Movie Review: Cloud Atlas

MV5BMTczMTgxMjc4NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjM5MTA2OA@@._V1._SY317_David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is an outstanding book — one of the best I’ve ever read. The Wachowskis’ Cloud Atlas is a terrible movie. But quite aside from being confusing and even racist the movie’s biggest flaw is reducing the book’s complex themes to a simple, cheerful message.

In the movie, that message is delivered by Adam Ewing, a 19th-century plutocrat, who upon being told that he is just one drop in an ocean responds stirringly, “What is any ocean but a multitude of drops?” From the editing and the rising music we are clearly supposed to take from this slogan the lesson that so long as one does good (in this case, fighting to end slavery) then however futile an individual effort may be it will contribute toward the long-term fulfillment of justice.

To be fair, this dialogue is taken directly from the book. But in transposing Ewing’s words to the screen the Wachowskis have transformed what I took to be a fairly naive sentiment into the thundering lesson of the six interconnected stories. By my reading at least, that is not at all a lesson that the book supports.

Ewing’s story is Cloud Atlas‘s first, and in many ways the most optimistic. Every subsequent story takes us further into the future, and deeper into the barbaric variety of human oppression. Ewing’s “multitude of drops” leads not to freedom, but to a heartless corporate conspiracy, a high-tech totalitarian dictatorship, and ultimately to a devastated wasteland in which slavers once again hold the upper hand. True, in each story the individual in question ekes out a personal victory of sorts. But jump ahead a few generations and what we see is not that brave legacy carried forward, but a massive social regression in which the individual’s triumph is badly distorted, if it is remembered at all.

Unlike the movie, Cloud Atlas the book is ambiguous about what matters more: the little triumphs or the larger movements. Mitchell could be read as saying that each individual’s efforts spark an improvement in his or her present day — a positive social change that he perhaps deliberately does not recount — and that the spark persists as an inspiration for future generations when the arc of the moral universe reverts to injustice. In a way the structure of the novel supports that interpretation. The stories are nested together like Russian dolls, so that we get six beginnings in a row, chronologically, and then six endings, reverse-chronologically. It could be that the reverse order of the last half of the book is meant to provide a lineage of sorts to the ideas about freedom, and resistance to oppression, that are repeated to each successive character.

But Mitchell never outright says so. And in a way I think it’s more plausible to read Cloud Atlas as a bleaker story about the futility of fighting humanity’s worst tendencies. However courageous Ewing, or Luisa Rey, or Sonmi-451 may be, the world still ends in nuclear disaster and generations dying in captivity. It’s this harsher interpretation that gives the book its edge, an undercurrent of unease and even skepticism about the tidy genre stories Mitchell tells. The movie mostly ignores this darker reading — and suffers for it.



The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski

6673878-LThe title for The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is not just uninformative, but outright misleading. The star of the book isn’t Edgar, but his dogs. Edgar is a mute who, with his parents Gar and Trudy, breeds the legendary Sawtelle dogs. The dogs aren’t much to look at, but that’s because the family’s focus has always been on intelligence, empathy, and loyalty.

The book’s first 150 pages contain some truly glorious writing about these dogs — we see them whelped and trained; we see Edgar playing with them and communing in a fashion despite having no voice; we even see a few wonderful chapters from the point of view of Almondine, Edgar’s faithful hound. If you like dogs, or if you like good writing (or, if you’re like me and love both), the first quarter of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is just about perfect.

What happens then is a sudden tragedy (which the dust jacket inexplicably spoils — whoever wrote that copy should be fired), after which the book devolves from a warm, generous, even luminous account of Midwestern life, into a melodrama modeled on (spoiler alert) Hamlet. What rang false to me about this turn was the near total lack of foundation for the monstrous event and the frustration I felt when Edgar, with hardly any evidence, becomes a fanatic for one explanation of the tragedy.

This melodramatic turn, and the wrenching effect it has on the characters, spoiled the rest of the book for me — with the exception of a lovely interlude when Edgar and his dogs briefly find shelter with a kind-hearted loner. I won’t deny that the writing maintains its poetry throughout, and the book’s ever more absurd machinations aren’t completely uninteresting. But the opening of the novel presents something unique and true that curdles when the story starts being forced through the wringer of a Shakespearean tragedy.


Farthing, by Jo Walton


Jo Walton’s new alternate history novel Farthing manages the incredible, heart-rending trick of being a quiet little story about quiet, brave people while simultaneously conjuring the kind of haunting dystopia that rips your guts out.

Farthing is clearly a parable about Britain and America in the wake of the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks, when commonsense, humanism, and a commitment to liberty and justice has been easily set aside in a fury of bloodlust and a dismal, shrugging apathy. Walton’s deft touch is like Orwell’s, tender but unflinching, and it’s easy to see why she won the Campbell Award and the World Fantasy Award.

(via Farthing: Heart-rending alternate history about British-Reich peace – Boing Boing)

I have a huge backlog of books that I just don’t have time to review. To take the lazy way out, I’ll try to find reviews that I agree with and highlight them.

