Cloud Atlas–Promise and Disappointment

I’ve just finished reading a novel–Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell, a very talented British novelist. It came heavily recommended by much admired literary friends, and it tries to do something that I believe few mainline fiction works do at all. That is, engage really major philosophical/scientific/social issues in a way that enlists and expands the very form of the novel itself. The fact that they don’t is the reason why I don’t read contemporary mainline fiction much at all–that, and the related problem that I never meet characters that I’d really like to know and be proud to know.

I mostly read science fiction, which almost always engages major issues, often in original ways, and sometimes has characters I respect and whose inner lives I actually don’t mind exploring. It’s not that I don’t think contemporary mainline fiction writers are stupid (though they’re very often pretty ignorant about anything except fiction writing and the stuff they researched for their novel); it’s just that I don’t see why the author has to have a monopoly on the intelligence and originality in a book. Shakespeare, by contrast, created characters that may have been even smarter than Shakespeare himself–Hamlet, Falstaff, Rosalind, Cleopatra.

Cloud Atlas is stylistically a tour de force–it’s made up of six interwoven stories, each in a different genre, and ranging in setting, style, language and worldview from the nineteenth century to several hundred years in the future. I suppose one could call it science-fiction overall, but only two of the stories are in that form (and those are profoundly different from each other–an account of a pre-execution interview in Korea and a first-person tribal tale from a last survivor of a technological apocalypse). The other forms he uses are the nineteenth century traveler’s journal, the British epistolary novel, the American West Coast conspiracy thriller, and the comic media anecdote. What’s especially interesting is that the tales begin in order of time, and then are completed in reverse temporal order, creating a chiastic or palindromic sort of shape.

With these fine technical devices, and the grand theme of the destruction of civilization by human greed, we have the ingredients of something very special. But the novel fails and disappoints, for many reasons. It has the same ignorance of economics, political science, natural science, and technology that marks most contemporary writers and artists. It demonizes the business corporation in a way that is becoming a weary cliche. It is simply superstitious about nuclear technology in a way that is already dated–these days it is coal that is the villain, not nuclear–and proposes using biotech to darken people’s skin as a protection against radiation, for instance. But worse–it seems to want to have the fading cachet of existentialist angst while sentimentally weaving in a spiritual message embodied in a miraculous birthmark suggesting a mysterious providence–a providence that is signally ineffective, since the “good” characters are as helpless against the western phallocentric colonialist capitalist villains as fish in a barrel.

An author who takes on major world historical themes owes it to his audience to do his homework, which Mitchell has not done. Science fiction writers are often pretty ignorant of economics, business, finance, etc–who invests in those splendid starships and pays the workers and votes for the project and staves off the political opposition?–but usually they know their science, and create characters that know something too, and can win the reader’s respect for that at least. I think Mitchell has a chance of becoming a great novelist if he takes ten years and some graduate courses in his missing disciplines, and reads a list of great books in the natural and social sciences.