Cloud Atlas is ambitious; it encompasses genres, styles, mysteries, character study, philosophical leaps and scientific speculations. Reviewers have compared his works to those of diverse writers like Umberto Eco, Haruki Murakami and Philip K. Dick. Cloud Atlas starts in the 19th century on an intercontinental sea voyage, goes to a futuristic Korean super-state and circles back to end in a post apocalyptic setting in Iron Age Hawaii, all the while connecting his characters and their fates across time and space.
There are six distinct, yet connected novellas.
An American notary - Adam Ewing, journeys to the Chatham Islands in the Pacific. This first novella is written in the form of his journal and is reminiscent of classic American literature / maritime fiction (Moby Dick, The Deerslayer). It includes a history of the Moriori people of the Chatham Islands (New Zealand territory. The first few pages of Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs & Steel explains how and why the Moriori were annihilated). Adam Ewing records the dark side of man in the individual and collective form, and the broader theme of Could Atlas (captivity and domination, and the means with which they are achieved) is set.
A young man with a dark past - Robert Frobisher, gains the trust of an acclaimed composer and works his way into the home. This section is written in the form of letters sent (not received) to his lover Rufus Sixmith about his adventures in continental Europe in the aftermath of WW1, while he cuckolds the ageing musician. Adam Ewing's journals are mentioned here.
An intrepid female reporter -Luisa Rey, is determined to continue her father's legacy and uncovers a nuclear conspiracy during the Cold War. Rey's story is written in the first person to read like a pulpy crime novel - a fast paced thriller about the adventures of an unputdownable journalist. Rufus Sexmith - the recipient of the letters in the previous novella plays a central role here.
A difficult and ageing publisher - Timothy Cavendish, is stuck in an old age home and finds that his greatest success goes hand in hand with his deepest troubles. His association with a gangster forces him underground and he finds refuge in a nursing home and attempts escape.
A dystopian society in the image of Kim's North Koera is controlled by giant corporations and uses eugenics to create an economy built on slave labour. A clone becomes self-aware and takes in a lot of fiction from popular culture (George Orwell, Ray Bradbury). A series of questions and answers make up this dystopian sci-fi novella.
A tribal - Zachry, from a post-apocalyptic primitive society in Hawaii recalls his youth when he guided a woman from an advanced culture on her travels. Civilization has ended and survivors live life as hunter-gatherers in an Iron Age. Zachry - a herder, finds a copy of interview of the previous novella, and visitors from a great vessel come to the island to study the primitive people.
This sixth novella is the only continuous completed one in the book; once it concludes halfway through the text, the story circles back from Zachry to Adam.
The events and themes of the novellas repeat themselves in varied forms and in different contexts. There is the challenge of higher order thinking for the reader and paradox that must be grappled with. Of the several themes captivity and slavery (and quest for domination) stand out first - from the destruction of the Moriori at the hands of the Maori to the post-apocalyptic slave economies.
The connection between the stories can seem weak and sometimes stretched, and the timeline of the story along with the different narrating styles gives the impression that it is epic in scale before even reading it. Six different genres in each of the novellas also misses a deep dive into any one, and comes across as forced or trying too hard to be something impressive, and gimmicky or indecisive. On the other other hand it delivers a knockout to established standards and conventions. Think of each novella as an homage to the genre and enjoy the inter-connectivity of people and stories, and if you're not a critic by profession or a grammarian then you might enjoy it like most people. There is something special in the way these telescoping stories are written.
The structure of the book has been compared to uncovering a set of Russian amtroyshka dolls, but that analogy isn't the complete - you have to put the dolls back together to complete the experience. Think of time moving like a boomerang instead of an arrow as the story circles back to its beginning.