Why You Should Read 'Cloud Atlas' Before the Movie

Why You Should Read 'Cloud Atlas' Before the Movie

Sep 13, 2012

Welcome to The Last Sci-Fi Blog, a column dedicated to science fiction on film.

The Sci-fi Book Club: Cloud Atlas Is Experimental Science Fiction at Its Best

Cloud Atlas made its big premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival a few days ago  and it was not surprising that reactions were all over the place. Anyone who has read the book could have predicted that (read the Movies.com review of the film here).

Many people (including yours truly) rushed out and bought the book following that epic six-minute trailer that hit a few months ago. After all, when you write a science-fiction blog on a movie website, the sight of the Wachowski siblings making a movie that involves hover car chases is the kind of thing that hits you right in some kind of special sweet spot and immediately sends the message: "I should probably read this thing, huh?"

Those who jump into the novel of Cloud Atlas hoping for immediate science-fiction action gratification will be let down. In fact, they'll be let down for about 150 pages (of a 500 page book). As we discussed last time, Cloud Atlas is a "secret science-fiction" story that deviously withholds its true genre for some time, only letting you know what's really going on after you've let your guard down. 

Like the film, the book follows six seemingly unrelated stories that take place across many locations and occur centuries apart. Unlike the film, the book takes its time with each story, slowly moving from one to another, not introducing the gripping sci-fi story until you've made your way through a dramatic (and slightly, intentionally dry) 1840s journal, a series of letters from an aspiring European composer in the 1930s, a conspiracy thriller in 1970s San Francisco and a dry, conversational comedy tale taking place in modern-day England. Each story ends at the halfway point, often with a cliffhanger.

After these four stories, you finally get your clone revolution story and your post-apocalyptic adventure tale. Like the others, the clone story concludes incomplete, but the final story is told complete and occupies the exact center of the novel. From there on, we revisit and conclude each story in reverse order, finishing right back were we began, with that 1849 journal. It's a magnificent and wildly experimental structure, a "nesting doll" effect that lets you peel back the layers and explore, piece by piece, how each of these stories are truly interconnected.

It's also completely uncinematic, which is why the Wachowskis and their cowriter-codirector Tom Tykwer have apparently completely ditched it. A special note: I haven't seen the film, but the reviews I've read (and the trailer itself) make this entirely clear.

Instead of letting each story exist on its own, the film appears to blend the stories together into a feature-length montage, constantly crosscutting and jumping through time and space. While the novel's message of interconnectedness and reincarnation is by no means subtle, it's a slow burn of a revelation. I can't help but wonder how the film will modify this message by stripping away the structure. Will it be obvious? Too cloying? Will what I found intensely moving on the page ring false and cheesy on the screen? I'm not in Toronto right now, so I'm not sure. The one thing I do know is this is a remarkable book that is undoubtedly going to offer a completely different experience than the film and should be worth reading in any case.

Although I'd shelve Cloud Atlas in the sci-fi section of my bookshelf since the entire thing ultimately concludes and pivots on massive, fantastical concepts, not enough praise can be tossed at author David Mitchell for navigating multiple non-sci-fi genres and styles. He does it with an ease that's simply overwhelming and humbling. One of the reasons why the shift to sci-fi is so incredibly compelling is that Mitchell is at home with every genre: the six stories in Cloud Atlas aren't just separated by time, they're separated by genre and writing style. The clone revolution story is hard sci-fi and written as such. The post-apocalyptic story, taking place long after society has crumbled, is written in a evolved/devolved English that forces the reader to translate every sentence as they read. The '70s thriller story feels exactly like the kind of novel you'd pick up at the airport for that long flight. And so on. Each story feels completely different than its predecessor.

Yeah, this may be science fiction at the end of the day, but it's also a book about the very nature of storytelling. Whether you're telling a tale around a campfire, recounting your transgressions to the authorities, pitching a movie, writing a quick and dirty thriller, writing letters to your lover or keeping a journal on a pacific voyage, you are telling a story. Who came before you, where you are and when you are? You may not notice it, but those define the genre that you live in.

Having that revelation was just as mind-blowing as anything I've seen or read all year. I can only hope that the movie can make me feel similarly.


Adapt This: The Manhattan Projects

I don't care if it goes to television or to the big screen: someone needs to buy the rights to Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra's comic series The Manhattan Projects. It's not only one of the best comics on stands right now, it's one of the best things in the world of entertainment right now.

It's a concept that'll appeal to both sci-fi fans and history buffs (at least those with a sense of humor): when the United States government brought together the nation's greatest minds to develop the atomic bomb, they ended up going much, much further. Utilizing the names and basic histories of the real scientists and soldiers involved with the Manhattan Projects, Hickman creates a sinister and darkly hilarious alternate/secret history of the United States in the decades after World War II.

How do we know that Oppenheimer wasn't murdered by his equally brilliant but certifiably insane twin brother, who "collects" multiple personalities through mass murder? How do we know Albert Einstein didn't open a gateway to another dimension and find himself replaced by an evil version of himself from another world? How do we know that Harry K. Daghlian died from radiation poisoning? Maybe he became a being composed entirely of sentient radiation, which is pretty handy when you need a clever way to commit genocide against a hostile alien race that has Earth in its sights.

It's silly. It's weird. It's kind of a slap to the face of the people who actually worked on the real Manhattan Project, but it's also a brilliant tale of science gone very, very, very wrong. The series' combination of history, mad science and irreverence is a truly unique combination. Science going horribly wrong has rarely been this much fun.

Not to mention, any series that suggests that Franklin Delano Roosevelt's mind was transferred into a rudimentary computer upon his death and he continued to run the country through ticker tape is worthy of your time.

Categories: Features, Sci-Fi
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