Finished reading: Oct 2, 2020
Thoughts a week after finishing the book
Cloud Atlas really surprised me. I knew people loved the book, but I didn’t know what to expect. The book has 6 “novellas” all loosely inter-related but each intriguing on its own. It kept me reading thanks to the many great characters and scenarios.
In general, my notes below showcase what stood out to me while reading. David Mitchell’s philosophical musings are really good.
Time is what stops history happening at once; time is the speed at which the past disappears.
The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing
The book begins and ends with the story of Adam Ewing, who’s an American abroad learning about what’s up in the Polynesian islands, where the brutal Maori tribe had betrayed and attacked the peaceful Moriori tribe and enslaved them.
“When lacking numerical superiority… the Maori seize an advantage by striking first & hardest…”
This was after the Moriori had nursed the Maori to health after their voyage had sickened them.
“Peace, though beloved of our Lord, is a cardinal virtue only if your neighbours share your conscience.”
During his voyage the subject of race comes up a few times:
“…to civilize the black races by conversion should be our mission, not their extirpation, fo God’s hand had crated them, too” argued Ewing, a missionary.”
Others, however, weren’t so sure. They argued that missionaries merely prolonged the dying race’s agony.
“More humane, surely, & more honest, just to knock the savages on the head & get it over with?”
Adam had many adventures in Polynesia and befriended Dr. Henry Goose, who would become his friend and journey together towards America when their ship sails. Once onboard, Adam Ewing will encounter an interesting surprise, a Polynesian slave had escaped by hiding in his room onboard and pleaded him to help him.
“My name is Autua,” he said. “You know I, you seen I, aye — you pity I.” I asked what he was talking about. “Maori whip I — you seen.” My memory overcame the bizarreness of my situation & I recalled the Moriori being flogged by the ‘Lizard King.”
It was an interesting way to meet. They talked and Ewing helped the Moriori to survive on the ship and become part of the crew.
“Moriori slaves were now too scarce to be indiscriminately slaughtered.” This is something that Autua related as part of his story. He had traveled abroad and when he returned to his land the Moriori were few and enslaved.
“I stepped on a squid that had propelled itself over the bulwarks! (Its eyes & beak reminded me of my father-in-law)”
Funny quote by Adam Ewing
“Friendship between races, Ewing, can never surpass the affection between a loyal gun-dog & its master.” This is something Dr. Henry said.
They stop the boat at a place where there’s locals/natives and there are whites on a religious mission to indoctrinate.
“You’d think the savages’d be grateful, I mean, we school them, heal them, bring employment & eternal life! Oh, they say “Please, sir,” an’ “Thank you, sir” prettily enough, but you feel nothing,”…
The church used labor to enrich itself, made locals work for free to gain heaven.
“Mrs. Wagstaff’s contempt for her young husband, if bottled, could have been vended as rat-poison.”
“She turned to me. ‘My husband could not compleat his schooling, sir, so it is my sorry lot to explain the obvious, ten times a day.’”
There was an exchange between Henry and the local priest/church-lead-person in which the church person reasoned whites were the chosen ones and that’s why they were advanced and civilized and it was their duty to correct/help the others. Henry said whites weren’t chosen by God, they just got guns sooner and used them to enrich themselves by enslaving others and stealing their riches.
Back on the boat, a boy commits suicide after being raped repeatedly by a stronger man on the boat. He didn’t have anyone to turn to.
“My reason informed me that Boerhaave could not be in Heaven nor Autua in Hell so we must be in Honolulu.”
The ending, which touched me…
“My recent Adventures has made me quite the philosopher, especially at night, when I hear naught but the stream grinding boulders into pebbles through an unhurried eternity. My thoughts flow thus. Scholars discern motions in history & formulate these motions into rules that govern the rises & falls of civilizations. My belief runs contrary, however. To wit: history admits no rules; only outcomes.
What precipitates outcomes? Vicious acts & virtuous acts.
What precipitates acts? Belief.
Belief is both prize & battlefield, within the mind & in the mind’s mirro, the world. If we believe humanity is a ladder of tribes, a colosseum of confrontations, exploitation & bestiality, such a humanity is surely brought into being, & history’s Horroxes, Boerhaaves & Gooses shall prevail. You & I, the moneyed, the privileged, the fortunate, shall not fare so badly in this world, provided our luck holds. What of it if our consciences itch? Why under mind the dominance of our race, our gunships, our heritage & our legacy? Why fight the ‘natural’ (oh, weaselly word!) order of things?
Why? Because of this: — one fine day, a purely predatory world shall consume itself. Yes, the devil shall take the hindmost until the foremost is the hindmost. In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction.
