The first book to tick the box of this year's Before I die reading challenge is David Mitchell's Booker prize nominated novel Cloud Atlas. Moving between several time-zones - a traveller in the Pacific islands in the late nineteenth century, a Fenby-Delius type relationship in the 1930s, a crusading journalist in China Syndrome mode in California, a Brave New World future, and a far-distant future in a less than Paradisical Hawaii in which humanity has largely returned to a more savage past mainly due to environmental catastrophe, Cloud Atlas is a set of largely unconnected stories with a few tenuous connections, and an overarching major link to the changes, miniscule at first, gradually causing more of an impact, that humanity can make to their environment. It's less sci-fi than eco-fi.

It's a pretty bleak tale. Although odd acts of bravery, kindness, and intelligence make a difference, ultimately the earth, or at least humanity's place on it, is ruined by carelessness, thoughtlessness, inhumanity, and plain bloody greed. (Quite literally bloody, as certain characters will stop at nothing to get what they or their corporation wants). It's grim reading.

As you would expect (hope!) from a Booker prize nominee, it's well-written. The only problem is that what makes the book enjoyable is also a potential pitfall. The narration is divided between many different voices moving forwards and then backwards in time. This was one of the best things about the book, as some of the narrative voices were brilliant. I particularly enjoyed the Sonmi story set in an Aldous Huxley dystopian future, but some I really struggled with, the narrative at the centre - Sloosha's crossing - is told in a weird voice, that I found completely irritating; while the Fenby-Delius story had borrowed so many big chunks from Fenby's own recollections that I found it quite disconcerting.

The other criticism, which may seem slightly odd, is that I thought it was quite derivative. The idea of the nesting novellas was, I felt, clever and original; but the individual "nests" all reminded me of something else - the Pacific Island story owed something to Matthew Kneale's English passengers, the composer storyline to Delius as I knew him, the nuclear plant plot China Syndrome, Sonmi Brave new world, Never let me go and Bladerunner, Sloosha's crossing Lord of the Flies, and A canticle for Leibowitz (I would suspect that this tale probably had a knock-on influence on Cormac Mc Carthy's The road). 

I don't believe that you have to reinvent the wheel every time a new novel is written, but I just wonder if there was enough originality in Mitchell's Cloud Atlas to justify the plaudits it's received. I suspect that it may be the kind of book that you either put down and think "Wow" or think "Wow, but....." and I fell into the latter camp. Clever plot, clever writing, original - no. And if you're going to write sci-fi or even eco-fi originality matters.

Incidentally....I will be watching the film of Cloud Atlas at the weekend. I am completely intrigued as to how on earth they managed to adapt the book. Will the film be better or worse than the book? Well, we'll have to see....


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