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June 9, 2006

Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell

Cloud Atlas is one of those clutch of mainstream novels bordering on SF that has been release within the last few years. It made the shortlist for the Arthur C Clarke award in 2005 (along with another mainstream novel The Time Travellers Wife).

The novel is six plots, and is structured so that we read the first half of each in chronological order and the last halves in reverse chronological order. The plots are a 19th century sea voyage, post WWI composer, a 1970s nuclear power station conspiracy thriller, a contemporary publisher's tale of woes, a near future story of an exceptional clone and a far(ish) future tale of a boy on an islander which has regressed to tribalism after "the fall". Not only does time change across the plots but also the style, which garnered much praise in literary reviews.

The plots are supposed to be intertwined, but to say that is tenous at best. It felt to me like six separate novellas, sprinkled with a handful of names and references that link them. I was expecting the plots to smash together at some point, like Mona Lisa Overdrive or River Of Gods, but that never happened. The "intertwining" of the plots added nothing for me.

In fact I felt let down by the whole book. None of the plots second halves lived up to my expectations, they all dissolved in to so-so stories. My favourite plot was the nuclear power station conspiracy thriller, my least favourite the island boy story which was written in an annoying colloquial style, like Feersum Endjinn but without the plot. The clone plot I was looking forward to, it being obviously SF. Unfortunately the story offered nothing new and descended into "clones are slaves" cliche. Compared to the last book I read, Counting Heads, it's treatment of clones seems horribly one dimensional.

In summary, a disappointment.


I agree with you here James. I felt the same way about the book as you did. I was really expecting some cool story interconnections, and all I got were basically one-off lines connecting the stories. Lame. And it gathered so much good press too. River Of Gods is a far superior book.

I guess the verdict on mainstream authors doing SF is patchy.

However the verdict on SF author's doing mainstream(ish) is probably far better (thinking Paul McAuley, Kim Stanley Robinson...)