Cloud Atlas: Historical Context
David Mitchell was born in 1969, in Britain. He received a Bachelor’s in English and a Master’s in Comparative Literature. After graduating, David Mitchell taught English as second language and Japan for eight years. His induction into Asian culture, and his marriage to a Japanese woman, are obvious influences for Sonmi’s culture. After his time in Japan, he returned to Ireland to become a novelist.
David Mitchell has always had a love affair with books, and wanted to combine several types of writing in one complete work. Styles of literature have changed drastically since the invention of the novel, and now genres are so separate that crossing the boundaries between them seems impossible. However, David Mitchell blends science fiction, political thrillers, travelogues, and post-apocalyptic styles into a readable story spanning the history of literature. His split novellas have stylistic influences ranging from Melville to Delillo, yet contain the same themes threaded throughout. Just as his split novellas have many stylistic influences, they have many thematic influences, as well.
Cloud Atlas, published in 2004, was birthed at a time when the potentially disastrous consequences of human dominance and capitalism could be seen. For the first time, the world worried about alternate sources for energy and water, and all the while consumerism spread to more and more countries. Previously overlooked, documentaries of the new millennium highlight the dangers humanity is putting itself in through its selfish consumption. David Mitchell explores the making of capitalism and corporatism, and also goes one step further: to predict future stages of capitalist development and eventual decline and self-cannibalization. Humans tend to view society as always progressing, always moving forward, but David Mitchell foresees a society forced to move backward because of prejudice, greed and corporate blindness.
Despite humanity’s long and bloody history, prejudice and the inhumane treatment of man still exist in modern society. These themes resound throughout Cloud Atlas, which portrays cruelty against people of color, homosexuals, elderly, and fabricated. However, Cloud Atlas also portrays characters that overcome their initial prejudice and instead practice understanding of those different from them. As a man married to a woman of different race, David Mitchell is probably familiar with the struggles of prejudice and culture gaps.
One of the more baffling influences (at least to western readers) comes from the belief in reincarnation. This eastern philosophy of birth and rebirth connects the world together in an endless cycle, much like the structure of the novel. This is a hugely different viewpoint from Western religions, which portray time a single line rather than and overlapping and cycling universe.
Cloud Atlas explores aspects of humanity that are innate, arguments that have gone on for hundreds or thousands of years, in many times and eras. David Mitchell exposes the nature of man, humanity, homo sapiens, by telling a story through six different times, places and people. His stories are influenced by literature new and old, religion, philosophy, history and capitalism; but most of all, Cloud Atlas is influenced by raw humanity.