The book consists of six nested stories, from the remote South Pacific in the nineteenth century to a distant, post-apocalyptic future. Each tale is read (or observed) by the main character in the next. The first five stories are interrupted at a key moment. After the sixth story, the other five stories are returned to and closed, in reverse chronological order, and each ends with the main character reading or observing the chronologically previous work in the chain. Eventually readers end where they started. Each story contains a document, movie or tradition that appears in a previous story.
The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing (Part 1)
The first story begins in the Chatham Islands (one of the islands of New Zealand), in 1850. Adam Ewing, a guileless American notary from San Francisco during the California Gold Rush, awaits repairs to his ship. Ewing witnesses a Moriori slave being flogged by a Maori man. During the punishment, the victim, Autua, sees pity in the eyes of Adam Ewing and smiles. Later Ewing ascends a high hill called Conical Tor, covered in jungle with no view. He stumbles on the lip of the crater, falls in, and is knocked out. He awakes to find himself surrounded by hundreds of faces carved in the bark of trees. Reasoning that those who carved the faces must have had egress from the crater, he manages to escape. Descending Conical Tor, he resolves not to mention the glyphs outside of his journal. As the ship gets underway, Dr Goose, Ewing's only friend aboard the ship, examines the injuries sustained on the volcano and Ewing also mentions his chronic ailment. The doctor diagnoses it as a fatal parasite, and recommends a course of treatment that might save Ewing but it will certainly make him feel worse before he gets better. Meanwhile Autua has stowed away aboard the ship and hidden himself in Ewing's cabin because he judged Ewing to be a compassionate soul. Ewing breaks this news to the Captain, who is ready to order his First Mate to shoot Autua, but Autua proves he is a first class seaman and the Captain puts him to work to pay for his passage to Hawaii.
Letters from Zedelghem (Part 1)
The next story is set in Zedelghem, near Bruges, Belgium, in 1931. It is told in the form of letters from Robert Frobisher, a recently disowned and penniless, bisexual young English musician, to his old friend and lover, Rufus Sixsmith, back in Cambridge. Frobisher escapes from a hotel without settling his bill and journeys to Zedelghem to offer his services as an amanuensis to the famous but reclusive English composer Vyvyan Ayrs, who is dying of syphilis and nearly blind. Along the way he sleeps with the (male) ship's steward. Frobisher has a comet-shaped birthmark on his shoulder blade. He auditions and gains the grudging acceptance of Ayrs for his services. Ayrs' wife Jocasta begins to subtly flirt with Frobisher. Ayrs' daughter Eva smells a rat and takes a posture of unrelenting hostility. Soon, Frobisher and Ayrs bear fruit with the creation of Der Todtenvogel ("The Death Bird"), performed nightly in Kraków, where it becomes the talk of the town. Frobisher says he has begun composing his own music again. Frobisher and Jocasta become lovers, but Eva remains suspicious. Frobisher begins taking rare books from Ayrs' collection and selling them to a fence. One of the books he has found is titled The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing but it is ripped in half and it drives him crazy, because, as he says, "A half-read book is a half-finished love affair." He is amused that the author seems unaware that Dr Goose is poisoning him. One time when Jocasta and Frobisher are sleeping together, Ayrs pounds on his door and demands that Frobisher write down the notes he heard in a dream. Jocasta hides in a lump under the covers, and Ayrs, nearly blind, never sees her there. The dream was about a "nightmarish cafe" deep underground where the waitresses all had the same face and ate soap. When he is done humming his tune, he asks if Jocasta ever made advances to Frobisher, who answers, after some embarrassment, "emphatically, no." As the summer comes to an end, Jocasta thanks Frobisher for "giving Vyvyan his music back." Frobisher agrees to stay on until next summer at least, as Ayrs asked, time enough to turn his dream music into a major symphony called Eternal Recurrence.
Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery (Part 1)
The third story is written in the style of a mystery/thriller novel, set in the fictional city of Buenas Yerbas, California, in 1975. Luisa Rey, a young journalist, investigates reports that a new nuclear power plant is unsafe. Rufus Sixsmith meets Luisa in an elevator and listens to her life story while they are stuck between floors during a power black-out. Her late father was one of the few incorruptible policemen in the city, and Luisa says she was willing to lay her life on the line for her journalistic integrity because to do otherwise would be a mockery of her father's life. Sixsmith realizes he can trust Luisa. After the elevator power is restored, Sixsmith expresses to Luisa his concern that the Seaboard HYDRA nuclear power plant is not as safe as they advertise it to be.
