Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Cloud Atlas

So far my favorite book I've read this year. The plot of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas is a bit hard to explain, but here's the basic gist. The novel consists of six different narratives, set in different time periods on Earth. All of the stories are interconnected in some way, and feature a reincarnating soul who is reborn as a different race or gender in each generation, but always with a comet shaped birthmark. The overall message is that humanity is connected and inseperable. Race, gender and creed are illusions, fluid and always changing, and every action you take has a direct reaction on future events and your future self.

It's a book lover's book, with each narrative segment written in the style of a particular genre to fit its time period. There's the Colonial epistolary novel, the mystery thriller, the Kingsley Amis-style British comedy, an Orwellian futuristic dystopia, and the oral tradition of campfire storytelling. But the theme is always the same: humanity rejects what they see as different. But if you embrace difference, overcome ignorance and work toward the common good, every action you take will have profound influence over the future.

My favorite narrative segment has to be the 'Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish', fitting into the aforementioned Kingsley Amis-style British comedy. Recounting the tale of an aging publisher trying to escape from a One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest-esque nursing home, it was a nice break from the seriousness of the other segments. One of the darker stories, 'Orison of Sonmi-451', was also a favorite. In a near future dystopic Korea, "corpocracy" reigns, and clones ("fabricants") are mass-produced as the workforce. Regular citizens ("purebloods") are required to spend and consume, and corporations rule over all aspects of life. It's a nightmarish and possibly inevitable future. It brought back memories of reading Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood.

I had numerous passages marked, but I'll control myself and just share a few:

I asked if Siddhartha was indeed a god.

Many called him so, the Abbess agreed, but Siddhartha does not influence fortune or weather or perform many of a divinity's traditional functions. Rather, Siddhartha is a dead man and a living ideal. The man taught about overcoming pain, and influencing one's future reincarnations. "But I pray to the idea." She indicated the meditating giant. "Early, so he knows I'm serious."

Sometimes the fluffy bunny of incredulity zooms around the bend so rapidly that the greyhound of language is left, agog, in the starting cage. A feisty stagger was needed to reach the next train befor eit left--only to find it had been canceled! But, "luckly," the train before mine was so late tha tit still hadn't departed. All the seats were taken, and I had to squeeze into a three-inch slot. I lost my balance when the train pulled away, but a human crumple zone buffered my fall. We stayed like that, half fallen. The Diagonal People....

I elbowed my way into the grubby cafe, bought a pie that tasted of shoe polish and a pot of tea with cork crumbs floating in it, and eavesdropped on a pair of Shetland pony breeders. Despondency makes one hanker after lives on never led. Why have you given your life to books, TC? Dull, dull, dull! The memoirs are bad enough, but all that ruddy fiction! Hero goes on a journey, stranger comes to town, somebody wants something, they get it or they don't, will is pitted against will. "Admire me, for I am a metaphor."

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 mirror, the world. If we believe humanity is a ladder of tribes, a colosseum of confrontation, 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 undermind 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 find day, a purely predatroy 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 doom written within our nature?

If we believe that humanity may transcend 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.

Rights are susceptible to subversion, as even granite is susceptible to erosion. My fifth Declaration posits how, in a cycle as old as tribalism, ignorance of the Other engenders fear; fear engenders hatred; hatred engenders violence; violence engenders further violence until the only"rights," the only law, are whatever is willed by the most powerful.

And if you're interested in the film adaptation that was just released, maybe check out my review here at my other blog.