Is this the entropy written within our nature?
If we believe that humanity may tascend tooth & claw, if we believe divers races & creeds can share this world as peaceably as the orphans share their candlenut tree, if we believe leaders must be just, violence muzzled, power accountable & the riches of the Earth & its Oceans shared equitably, such a world will come to pass. I am not deceived. It is the hardest of worlds to make real. Tortuous advances won over generations can be lost by a single stroke of a myopic presiden’t pen or a vainglorious general’s sword.
A life spent shaping a world I want Jackson to inherit, not one I fear Jackson shall inherit, this strikes me as a life word the living. Upon my return to San Francisco, I shall pledge myself to the Abolitionist cause, because I owe my life to a self-freed slave & because I msut begin somewhere.
I hear my father-in-law’s response. ‘Oho, fine Whiggish sentiments, Adam. But don’t tell me about justice! Ride to Tennessee on an ass & convince the red-necks that they are merely whitewashed negroes & their negroes are black-washed Whites! Sail to the Old World, tell ‘em their imperial slaves’ rights are as inalienable as the Queen of Belgium’s! Oh, you’ll grow hoarse, poor & gray in caucuses! You’ll be spat on, shot at, lynched, pacified with medals, spurned by backwoodsmen! Crucified! Naive, dreaming Adam. He who would do battle with the many-headed hydra of human nature must pay a world of pain & his family must pay it along with him! & only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!’
Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”
Letters from Zendelghem
A series of letters from the adventurous Robert Frobisher, a musically inclined man with a flair for the dramatic. He writes to Sixsmith, who never responds to his letters, it seems. We only see a one-way set of letters.
“You won’t have heard of him because you’re a musical oaf, but he’s one of the greats.” He writes of Vyvyan Ayrs. R.F. tells Sixsmith of his plan to go and visit V.A. who can no longer compose due to his health, and offer to be his hands and help him compose again. A crazy plan, of course, and he’d go there without much money. In fact, he’d be penniless by the time he reaches his home.
“Aroma of fresh bread led me to a bakery where a deformed woman with no nose sold me a dozen crescent-moon pastries. Only wanted one, but thought she had enough problems.”
Zendelghem, where the musician lives, is grand. During his time there he feels lucky to have a chance to live there (and get some money) but also there’s drama and weird relationships going on. He sleeps with V.A.’s wife, then falls in love with his daughter.
“A half-read book is a half-finished love affair.” he writes after reading half of Adam Ewing’s journal, which he came across at V.A.’s house. Apparently, it was published by Ewing’s son.
“Ayrs grumbled about losing a day’s work, but he’s only happy when he’s grumbling.”
“Whoever opined, ‘Money can’t buy you happiness,’ obviously had far too much of the stuff.” writes R.F. as he’s starting to enjoy his new money, being paid by V.A. while he stays at V.A.’s home (and sleeps with his wife, of course.)
“Why the deuce do you lock your door if you sleep with the windows open? The Prussians are gone, the ghosts’ll just drift through the door.” said V.A., when in the middle of the night visited R.F. to get music out of his head, a tune that won’t go away. Of course, V.A.’s wife was in the room at the moment, had been enjoying sex with R.F.
“Been thinking about my grandfather, whose wayward brilliance skipped my father’s generation.”
“To men like Ayrs, it occurs to me, this temple is civilization. The masses, slaves, peasants and foot-soldiers exist in the cracks of its flagstones, ignorant even of their ignorance. Not so the great statesmen, scientists, artists and, most of all, the composers of the age, any age, who are civilization’s architects, masons and priests. Ayrs sees our role is to make civilization ever more resplendent. My employer’s profoundest, or only, wish is to create a minaret that inheritors of Progress a thousand years from now will point to and say, ‘Look, there is Vyvyan Ayrs!’How vulgar, this hankering after immortality, how vain, how false. Composers are merely scribblers of cave paintings. One writes music because winter is eternal and because if one didn’t, the wolves and blizzards would be at one’s throat all the sooner.”
When I read this passage it really touched me, as I’ve been struggling to think about life and my legacy. What is a life well lived?
“Do wonder if my brother liked boys as well as girls too, or if my vice is mine alone.”
“…having the roof over one’s head depend upon the good offices of an employer is a loathsome way to live.”
R.F. commits suicide after his passionate pursuit of Eva, V.A.’s daughter, turns into public humiliation and he loses everything.
“Cloud Atlas Sextet holds my life, is my life, now I’m a spent firework; but at least I’ve been a firework.”
Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery
Here, the book turns into an action-packed novella where a journalist at a subpar publication goes after a big case, the Erin Brockovich of the book. Luisa Rey is this journalist, and she’s tipped off to a problem with a new power generator by a scientist.
“Sixsmith opens his mouth to tell her everything — the whitewashing at Seaboard, the blackmailing, the corruption…”
Sixsmith (yup, the one R.F. was writing those letters to, who turns out to have been a lover of R.F.)
“… ‘every scientific term you use represents two thousand readers putting down the magazine and turning on a rerun of I Love Lucy.’”
Luisa faces pushback when trying to investigate Seaboard, the publication she works for doesn’t do actual journalism like that.
“…’Only our regular tree-huggers from the trailer park. The college boys are vacationing where the surf’s better.’”
College students, ready to protest if it’s not vacation time.
“Like Grimaldi says, every conscience has an off-switch hidden somewhere.” Napier says about how corruption happens.
“If you want Soviet technology to burn ahead of ours, leak this report to your Union of Concerned Scientists, fly to Moscow to collect your medal, but the CIA have told me to tell you, you won’t be needing a two-way ticket.”
The countries’ racing to advance technologically started to push countries to take bigger risks.
“We’ve got to help ourselves, Luisa. Men won’t do it for us.” says Fay Li, who works for Seaboard.
“It’s a wise soul, thinks Luisa, who can distinguish a trap from opportunities.”
Lots of car chasing, trying to find info, Sixsmith is killed but the news report it a suicide, there’s a missing report to expose Seaboard.
“Luisa tries to pull herself away but her right leg has been blown off.
She opens her mouth to scream, but the horror passes, her leg is just jammed under her unconscious Chinese escort.”
I liked this use of the first person to throw me off..
There’s a lot of action and, in the end, lots of people die but Luisa lives and exposes Seaboard’s reckless thing.
The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish
A man makes his way to a “hotel” when a gang is chasing him because they want money, money that Cavendish made from selling a book that the gang members’ brother had written before dying and sales spiking. Cavendish was a book publisher.
The whole story and his journey is a bit lunatic, so it’s no surprise when we get to…
“You can see it, can’t you, dear Reader? I was a man in a horror B-movie asylum. The more I ranted and raged, the more I proved that I was exactly where I should be.”
Cavendish had checked himself into an asylum and couldn’t escape.
Speaking of old age…
“On escalators, on trunk roads, in supermarket aisles, the living will overtake you, incessantly. Elegant women will not see you. Store detectives will not see you. Salespeople will not see you, unless they sell stair-lifts or fraudulent insurance policies. Only babies, cats and drug addicts will acknowledge your existence.”
“In all the prison literature I’ve read, … rights must be horse-traded and accrued with cunning.”
“We – by whom I mean anyone over sixty – commit two offences just by existing. One is Lack of Velocity. We drive too slowly, walk too slowly, talk too slowly. The world will do business with dictators, perverts and drug barons of all stripes, but being slowed down, it cannot abide. Our second offence is being Everyman’s memento mori. The world can only get comfy in shiny-eyed denial if we are out of sight.”
“He nailed the door to its frame and left the huntress snarling in a prison cell of her own invention.”
As Cavendish escapes, he traps his entrapper?
“The woman was sincere — bigots mostly are — but no less dangerous for that.”
An Orison of Sonmi ~ 451
A really interesting novella in which we are in the future, where humans (purebloods) have created this “soul-less clones” (fabricants) who are used as slaves. Sonmi~451 is one of these “clones”, except that she achieves reasoning and can figure out what’s going on. It’s an interview-style chapter. Bold is the questioner, regular font is for Sonmi’s words.
“… Your version of the truth is what matters.
No other version of the truth has ever mattered to me.”
“Both in Papa Song’s and in this cube, my dreams are in the single unpredictable factor in my zoned days and nights. Nobody allots them, or censors them. Dreams are all I ever truly owned.”
“Despite what purebloods strive so hard to convince themselves, fabricants’ minds differ greatly, even if their features and bodies do not.”
“Laughter is an anarchic blasphemy. Tyrants are wise to fear it.”
“Is happiness the absence of deprivation? IF so, servers are, as purebloods like to believe, the happiest stratum in the corpocracy. But if happiness is the conquest of adversity, or the sensation of being valued and fulfilled, then of all Nea So Copros’ slaves we are surely the most miserable.”
“I asked how Yoona had found the secret room.
‘Curiosity,’ she said.
I didn’t know the word. ‘Is curiosity a torch, or a key?’
Yoona said it was both.”
Sonmi had a birthmark that resembled a comet, which Luisa Del Rey also had, and I believe R.F. did too? Connecting them all.
