Mitchell's virtuosic novel presents six narratives that evoke an array of genres, from Melvillean high-seas drama to California noir and dystopian fantasy. There is a naïve clerk on a nineteenth-century Polynesian voyage; an aspiring composer who insinuates himself into the home of a syphilitic genius; a journalist investigating a nuclear plant; a publisher with a dangerous best-seller on his hands; and a cloned human being created for slave labor. These five stories are bisected and arranged around a sixth, the oral history of a post-apocalyptic island, which forms the heart of the novel. Only after this do the second halves of the stories fall into place, pulling the novel's themes into focus: the ease with which one group enslaves another, and the constant rewriting of the past by those who control the present. Against such forces, Mitchell's characters reveal a quiet tenacity. When the clerk is told that his life amounts to "no more than one drop in a limitless ocean," he asks, "Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?"
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker
1. What is Cloud Atlas about? What are the questions the book explores—its primary thematic concerns?
2. Is this a cautionary tale...a prognosis...a diagnosis? In Mitchell's tales, what do humans seem bent on doing to one another...and why? With little left at the end, what, if anything, remains?
3. Why does Mitchell use the structure he does? What might he be hoping to achieve through the six (or twelve) interrelated stories, each based on a specific genre: epistolary, mystery, farce, sci-fi, post-apocolyptic? What is the effect, then, of reversing the tales and going backward?
4. How do each of the tales fit together...forward and backward. Put the pieces of the puzzle together—showing how one story links to another. How, for instance, is Luisa Rey in t connected to Frobisher?
5. What is the significance of the title, "Cloud Atlas"?
6. Which was your favorite tale...and least favorite?
7. What was your experience reading the work: did you find the structure disruptive and confusing...and did you enjoy picking up the linkage between the stories and seeing how it played out by the end?
8. Have you read other dystopian...or post-apocolytpic works? If so, how do they compare with Cloud Atlas?
9. Would you recommend this book to a friend?