Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Chicago Nerds: Cloud Atlas

For the last book discussion of the Chicago Nerd Social Club, we dove into (ascended? attempted to map?) David Mitchell's 2004 novel, "Cloud Atlas".

The novel is actually a carefully arranged mix of six novelletes, with a mirrored structure. More on that below. Each story is a different genre, time period, and style, with a host of recurring imagery and themes.

Our reception of the book was generally positive, modulo some caveats about its "literariness". We struggled with the question of what it's really "about"--always a vexatious question, but the fact that these six stories are presented as a single novel, rather than as a collection, makes one long for a cohesive theme or two. And, follow-up question: is this book optimistic or depressing vis-a-vis the human condition?

Some structural analysis, synopsis, and likely spoilers below:

So just to get this out of the way, STRUCTURE. Skip this if you don't need a recap:

1.) Ewing:1850s diary of an American notary at sea, beginning with an island off New Zealand. Ends abruptly (mid sentence, no end-punctuation).
2.) Frobisher: Series of letters in a Decadent/Romantic style from an English composer in Belgium, addressed to his friend and lover Robert Sixsmith. Frobisher finds the ripped-in-half journal of Ewing.
3.) Luisa Rey: Third-person, pulpy-detective-style story of a young reporter investigating the possible cover-up of a report on an unsafe nuclear power plant; the report's author is Sixsmith, from whom Luisa acquires Frobisher's letters.
4.) Cavendish: Semi-comedic, semi-horrific story of an English publisher who, fleeing violent complications from a recent best-seller, winds up semi-accidentally trapped in a nursing home. Finds an unpublished manuscript that is Luisa's story.
5.) Sonmi~451: Interview with a soon-to-be-executed "fabricant" in a near-future Korea, who ascended to a genius, fully independent being and joined an underground rebellion before being captured. She saw the first half of a movie--Cavendish's story--before being imprisoned. Written in an interview style and with many Orwell-style neologisms and linguistic foibles.
6.) Zachry: Post-apocalyptic oral tale by an inhabitant of Hawaii. Unspecified disasters caused the crash of most or all advanced civilizations, with the survivors reverting to primitive modes of life. Zachry meets and assists Meronym (aw geeze her name is one letter away from "Metonym", I just caught that), from a more technologically savvy population, before Zachry's home culture is overtaken by the barbarian Kona. Along the way, he finds an "orison", a media-playback device of some sort that includes Somni's account. Zachry's story is written in an exaggerated dialect.
5.) Somni: We return to her interview as she relates more of her life before capture. Ends with her request to finish watching the Cavendish film before her death.
4.) Cavendish: With the help of others at the nursing home, he escapes and reconnects with his publishing business. Solicits the second part of Luisa Rey's story from its author.
3.) Luisa Rey: More of the tangled web surrounding the cover-up and related crimes; Luisa eventually triumphs and publishes her expose. From Sixsmith's estate, she acquires the remaining Frobisher letters to read.
2.) Frobisher: He relates his continuing descent, completion of his "Cloud Atlas Sextet" composition, and suicide. As he flees the mansion where most of his story has taken place, he finds the second half of Ewing's diary.
1.) Ewing: Ewing describes his travels to another island and encounter with missionaries there, his near-fatal poisoning by his "doctor", and rescue by the Moriori stowaway he assisted earlier. Ends with his resolution to become an Abolitionist.

Whew! Sorry for the long synopsis, but it will facilitate some of the notes below.

One question raised early in discussion was: Is the title valid? The vague idea of a "cloud atlas" crops up in a few of the stories, but we pointed out that clouds are very random and unstructured, the very antithesis of this book--mainly notable for its rigid, carefully-planned, clever structure.

However, a defending voice brought up the idea that the work is cloudlike in its "roiling, recurring patterns"--each story shares a large number of features and details with the others.

Mitchell was in Chicago the night before our meeting, talking about his new novel "Slade House" (2015) and, with guest Lana Wachowski, about the film adaptation of "Cloud Atlas" (2012). A few of our discussants were there, and something they brought up was the idea of a "Mitchell-verse" as Wachowski called it--the fact that most/all of Mitchell's works thus far are connected in some way. This is not the kind of expanded or consistent universe common to SFF, but instead a constant linking and shifting of fictive layers, much as we see in this novel.

They also brought up an idea that Mitchell tossed out, that his books are primarily "about" the dichotomy between empathy and those who lack it. That led us to talk about how much violence and nonviolence are discussed in several of the storylines.

BY THE WAY, "Slade House" just won the World Fantasy Award for best novel! Handed out in beautiful Saratoga Springs, NY, by the way, and I am kicking myself for not seeing that earlier (I used to work/travel through there frequently). If you ever get a chance, worth a quick visit.

Also worth mentioning: Mitchell will be the last novelist to receive the Lovecraft Bust version of the award, as World Fantasy organizers have decided to select an image of someone or thing that is not so loudly racist as Mr. Lovecraft. Particularly intriguing considering our discussion of race & racism in "Cloud Atlas". End aside!

So this is one of those novels that makes us genre-aware readers a bit fidgety, and brings up the whole occasionally-interesting "genre" vs. "literary" or "mainstream" definitions. We talked about the fact that while some people find "literary" works difficult to read, that doesn't mean, conversely, that difficult works are automatically of heightened literary worth. I really liked the line that we're not sure if this is "brilliant, or we're being punked"--that it's a little too neat, like a college writing assignment to "take 6 different stories and intercut them so they seem connected".