“What Cathecisms governed my life in this place?”
Sonmi is puzzled when she escapes from Papa Song’s and is “free”, but in hiding.
“‘To survive for long, Sonmi ~ 451, you must create Catechisms of your own.’”
“…why any dominator fears their dominated gaining knowledge.
I dared not utter the word ‘insurrection’…”
“‘Try this: fabricants are mirrors held up to purebloods’ consciences; what purebloods see therein sickens them. So they blame the mirrors.’
I asked when purebloods might start blaming themselves.
Mephi replied, ‘History suggests not until they are made to.’”
People will hold on to their beliefs and ignorance until forced otherwise.
“I’m not sure I can xplain why, but an impulse can be both vaguely understood and strong.”
Then, Sonmi watched a movie..
“A picaresque entitled The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish…”
“Why our corpocratic state outlaws any historical discourse is a perplexing question. Is it that history provides a bank of human xperience that rivals Media’s?”
“Time is what stops history happening at once; time is the speed at which the past disappears. Film gives those lost worlds a brief resurrection. Those since-fallen buildings, those long-decayed faces, they engrossed me. We were as you are, they said. The present doesn’t matter. My fifty minutes in front of the cinema screen with Hae-Joo were an xercise in happiness.”
“All revolutions are the sheerest fantasy until they happen; then they become historical inevitabilities.”
“The sacred is a fine hiding-place for the profane: they are always so similar.”
“The helmet was fitted over the Sonmi’s head and neck; at this moment I noticed the number of doors into the cell. The conclusions chilled me.”
When Sonmi realized that they were not sending fabricants to a happy island when their tenure as “slaves/servers” ended, instead, they were killed and their body parts recycled.
“In the beginning there is ignorance. Ignorance engenders fear. Fear engenders hatred, and hatred engenders violence. Violence breeds further violence until the only law is whatever is willed by the most powerful. What is willed by the Juche is the creation, subjugation and tidy xtermination of a vast tribe of duped slaves.”
Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After
This was an interesting chapter to read, cause it was HARD to read. It was written kind of like in gibberish. Made it very slow to make progress. It’s a man (Zacchary) narrating his life, it seems, and this is after “The Fall”, a historic event post-Sonmi’s time in which humanity seems to have decayed.
After losing a baby…
“Jayjo she didn’t die, nay, but she never laughed twirly like b’fore an’ we din’t marry, nay, you got to know your seeds’ll grow a purebirth or sumthin’ close, yay?”
You can see the term purebirth being used, and how there were issues with some people not having good “seeds”. So, what happened with fabricants and purebloods?
“…the gone-lifes outnumber the now-lifes like leafs outnumber trees.”
“…but I din’t like this giftin’ not a bit, nay, see this offlander was buyin’ my kin sure ‘nuff an’ I wasn’t havin’ it.”
An offlander, Meronym, from an advanced civilization, wanted to stay around and “learn their ways” and he didn’t like it.
The people from the advanced civilization had darker skin.
“… her ancestors b’fore the Fall changed their seeds to make dark-skinned babbits to give ‘em protection ‘gainst the redscab sickness,”
“Some schoolers started inkin’ their faces blacker to look like a Prescient but Meronym telled ‘em to clean up or she’d not teach ‘em nothin’, ‘cos Smart’n’vic’lize ain’t nothin’ to do with the color o’ the skin, nay.”
Race shows up again in the book.
“O, bein’ young ain’t easy ‘cos ey’rythin’ you’re puzzlin’n’anxin’ you’re puzzlin’n’anxin’ it for the first time.”
On greed and how it caused the Fall of civilization…
“I mem’ry she answered, Yay, Old’uns’ Smar mastered sicks, miles, seeds an’ made miracles ord’nary, but it din’t master one thing, nay, a hunger in the hears o’ humans, yay, a hunger for more.More what? I asked. Old’uns’d got ev’rything’.O, more gear, more food, faster speeds, longer lifes, easier lifes, more power, yay. Now the Hole World is big but it weren’t big ‘nuff for that hunger what made Old’uns rip out the skies an’ boil up the seas an’ poison soil with crazed atoms an’ donkey ‘bout with rotted seeds so new plagues was borned an’ babbits was freakbirthed. Fin’ly, bit’ly, then quicksharp states busted into bar’bric tribes an’ the Civ’lize Days ended, ‘cept for a few folds’n’pockets here’n’there, where its last embers glimmer.”
Offlanders were just exploring the area, Ha-Why, to figure out where to settle in that land.
“List’n, savages an’ Civilized ain’t divvied by tribes or b’liefs or mountain ranges nay, ev’ry human is both, yay.”