As I frequently do, I have to complain that this book was just too overt. Mitchell's concept was not bad; in essence the reader follows a soul through several hundreds of years. He gives us six short stories, each enveloped in the next until we get to the last (several hundreds of years in a post-apocolyptic future). Each of these stories are embedded much as Frobisher's musical composition: "In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order." and each story features a character who sports a comet-shaped birthmark.
And so, we are led to believe that these are reincarnations (especially given Luisa's "memories" of Robert's life) of the same soul; that we are all in some way so interconnected that we share this cloud atlas: "Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an' tho' a cloud's shape nor hue nor size don't stay the same, it's still a cloud an' so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud's blowed from or who the soul'll be 'morrow? Only Sonmi the east an' the west an' the compass an' the atlas, yay, only the atlas o' clouds."
Mitchell tries to address the very interconnected moral question of race, cloning, war, dominance, and consumerism. He does so nicely at times, but in the end, I found myself bored with his unnecessary repetition.
There is an interesting contrast in the race/war question with his very different comments between the first and second halves of the Ewing diary. In the first, we meet the Moriori, who embody "Thou Shall Not Kill" to the extend that they will lie down and die (and so at the end there is one sole remaining Moriori) rather than fight: "Peace, though beloved of our Lord, is a cardinal virtue only if your neighbors share you conscience." In the second, the not-so-trustworthy white doctor spews over a very civilized dinner: "our love--or rather our rapacity--for treasure, gold, spices & dominion, oh, most of all, sweet dominion, is the keenest, the hungriest, the most unscrupulous! This rapacity, yes, powers our Progress; for ends infernal or diving I know now. Nor do you know, sire. Nor do I overly care. I feel only gratitude that my Maker cast me on the winning side."
Mitchell focuses most on consumerism within his discussion on cloning: "To enslave an individual troubles your consciences..but to enslave a clone is no more troubling than owning the latest six-wheeler ford, ethically. Because you cannot discern our differences, you believe we have none." I think one of my favorite stories within the novel was that of Sonmi 451, but it was not quite original enough for me. The clone argument is old and has been done better elsewhere (Atwood's Oryx and Crake and Polansky's The Bradbury Report). The "xciting" new languages and the technological advancements weren't all that impressive in the Sonmi story and I guess I just wished for something better (or different maybe), but I did like all the proper nouns reduced to general usage (ford, sony, nike, starbucks, disney, and exxon).
He addresses war and colonization through our need to consume: "Old Uns' Smart mastered sicks, miles, seeds an' made miracles ord'nary, but it din't master one thing, nay, a hunger in the hearts o' humans, yay, a hunger for more." All of these worlds pivot on the requirement of humans for more (our incessant need to keep acquiring), which which I agree, but which I was tired of having drummed into my head: "What sparks wars? The will to power, the backbone of human nature. The threat of violence, the fear of violence, or actual violence is the instrument of this dreadful will...science devises ever bloodier means of war until humanity's powers of destruction overcome our powers of creation and our civilization drives itself to extinction." and, "By instilling in the slothful so-an'-sos a gentle craving for this harmless leaf, we give him an incentive to earn money, so he can buy his baccy". Yet again, those in power are enslaving the rest to be consumers.
I do agree with his statement on happiness (once more an opportunity to preach my favorite creed on industry!): "If, by happiness, you mean the absence of adversity, I and all fabricants are the happiest stratum in corpocracy, as genomicist insist. However, if happiness means the conquest of adversity, or a sense of purpose, or the xercise of one's will to power, then of all Nea So Copros's slaves we surely are the most miserable. I endured drudgery but enjoy it no more than yourself." Yes, yes, here is the key: not simply more acquisition but a sense of accomplishment. Ultimately he gives us his moral not once, but twice (again with the repetition!): "one fine day, a purely predatory world shall consume itself...for the human species, selfishness is extinction."
I wasn't sure about the locations: two stories in Hawaii (or South Pacific Islands), two in CA, one in England, and one in Korea. I guess I figured we should have gotten all new locations or kept it in the same spot...it was kind of a distraction for me to try to figure out if there was some weird meaning in the places.
Overall, I was just not impressed. I have a hard time with short stories and this is really just a collection of interrupted stories. I didn't like the tone on several of them: Ewing was hard to read (partly because I don't like nautical fiction); Luisa was just stupid and over the top drama; Zachry was just ugly and boring and way too verbose all around. I think my favorite was Cavendish because at least there was some humor.
My biggest complaint was the repetition. Yeah, yeah, Mitchell is trying to drill his themes into our heads, but I don't really have to read six versions of something to come out with the idea that all races are equal, cloning humans is wrong and holds the potential for extreme cruelty, and capitalism running amok is harmful.
I think my favorite quote in the whole book was just an aside, but definitely worth noting here: "Books don't offer real escape, but they can stop a mind scratching itself raw." Unfortunately, if the book isn't good enough it will not reduced the itching.