Comparisons made to Danielewski's "House of Leaves" (2000) which left a few of few of us with similar feelings to "Cloud Atlas" in terms of being unsure if we're being suckered or if it's really genius. However, we also made favorable comparisons between Mitchell and Murakami's work.

Fade in. Earth: the year 2024.
We spent some time talking about the genre and possible relatives of each stories, noting that Cavendish's ghastly ordeal shares some similarity to "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1963), while Sonmi's tale draws on many different dystopias but seems to play heavily on "Soylent Green" (1973) for its main punch. Sonmi's story also reminded me a bit of Ishiguro's "Never Let Me Go" (2005) and Bacigalupi's "The Windup Girl" (2009).

A few folks pointed out that the last half of the novel is "all endings", which is kind of strange, and that the primary mystery that drives us to read it is not the plot of any story, but rather "how does this text work", so figuring out the mirrored structure is a bit deflationary for the reader.

"What is it all about?" we asked. Some of our answers:
  • The idea that we're always consuming ourselves-- through racist/colonial appropriation, through consumer culture, through ambition, through literal cannibalism.
  • "Inter-related-ness", although I must point out that we detect no deeper "aboutness" about this (except for the empathy angle), it's just a kind of resonance, a wordless echo. Shapes in clouds. Man, this book left me more nihilistic than I thought.
  • Slavery & imprisonment. Repression/oppression and resistance. These crop up in every story-line.
  • Dependence on others.
  • But I sez: it's about solitariness, connections without communication, the "message in a bottle"-ness of each storyline, which mirrors the kind of unidirectional communication of novels as an art form. Each succeeding story here discovers the previous without being able to communicate with the author--the original speaker is dead (or fictional?) by the time they are heard.
  • It also seems to be "about" sub-creation, the manufacture of in-fiction works of art, like Ewing's musical composition, Sonmi's revolutionary catechisms (which would have been nice to read), and the film adaptation of Cavendish's tale. The shifting genres and internal reception/transformation of each work (even Zachry's tale, though not passed on to another, is itself presented as an oral tale that he is telling) bring attention to the act of storytelling and how that is affected by genre and media.
We talked about portrayals of racism in the novel, particularly in the second half of Ewing's tale, where some pretty vile characters share their explicit philosophy of racial superiority/inferiority. As part of the research for "Right in Other Ways: Hierarchical vs. Radiant Intelligence Models", the paper I presented at Wiscon back in the spring, I wound up doing a lot of research on the Great Chain of Being and its most noxious child, Social Darwinism--Mitchell's insertion of this little speech is very accurate of the mindset, sad to say.

But we talked about the difficulty problem of representing racism in historical settings, balancing between not hiding it (or introducing "anachronistic liberals" to use someone's nice turn of phrase) and not over-indulging in the brutality of it.

The rebuttal to the Great Chain argument by one of the side characters in "Cloud Atlas", that the European powers were not ascending because of any manifest destiny or innate superiority, but just because of their weaponry and greed, makes me think that Mitchell is drawing a bit on Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel" (1997), which I highly recommend--a multidisciplinary historical work that seeks to explain why the cultures that become imperial hegemonies did so. I'm doubly sure that Mitchell was drawing on this due to Diamond's lengthy treatment of Maori/Polynesian politics and history, which inform both Ewing & Zachry's tales.

After his experiences, Ewing decides to set off to be an Abolitionist, and wraps the novel up with a good, but somewhat pat moral that we talked about for a bit--essentially saying "things would be great if we'd all be nice to each other", which is like totally true and also a little different to read with a straight face.

So we talked about whether to read this as optimistic or depressing (I tried and failed to get a hand-count, visions of pie-charts dancing in my head), with the "find it hopeful" crowd seeming to outnumber the pessimistic readers. The main reason I find the moral so discouraging here is that each successive story is set in a future where the moral hasn't caught on; indeed, the novel is largely pessimistic in terms of its future-history. Since this can be construed as currently contra-factual--take a gander at Pinker's "The Better Angels of Our Nature"(2011), for instance, which argues that things have largely been getting better in terms of violence/ethics if one takes a systematic look at history--I have to read the novel as tragic. Especially because reincarnation is an idea flirted with in the book--in the identically birth-marked, recurringly-themed protagonists, and in the statue of Siddhartha that Sonmi contemplates--and the idea of reincarnation isn't just for kicks, the idea is that things get better, that the cycle of senseless violence and suffering is broken, is improved on--and if, in this fictional world, things are leading to the world of Sonmi & Zachry, well, yikes. Things get way worse. People get way worse, flashes of empathy amidst the carnage notwithstanding.

I also find some support for my nihilistic reading in the novel's usage of Nietszche and the will to power as an inescapably part of human nature, and the antithesis of the empathy that Mitchell seems to championing. The problem as I read it is: destructive "will" is not restrained by occasional spots of niceness, but rather by institutions and social structures that allow, encourage, and protect ethical/empathetic behavior--and those structures do not survive here, we're back to square one with the brutal genocide/enslavement of Zachry's tale, whose escape and "happy ending" do not dispel the nigh-certain threat of an eventual Kona expansion. Brings to mind Santayana's old chestnut--those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

But enough of my curmudgeonliness! This is a cool book, and inspired an above-average discussion. I don't think anybody fessed up to having read "Slade House" yet, but Mitchell's "The Bone Clocks" (2014) was recommended for those who enjoyed this one.

Next time! We'll be reading "Welcome to Nightvale" by Fink & Cranor, the novel offspring of that most wondrous of podcasts. We are assured by those in the know that there are no spoiling effects if you're in the midst of listening, WHICH YOU SHOULD.

Many more delightful events and discussions on the Chicago Nerds website & Facebook!

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