Shortly after this admission he is murdered, and Luisa learns that the businessmen in charge of the plant are conspiring to cover up the dangers and are assassinating potential whistleblowers. From Sixsmith's hotel room, Luisa manages to get hold of some of Frobisher's letters and becomes so enthralled by the composer that she orders his only published work, Cloud Atlas Sextet. One oddity that Luisa discovers from the letters is that she and Frobisher appear to have the same comet-shaped birthmark on the shoulder. Before Luisa can report her findings on the nuclear power plant or Sixsmith's murder, a Seaboard-hired assassin who has been following her forces her - along with Sixsmith's incriminating report - off a bridge while driving, at which point the story breaks off.
The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish (Part 1)
The fourth story is comic in tone, and set in Britain in the present day. Timothy Cavendish, a 65-year-old vanity press publisher, flees the brothers of his gangster client. Cavendish's brother, exasperated by Timothy's endless pleas for financial aid, books him into a remote hotel, which turns out to be a nursing home from which Timothy cannot escape. After suffering harassment at the hands of Nurse Noakes, he attempts to run out the door, but is stopped by a security guard and brought back to the home. He is told he will be punished if he makes any more attempts to flee. In the course of his adventures, Timothy briefly mentions that he is reading a manuscript from a prospective author entitled Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery, which does not impress him. Timothy settles into his new surroundings, while still trying to plot a way out. One day, he is struck by some sort of a seizure, just as the chapter ends.
An Orison of Sonmi~451 (Part 1)
The fifth story is set in Nea So Copros, a dystopian futuristic state that is gradually revealed to be in Korea and to be a totalitarian state that has evolved from corporate culture. It is told in the form of an interview between Sonmi~451 and an 'archivist' who is recording her story. Sonmi~451 is a genetically engineered fabricant (clone), one of many grown to work at, among other places, a fast-food restaurant called Papa Song's. Fabricants are slaves used by 'pureblood' society, who stunt the fabricants' consciousness through chemical manipulation. Sonmi encounters individuals from a rebel underground, who draw her out of the cloistered fabricant world and allow her to become self-aware, or "ascended." Sonmi describes watching a pre-Skirmishes film called The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish and being utterly captivated by how it immersed her in an earlier time. At the point where the protagonist suffered some sort of seizure, a student interrupts her and Hae-Joo, one of her mentors. He tells them Professor Mephi, one of Hae-Joo's professors and handler, has been arrested, and that 40 or 50 enforcers are looking for them with orders to interrogate Hae-Joo and kill Sonmi on sight. Hae-Joo exudes a sudden grim authority and reveals to Sonmi, while the image of Cavendish is projected upon him, that he is not who he said he was.
Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After
The sixth story occupies the central position in the novel, and is the only one not to be interrupted. Zachry, an old man, tells a story from his youth. It is gradually revealed that he lives in a post-apocalyptic society on the Big Island of Hawaii. His people, the valley folk, are peaceful farmers, but are often raided by the violent Kona tribe from the other side of the island. Zachry's people worship a goddess called Sonmi, and know that there was an event called 'The Fall', in which the civilized peoples of Earth - known as the 'Old Uns' - collapsed, and the surviving humans have been reduced to primitivism. They have relatively short lifespans. Big Island is occasionally visited and studied by a technologically sophisticated people known as the Prescients who arrive in ocean-colored boats and trade with the valley folk. A Prescient woman called Meronym comes to stay with the villagers. She observes their technology, culture, and practices. Zachry becomes suspicious, and sneaks into her room, where he finds an 'orison', an egg-shaped device for recording and holographic videoconferencing. He is discovered by someone on the other end of the communication. Zachry's sister Catkin is poisoned by a scorpion fish; Meronym reluctantly gives her medicine. When Meronym later requests a guide to take her to the top of Mauna Kea volcano, a place the villagers fear because of the mysterious temples on its summit, Zachry reluctantly guides her. It is revealed that the 'temples' are in fact the ruins of the Mauna Kea Observatories. Meronym shocks Zachry by telling him that their god Sonmi was in fact a human being, and explains the workings of the orison. It can replay Sonmi telling her story to the people. Upon their return, they go with most of the valleyfolk to trade at Honokaa. But first Honokaa, then the valley, is invaded by Kona tribesmen who enslave the villagers. Zachry and Meronym eventually escape, and she takes him to a safer island. The story ends with Zachry's child recalling that his father told many unbelievable tales. The child admits that part of this one may be true because he has inherited Zachry's copy of Sonmi's orison, which he often watches, even though he does not understand her language.
