Dark Futures Book 20: Selections from “Cloud Atlas”

Dark Futures is a 20-book exploration of the fears of our futures, an odd sub-genre of Science Fiction that draws in on the society of the time and projects it forward, into uncomfortable visions of the world to be. The idea is the same across many books, the results, very different.  This week, we cover a book that features not one, but two linked futures for humanity.

Normally for the last book in these reading lists, I’ve headed to the bestseller lists and picked a recent bestseller. However, I was reading David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas on recommendation and was surprised to find that amongst it’s six nested stories are a dystopia and a post apocalypse. And they’re both pretty interesting (as is the whole book, in fact) so I thought I’ve cover them here.

The Orison of Somni-451

Remember when I was talking about Jennifer Government, and I said that my only real criticism was that it was too gentle a satire, and not angry or affecting enough? Well this that angry and affecting book. Told as an interview on the eve of her execution, Somni-451 recounts her “ascension” from working as a server in Papa Songs Diner (a very thinly disguised McDonalds) in a corporatist future Korea to move as a fugitive through the underbelly of the deny state. I don’t want to say too much about the plot, but it’s dark, really quite horrible at times and quite affecting in places too. Somni is gentle, almost non-judgmental narrator about what she sees, and the intimate, sometimes obscured narrative of her journey makes her a very different sort of unreliable narrator.

Like all the stories in Cloud Atlas, it verges at times on pastiche; having read a lot of Dystopias this year the references come thick and fast, but the coherence of the world, and the thematic resonance both internally and with the rest of the book is well handled. It’s possibly the best of the novels six stories, actually – certainly the one with the most emotional stopping power – and a solid dystopia in its own right.

Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After

Written in quite a strong dialect, I struggled with the final story of Cloud Atlas – indeed, the final story of human civilisation – due to both the language used and the sudden crash from an interesting futureworld to people living in huts what’s left of Hawaii. Once I got past that, we’re into solid post-apocalypse territory – remnant civilisation, feral, predatory bandits, and the slow death of hope. On the surface, this is less derivate than Somni’s story, but it’s also less compelling and immediate. Its not without its great moments, especially the spiritual and physical climb up to the Observatories, but somehow it doesn’t quite connect, although it may have been that I was in a hurry to get back to Somni’s tale, which this interrupts.

I also think that Zackry’s story works well in the context of the wider novel, and less well as a realised world in it’s own right. Maybe that should be expected, but on it’s own it’s a well told, but somewhat standard story, but sat in the centre of Cloud Atlas its acts like a hinge for the whole novel, somehow tying all the stories together. Which is of course what all these stories all this year are really – broad fictions that reflect back to the reader that, in the right context, make sense of the real world that they live in.

As a final comment, the rest of Cloud Atlas, whist not relevant to this article, is broadly fantastic and well worth a read.

Next time:  One last post, as I try to tie up all the disparate threads and learn some lessons from all this ending of worlds.

Feedback, corrections and other comments welcome either here or by email to grampus(at)dissectingworlds(dot)com or on twitter @thegrampus. Earlier Reviews in this series can be found using the tag “Dark Futures” or the column name “Tolkien Gestures”.

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  1. I feel a little stupid not seeing the climax of Orison of Sonmi451 coming, after all, it’s been hinted at in the Timothy Cavendish section when he yelled “Soylent Green is people!”, heh. Agree with you that the Sonmi section is probably the strongest stand-alone story, although I have a soft spot for Robert Frobisher.

    • dwgrampus /

      i didn’t see it coming either, although like you i did kick myself.

      my soft spot is for Cavendish, the old rogue.

  2. James /

    Agreed – Cloud Atlas is a fantastic book that’s well worth reading. Did you know they’re working on a film version of it now? No idea how they plan to cram all the stories in, but it should be interesting anyway…

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