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Describe Cloud Atlas (2004) here.

All right, but it's gonna be tricky...

The third novel by David Mitchell (no, not that David Mitchell), Cloud Atlas consists of six nested stories, each set in a different time and place, moving forwards in time from the 19th century all the way to an After the End future: the six protagonists (or at least, one protagonist from each era) are implied to be reincarnations of the same person, linked by a comet-shaped birthmark (although the timing of the third and fourth stories would seem to imply that those two main characters must have been alive for at least some overlap).

  • Adam Ewing. An American notary, returning by ship from the Chatham Islands, New Zealand. He keeps a journal of his journey through the Pacific Ocean. The story is set c. 1850.
  • Robert Frobisher. An English musician, penniless and unable to find work in his chosen field. Frobisher is hired as an assistant to a composer, settling with his employer in Zedelgem, Belgian. He records his experiences in a series of letters, which he sends to his friend Rufus Sixsmith. The story is set c. 1931.
  • Luisa Rey. An American journalist. She investigates reports of ongoing corruption and a murder mystery connected to a Californian nuclear power plant. Her experiences form the basis of a mystery novel. The story is set c. 1975.
  • Timothy Cavendish. A British vanity press publisher. He gets in trouble with a client and ends up confined against his will in a nursing home. His experiences form the basis of a film. The story is set in the early part of the 21st century.
  • Sonmi~451. A genetically-engineered clone, employed at Papa Song's diner. She lives somewhere in Koria, in what is clearly a dystopian near future. Clones have been created to serve a capitalist, totalitarian society and have no choice on the matter. She faces execution for trying to rebel. Her story is told in a final interview, shortly before her death.
  • Zachry. An elderly tribesman, living in a post-apocalyptic version of Hawaii. His story is set in a distant future, where most of humanity has already died out. He narrates his experiences to random strangers, around a camp-fire.

Instead of being completely sequential, each of the first five stories ends halfway through, sometimes on a cliffhanger, sometimes in mid-sentence. The sixth and central story is the only one meant to be read in one go - afterwards, each of the other five resumes in reverse order, taking the reader back to the beginning.

To make things interesting, each of the protagonists after the first one find a record of their predecessor's story in some shape or form, and are generally cut off at the same point as the reader, only discovering the rest of it when you're about to. To make things even more interesting (and confusing), many different characters experience visions of the past and future.

A film version written and directed by Tom Tykwer, the director of Run Lola Run, and produced by the Wachowksi siblings, was released in 2012.

Tropes used in Cloud Atlas include:
  • Actual Pacifist: The real life pacifism of the Moriori tribe, even in the face of genocide, is discussed in depth in the first story. It didn't go well for them.
  • After the End: Zachary's era
  • Arc Words: Hydras, ducks
  • Bittersweet Ending: Just how bittersweet depends on which ending you count. The last story within the chronological timeline is a nigh-Downer Ending with only a melancholy hope that things might be different in the future. The last ending within the novel itself (and the first chronologically, confused yet?) is more uplifting.
  • Cloning Blues: Various types of fabricants are mass-produced to perform all sorts of tasks in Sonmi's era. As a result, human society has become dependant on the fabricants never questioning their lot in life.
    • Indeed, Fabricants are created specifically to be incapable of questioning their lot. How and why Somni (and her predecessor and friend) are different is an important plot point.
  • Deadly Doctor
  • Depraved Bisexual: Robert Frobisher is a relatively mild example; charming, hedonistic, and leaps easily from one conquest to the next. He's not evil, just a self-absorbed sensualist.
  • Doomed Moral Victor: Sonmi. To the point that she's worshipped as a god in the future.
  • Fantastic Racism: Against fabricants - just look at Sonmi's attempt to attend a university lecture.
  • Fridge Logic: Given the basic timeline of the settings, wouldn't the lifespans of Luisa Rey and Timothy Cavendish overlap? Isn't the birthmark supposed to indicate the same soul being reincarnated?
    • :Katy Forbes from Ghostwritten, who has a one night stand with someone who works for Cavendish, also has this birthmark.
      • Timothy Cavendish didn't have the birthmark.
  • Funetik Aksent: Zachary's narration
  • Future Slang: Sonmi's era has been hit hard by this trope. Anything that began with 'ex' now only starts with 'x', and everyday items are referred to by the brand we would most readily associate with them, only without the capital letter. Hence nikes (running shoes), sonys, etc.
  • Happiness in Slavery: Most fabricants
    • Frobisher laments that his employer seems to expect this of him when the man tries to pass off Frobisher's masterpiece as his own.
  • Humans Are the Real Monsters: Played straight, subverted, invoked, played straight again, and discussed at length. Arguably, the degree of truth to this trope is the main theme of the novel.
  • Intrepid Reporter: Luisa Rey
  • In Your Nature to Destroy Yourselves: Discussed.
    • "Human hunger birthed the Civlize, but human hunger killed it too."
  • Last Breath Bullet: A heroic example shown from the perspective of the one firing it. May also count as Not Quite Dead, Crowning Moment of Awesome or Redemption Equals Death.
  • Lost Technology: By the time of Zachary's era, technology has mostly devolved back to the iron age, but a small group has access to some stuff on our current level and a even a few objects more advanced than anything we currently have.
  • Mind Screw: What's the deal with Luisa Rey's story? All the others seem to be real to one another, but hers only appears as a fictional novel in the following story (which would also overlap reincarnations with her chronologically). But she FOUND those REAL letters didn't she?
    • Actually, the authenticity of many of the stories is called into question by various characters. Robert Frobisher thinks Adam's journal looks faked, the fact that Timothy Cavendish's story became a movie means it was probably partly fictionalized, the archivist interviewing Sonmi refuses to accept parts of her story, and Zachry's son thinks his dad probably made part of his story up. It's entirely purposeful, and it ties into what Isaac Sachs writes shortly before dying about virtual pasts and virtual futures.
  • Post Modernism: Yes.
  • Powered by a Forsaken Child: Fabricants that serve out their time as workers are killed and recycled into soap to feed more fabricants. Sonmi has the good fortune to watch this happen.
  • Secret Police: Somni drops a figurative bomb on her archivist when she reveals that she suspected she was in their grasp almost from the beginning but played along at the end at least because the book they wanted her write would be more influential and important than they realized. Considering how she is regarded in Zachry's era, she was probably right.
  • Self-Deprecation: Cavendish finds a manuscript of Luisa Rey's adventure and dismisses the Reincarnation angle as far too New Age-y, despite having a similar birthmark himself.
    • He also describes the birthmark in less romantic imagery than the comet everyone else seems to see it as.
  • Social Darwinist
  • The Mourning After: It's implied Sixsmith lived forty-five more years, but never loved again after Frobisher. Ouch.
  • Timey-Wimey Ball: The narrative structure of the novel weaves together themes, ideas, and people forward and backward in time.
  • Title Drop: In the last chapter, the narrating character talks about wishing he had some kind of map to track souls as they move across the ages, like clouds across the sky. He calls it a Cloud Atlas.
    • Also, the title of Frobisher's masterpiece is The Cloud Atlas Sextet. Its structure is described as something similar to that of the novel, with six individual parts slowly woven together into one greater whole. Frobisher himself isn't sure if it's clever or gimmicky.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Most of the stories are told in first-person perspective, and it's occasionally suggested that some of them are not being entirely honest.