An Orison of Sonmi~451 (Part 2)
Sonmi learns the truth about Nea So Copros: that the fabricants are not released after serving their time at work, but are killed and recycled into food and more fabricants. At the rebels' encouragement, she writes an abolitionist Declarations that tells the truth about their society and calls for rebellion. She is then arrested, and finds herself telling her tale to the archivist. She reveals that she knows everything that happened to her was in fact instigated by the government, to create an artificial enemy figure to encourage the oppression of fabricants by purebloods. But she believes her Declarations will be inspirational nonetheless. Her last wish before being executed is to finish watching the film she began.
The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish (Part 2)
Cavendish has had a stroke. He took a month to recover, but did not leave Aurora House. He spent much of the time going over the Luisa Rey manuscript. He decides that it should be edited to remove the insinuation that Rey was Robert Frobisher reincarnated. He is frustrated when he runs out of pages halfway through the novel. While searching the grounds for a way out Cavendish meets a small group of residents who spend their time in the boiler room. Mr Meeks doesn't say very much. Ernie Blacksmith keeps the boiler running for free, and in return the management turns a blind eye to the occasional bottle of liquor being smuggled in. Ernie says three in four prison escapes fall flat because all the thought goes into the escape, and none on the logistics afterward, like a vehicle and money. Ernie mentions that the arrogant son of Mrs Hotchkiss, Johns Hotchkiss, leaves his keys in the ignition every time he visits. Hotchkiss is constantly trying to get his mother to reveal the location of all the family jewels, which she buried when she got wind he was about to stick her in Aurora House. The dissidents in the boiler room plan to escape in two days. The plan is a "high-risk sequences of dominoes". The first domino is to get Hotchkiss there with his vehicle. They do that with a stolen mobile phone; they have Cavendish pose as a doctor, and say that Mrs Hotchkiss is close to death and keeps talking about jewelry. Domino two has Ernie telling Nurse Noakes that Cavendish is dead. Domino three has them convince Nurse Noakes of this by showing her pillows propped under Cavendish's blankets. Cavendish locks her in his room. Domino four has Veronica (one of the dissidents) sending Hotchkiss on a wild goose chase looking for his mother. The dissidents get into Hotchkiss' Range Rover and ram the gates. They are free of Aurora House, and are surprised that Mr Meeks, who hardly ever says a word, somehow found a way to join them. While Cavendish was away, the Hoggins brothers ransacked his office, but Cavendish's secretary Mrs Latham captured the vandalism on video. She told them to steer clear of Cavendish, or that the footage would end up on the Internet, causing their probation to become prison sentences. The Hoggins brothers were forced to accept a cut of future royalties on Knuckle Sandwich, the Movie. Cavendish has his secretary send an email to the author expressing his interest in publishing the manuscript whose first half he has already read, and a few days later the postman delivers...
Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery (Part 2)
Rey escapes from the sinking car, but is still pursued by Smoke, the assassin working for Seaboard. She picks up her copy of Robert Frobisher's obscure Cloud Atlas Sextet and is astonished to find that she recognizes it, even though it is a very rare piece. Smoke lures her with a copy of Rufus Sixsmith's report about the power plant, but Joe Napier comes to her assistance, and Smoke and Napier kill each other. Rey is left to expose the corrupt corporate leaders. At the end of the story, she receives a package from Sixsmith's niece, which contains eight more letters from Robert Frobisher to Sixsmith.
Letters from Zedelghem (Part 2)
Frobisher continues to pursue his work with Ayrs while developing his own Cloud Atlas Sextet. He becomes besotted with Ayrs' daughter, and tries to end the affair with his wife. While packing his things to leave Ayrs, who had begun to steal his musical ideas, he discovers the second half of The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing propping up the bed. Before sneaking out, he steals Ayrs' Luger. Frobisher secludes himself in a hotel to finish the Sextet, and ultimately decides to kill himself. He is content with this decision as he believes he has completed his best work, but mourns the loss of his one true love, Sixsmith. Before committing suicide by shooting himself in a bathtub, he writes a last letter to Sixsmith, and includes his Sextet and The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing.
The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing (Part 2)
Ewing visits the island of Raiatea where he observes missionaries preaching to the indigenous peoples, whom they regard as savages and treat as slaves even as their illnesses kill them off. Back on the ship, he falls further ill, realizing at the last minute that Dr. Goose - who may not be a doctor at all - is poisoning him to steal his possessions. He is rescued by Autua, and having been saved by a slave, resolves to devote his life to the abolitionist movement. Ewing writes that history is not governed by rules, but outcomes, and outcomes are precipitated by vicious and virtuous acts precipitated by belief. If we believe in the ladder of civilization, then that is what we will get. But someday "a purely predatory world shall consume itself". "The devil take the hindmost until the foremost is the hindmost." Selfishness in a species leads to extinction. He imagines his father-in-law's response to his becoming an abolitionist: he would warn Ewing that his life would amount to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Ewing's proposed reply is "Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?"
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