The Power of Words in Cloud Atlas
It probably goes without saying, but time is a pretty big when it comes to concepts. Even if it is narrowed down to only include human history and narrowed down even further to include only recorded human history, that only reduces time to at least ten thousand years — which is still a terribly large amount to fathom the totality of. It’s also impossible to know the true history of even that ten thousand year time period in its totality because over that time much would obviously be left unrecorded, but also what would be recorded could only be done so from a perspective limited by the bias of the record-keeper, the culture informing that record-keeper, and societal rules that govern what could be record or not. Cloud Atlas is a multi-narrative novel that tells the stories of six separate individuals as they each experience a particular moment in history with perspectives spanning from a 19th century American notary at the height of Colonialism to the 25th century as society tries to rebuild following an apocalypse, or to be more specific the several social upheaval that built into humanity being relegated to the most remote regions of the earth. Though each of there characters are kept apart by time, they manage to remain in communication with each other through the use of the artifacts they leave behind — journals, movies, novels, video, even the spoken word — these stories all survive the passing of the individual to influence and inspire people to continue their own survival and to create their own stories. A significant theme that persist through Cloud Atlas is “recurrence”, that notion that events will keep happening in accordance with the human nature to dominate and prey on other humans and how the human desire to create and use those creations to form community that stands in opposition to that and that while neither will ever “win”, because they are two instincts that seem to be present in all of humanity across all of time and culture, through each iteration and enough time, human progression happens. It should be stated though, that the novel itself implies that progression isn’t technological or even cultural in nature, but moreso meant as in the progression of the human spirit as it is built on by the words and works of others.
Throughout my essay I will provide examples from the book of characters learning or communicating this as a didactic lesson to themselves or other, usually shortly before their own death because in some ways the book seems to argue for a collectivist philosophy that emphasizes the death of one individual can sometimes be beneficial for another so long as their ideas survive — and sometimes that other is the reader themselves because as a postmodern novel, Cloud Atlas is very aware of the fact that not only that it is a novel, but that it is a novel built on the the tropes and genres of other work. I will explore how these genres influence each story and what it means to be a multi-genre novel, calling on primarily Keppler’s article on Cloud Atlas as an “Experimental World Epic” as well as how the nature of Cloud Atlas being a story about and built from stories across genres to create a cohesive work translates to how both the characters manage to communicate across time and how that structure contributes to the theme of stories and words being the critical to the understanding of history overall.