There are few books which are like Cloud Atlas: it has a structure which is unique, a mirrored configuration which divides its stories for the most part into two, heading from the past to the future and then making its way back through the spawn of time. Its stories stand alone, but they tie together into common themes, and they show interlinkages between the characters and their experiences. It's more than just a collection of short stories, but at the same time not quite a full, integrated novel. At its heart it is a story of despair and intense sadness for the nature of humanity, which it can't truly paper over with the occasional optimism of individuals.
Every story within has a remarkably different style: a diary kept by the American notary Adam Ewing on his voyage to the South Pacific Chatham Islands at the height of the genocide of the Morori people by the Maori, a series of letters by the composer Robert Frobisher to his lover, a fast-paced crime thriller of investigative journalist Luisa de Rey, the screenwriting for a movie of British publisher Timony Cavendish and his ordeal of being locked away falsely, an oral interview with Somni-451, slave-clone in a future technologically dystopian Korea, and finally Zachry, in his recounting of his life as a herder of a primitive agricultural society in Hawaii long after the collapse of civilization (fascinatingly written but admittedly extremely difficult to understand since it is in a future dialect of English). But they are for the most part united by a common theme of the oppression which the rich visit on the strong. Most clearly it comes out in Adam Ewing's story- "The weak are meat and the strong shall eat." The world is a harsh place, and if good can at times triumph, it fails in the end in front of the overwhelming strength of human nature and the failings of our civilization.
Perhaps David Mitchell succeeds too well in attempting to propound this theory: he tries to end his work on an upbeat note, about a better world being possible, one without the exploitation and the annihilation of the weak, if we can believe in it- if we can follow the most difficult task of all, of attempting to truly act as equals and brothers. And that this is followed up, in actions as well as words, by the character becoming an abolitionist, swayed by the sacrifice and salvation by the oppressed, who saved him from certain death at the hands of the strong, who he once thought were his friends. But this has a double-meaning, since this character is one from the past, and the world which he lives in is one which is shown as inevitably slated for destruction: for technological horrors of which we could not even dream, of immeasurable cruelty, of unfathomable callousness. destruction, war, the apocalypse. We know in advance that Adam Ewing is doomed to failure, and that the flawed creation of humanity will find itself, whatever efforts he made, slated to a path of evil which he could barely comprehend. It makes the talk of a better world and his actions a mockery.
Not that it isn't beautiful, touching, telling: that there are no historical laws, only beliefs, and that the world we live in is the one of our own creation. And throughout we can see that the weak, the powerless, the oppressed: that they can rise up and break their chains, that they are not merely the humble playthings of the mighty. A slave can save a notary's life, a Hispanic woman working in a sweat shop can brain a cold killer who murdered her dog, fellow prisoners can help in an escape from a tyrannical nursing home, and the outcasts can build a better, older, sustainable world in a millennia old monastery. Alongside all of the horror and pain there are those individuals who stand up for what is just. These, not systems or institutions, are what is to be trusted: Christianity is used as a tool of oppression in the South Pacific, while in Korea the ancient monastery is the first taste of real community and authentic life for Somni.
What seems to be the story which stands out from the rest is Robert Frobisher, the musician's tale, who unlike the rest of the characters doesn't have a positive or heroic story: he takes advantage of people around him, and is taken advantage of himself in turn. He seems to be a rather unremarkable individual: neither particularly mighty nor particularly downtrodden, a member of the British lower mobility, eternally in the shadow of his brother, dead in the Great War. He creates the Cloud Atlas Sextant but this is a superfluous addition to the story: how would the collection of stories be different in the slightest if, instead of listening to Cloud Atlas Sextant, the characters instead found their joy and delight in one of Beethoven's pieces?
Frobisher's distinguishing feature seems to be that he alone has the choice over his end, that he has the choice to commit suicide, to take destiny into his own hands. This is in its own way an act of bravery, determination, and resolve: in a sick world, it is a courage, that requires extensive preparation and will to take the permanent way out. But it seems deeply at odds with the rest of the book, with its characters who struggle and fight and don't give up: they may lose in the short term, like Somni did, and perish, but they go unto the end fighting.
Perhaps the sole distinction of Frobisher is that he, alone of the characters, has a path which is defined by romantic love. Love is a mechanistic and animalistic presence throughout the book: there are relationships which are defined by love, but in all of them it is a love from the past, a dimly remembered affair, or a dead wife who acts as a remembered voice of moral consciousness, Of love and sex, it reduces to a rather cold and empty affair between Frobisher and Jocasta, an unsatisfying and limp session between Somni and Hae-Joo Im, multiple episodes of young boys being raped, and the native women of Chatham Island being used as prostitutes by the Maori and the Europeans. Frobisher alone falls in real, genuine, romantic love: but it is with a woman under a mistake: in its way it is a bitter and false love, tricked, inadvertently, by the woman he loved. There is also Isaac Sachs who falls in love with Luisa, which is in part responsible for his murder. Rather for the most part, the positive character pairings of the book are platonic: between Autua and Adam Ewing between Luisa and Joe Napier, between Cavendish and Ernie Blacksmith, between the Prescient woman Meronym and Zachry, or Somni and Professor Mephi. Other than these, the book lacks for warmth and love, and the love which exists most often leads to ruin.
There are some excellent themes which are covered in the book, and it is admirable for its excellent changes in style and composition (even if the middle story on Hawaii, that of Zachry, can be difficult to understand due to this), and its sweeping historical portrayal is breathtakingly ambitious. But it is also hard to avoid a sense that the book is discordant: that chapters like Frobisher's have no link to the rest, or that it tries to put forth hope and optimism in a book which is fundamentally one of despair: that its inevitability of doom leaves no room for these human hopes and individual agency. In this, its final, hopeful theme is contradicted by the rest of the book and the lessons it teaches: that there is a historical law and mechanism, and that that to try to overcome this is an impossible futility. The weak are meat, and the strong shall eat.