This is one example. I loved Jo Walton’s Farthing — a successor of sorts to 1984, transplanted to our modern paranoias. The murder mystery in this book (and similar mysteries in its two outstanding successors, Ha’penny and Half a Crown) is really peripheral to the book’s main achievement, which is the chilling depiction of comfortable accommodation to fascism. Better than any other recent book I’ve read, Farthing shows how easily prejudices insinuate themselves into polite society, leading otherwise ordinary people to support the most shocking atrocities — and a brave few to resist.


This post from Oatmeal Writing contrasts slow, deliberate readers with “speed readers.” But not every fast reader “speed reads” — in the sense of skimming, or skipping paragraphs, or the like.

I’m a fast reader, for instance: I read 30 books last year, including such monstrosities as Robert Caro’s The Passage of Power, and the number is artificially low because I took three months off book-reading to catch up on my backlog of New Yorker issues. But I remember each of the books pretty clearly, and I certainly took my time enjoying them. (Well, some of them I didn’t enjoy, but you get the point.)

For me, the pace of my reading is actually part and parcel of my enjoyment. When I like a book, I tend to gulp it down faster and faster, in big chunks of time. Feeling the plot and the language wash through me in a torrent is exhilarating — gluttony without any risk of over-satiation. It’s a different kind of indulgence from wallowing in a good book. But it’s still a pleasure.

“A Dry, Quiet War,” by Tony Daniel


I cannot tell you what it meant to me to see the two suns of Ferro set behind the dry mountain east of my home. I had been away twelve billion years. I passed my cabin, to the pump well and, taking a metal cup from where it hung from a set-pin, I worked the handle three times. At first it creaked, and I believed it was rusted tight, but then it loosened, and within fifteen pulls, I had a cup of water.

(via) Bleak, epic, and yet intimate — this is one of my favorite science-fiction short stories of all time.


Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest

6285187-LI can imagine the pitch for Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker: “Zombies in steampunk Seattle!” That sounds like fun, but nothing in this mediocre novel ever rises to the initial thrill of its premise.

Boneshaker takes place in an alternate America where the Civil War never ended, the western states are still territories, and zeppelins rule the skies — for no apparent reason other than their popularity in the steampunk genre. Several decades ago, the failure of a massive drilling machine in Seattle made poisonous gas leak out of the ground, turning the entire population into zombies. In the novel’s present day, the son of the drilling machine’s inventor, stung by his family’s poor reputation, decides to break into the city (which has understandably been sealed off) in an attempt to set the record straight.

If that seems a little excessive to you — I mean, I’d rather be misunderstood than eaten by zombies — you’ve hit upon Boneshaker‘s first problem, which is its contrived plot. The heavy hand of the author is apparent in almost every crucial turning point, from the son’s irrational desire to enter a city filled with ravenous zombies, to the natural disaster that traps him there, to the sudden appearance of a Darth Vader-like father figure, complete with breathing mask. At no point does the plot feel like it arises organically from the decisions of the characters in natural situations.

The plot is not the only contrived part of Boneshaker. The book is overstuffed with clichés. The peripheral characters all fit into unsurprising, made-for-TV archetypes: the gruff sky captain, the inscrutable Chinese assistant, the brassy female bar owner. And at times the conventions of steampunk seem to get in the way of the book’s actual setting; as I noted earlier, it really makes no sense that zeppelins play such a huge role in this world.

Boneshaker is apparently the first in a constellation of novels sharing this setting. Since the setting is the best part of the book I’m glad Priest has gotten the chance to explore it further. But I’ll be sitting the rest of the series out.


The Wheel of Time Ends

MoL_logo_med_KO1Fifteen years ago, nearly to the day, was the last time I read a Wheel of Time book. The occasion was the publication of The Path of Daggers, the eighth book in the series, which I borrowed from a friend and read over winter break. I remember feeling frustrated at the slow pace of the series and vowing I would not read another word from Robert Jordan until the end was in sight.

Well, the last Wheel of Time book comes out today. It has the best title of the series — A Memory of Light — and it is written not by Jordan, who passed away several years ago, but by Brandon Sanderson, a more-than-capable fantasy author whose Mistborn trilogy was one of the best original works of fantasy of the last decade. When Sanderson announced on his blog that A Memory of Light would be released in January 2013, I remembered my vow and immediately penciled in a date to start rereading the series anew.

I’m not quite up to date — in a fitting coincidence, I’ll probably finish The Path of Daggers this week — but I have been enjoying myself far more than I thought I would. Fifteen years is long enough that I have only dim memories of the high points of the series, leaving plenty of room for suspense and surprises. At the same time, I’ve grown up enough as a human being and a reader that the series’ faults have become ever more glaring. 

There are plenty of very interesting retrospectives on The Wheel of Time out there. But I might as well provide my own in this vanity space. I’m planning to begin with a post on the overarching weaknesses of the series, at least as far as I’ve gotten. And I’d like then to do a post on each book with a few scattered thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses of that volume. Let’s see how far this goes.