, nations on nations, tribes on tribes. So I just take this theme and in a sense reincarnate that theme in another context...
Many other themes permeate the book. Movements of ascent and descent, for example, appear in all six stories. They are suggestive of humanity's larger moral epiphanies and failings. Adam Ewing, whilst ascending the volcano on the Chatham Islands loses his footing and tumbles down into a hollow (pg. 19); Robert Frobisher is forced to jump from the first floor of a hotel to avoid paying his bill (pg. 43); the car of Luisa Rey is shunted off the edge of Swanekke bridge and falls into the water (pg. 144); the author whom Timothy Cavendish publishes ejects a literary critic from the 12th floor of a hotel (pg. 151); the clone, or fabricant, called Sonmi~451 ascends from the underground shopping mall in which she works (pg. 208), and her growing self-consciousness is also explicitly described as an "ascension". Finally, Zachry Bailey and Meronym climb and then descend the Hawaiian mountain of Mauna Kea, Zachry confronting the temptations of the devil (named Ol' Georgie in the book) (pg. 282 onwards).
Moreover, many of the stories have their authenticity challenged in the narrative that succeeds them. Robert Frobisher, for instance, feels that Ewing's purported journal is too neatly structured to be genuine, yet he wonders whether his own Cloud Atlas Sextet, a musical work structured exactly like the novel, is itself little more than a gimmick. "Half-Lives" is implied to be a fictional adventure novel submitted to Timothy Cavendish's literary agency.
The number "six" is repeated throughout the novel. Some examples include: six interlocking stories; the music score Cloud Atlas is a "sextet with overlapping soloists" (not unlike the six stories); Sixsmith is the name of a main character, who is 66 years old; Eva is the result of "six centuries of breeding"; a police officer is shot six times in the back; Napier knew Luisa when she was six; Cavendish is in his sixty-sixth year, he needs 60,000 pounds to avoid being "beat up", his hospital window only opens six inches; Sonmi recites Six Catechisms, drives six-wheeler fords, lives on the university's sixth floor where she is left alone for six days, completes secondary school in six months, New Year's Day is the culmination of a holiday referred to as Sextet; a Prescient woman arrives in Zachry's sixteenth year and plans to stay for six months, he rolls a six'n'six when playing dice, etc.
- Plot summary
- Linking themes
- Structure and style
- Film adaptation
- Further reading