You've probably already heard how this book works since the movie came out, but it's a book review, so I need to lay down the line about what's going on here in order to do that.
"Spent the fortnight gone in the music room, reworking my year's fragments into a 'sextet for overlapping soloists': piano, clarinet, 'cello, flute, oboe, and violin, each in its own language of key, scale, and color. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor; in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan't know until it's finished...." --Robert Frobisher.
This book tells six stories in wildly different styles, narrations, and time periods, ranging from the 1800's to the way fare future. Each story except for the sixth breaks off halfway through, and it's structured like a Russian nesting doll-- you read half of 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5, then read the sixth in its entirety, then go back to 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Each story is tracking the same soul as it gets reincarnated, and we know who it is because they have a random comet birthmark*. Each story is heard of by the person after them in some way, in that they found someone's journal, or letters, or read the story as a fictional novel, or saw it in a movie, or saw the recording of them speaking. Whether or not they're real or fictional is vagued up in at least one person's case. The stories don't really tie together with the previous stories very much--one character exists in 2 out of the 6 stories as himself, the memory of another character is brought up a lot in a subsequent story, and one character figures out that she's the reincarnation of the previous fellow when she starts remembering things he did/knew.. And only one story (the sixth) lets you know ahead of time before the fifth story returns as to how it ends. Most other folks just refer to losing the other half of the story and then finding it later.
* Which really doesn't make any sense in the case of the tank-grown clone fabricant, though. Gotta say it. Also, two of the same reincarnated characters were probably alive at the same time, so what the fuck there?
Do these stories tie together beyond that? Eh...not really.... I will say it seems to me to be a stretch to imagine that all of these six main characters are the same soul. I can see the similarities between the male characters--especially Frobisher and Cavendish, both of whom are snarky, shifty dudes-- and the female characters are all awesomely heroic. I just don't really see that they're ALL the same person in different ways like we're told by this whole comet birthmark thing. Going from Frobisher to Rey to Cavendish to Somni in particular is rather whiplash-y for a person's soul, like they were backsliding every other life or something. I just read a quote elsewhere saying that the point of reincarnation is to improve from life to life--and I don't think this is the case here.
Anyway, beyond this point, I am just going to comment on each story separately. Heck, you could pretty much just read each section and then skip ahead to the other half of it without really missing a lot. And yes, I tried that after awhile. Especially since you'll mostly forget about the plight of Adam Ewing after so much time spent away from him. Mostly this just seems like the author's excuse to write stories in different narration styles and genres. Fun for him, but does it work overall? Does each story work by itself? Hmmm....
- "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing" is a journal written up by American Adam Ewing in the 1800's or so as he sails around islands. He makes a "friend" named "Dr. Henry Goose" who he first thinks is nuts, but unfortunately befriends him later on and they later board the same ship Adam makes another friend when a stowaway slave hides out in his room on the ship and Adam helps him out. But Adam becomes ill, and his "friend" the "doctor" starts treating him for a "parasite," except the "treatment" seems to be making him worse...yeah, you get where that's going faster than poor Adam does. In between writing about how ill he is, Adam notes the buggery and beatings going on on the ship and the racial tensions going on.
I found this one hard to get into, especially since (a) the racial stuff isn't exactly fun to read about, (b) someone writing about being ill isn't exactly captivating stuff, and (c) essentially you're just sitting around waiting for Adam to figure out what's going on already. I liked the resolution for the most part and how Adam changed his thinking, but this wasn't my favorite.
- "Letters from Zedelghem" are the letters sent from Robert Frobisher (a young, spendthrift, scammy, bisexual British composer who's been disowned) to his lover, scientist Rufus Sixsmith, in 1931. Frobisher gets the bright idea to offer himself up as a musical amanuensis to Vyvyan Ayrs (wow, so many y's, and how do you pronounce it?!), a composer of renown who has lost the abilitiy to write down his compositions due to ill health and an especially whopping case of syphilis. Lord knows the dude needs a job and a home, and this works out for awhile. Frobisher is very serious about his composing (see above), and he does sound like he does good work for the dude. He also comes across Adam Ewing's journal as his bedtime reading, making a comment that "A half-read book is a half-finished love affair" when it takes him awhile to find the second half.
But there's no doubt when you're reading the letters that Frobisher is a rotter type-- he steals expensive books from the library and sells them (hey, it's not like anyone's CHECKING...), he boinks the man's wife when she offers herself up on a platter and then denies the affair, and he's always hitting Sixsmith or someone up for cash. Plus there's the boss's daughter, who Frobisher dislikes at first and vice versa, but when she comes back from her travels acting much more friendly, he decides that he's falling for her, Mrs. Robinson-style. None of this goes well for him. (Plus I seriously wonder why he writes all this shit about other women to someone else he's romantically involved with-like, it doesn't occur to him that Rufus might mind?)
So in general, it's clear that the guy is kind of a dick. And yet, he's snarky enough to keep you entertained even though you know he's a jerkwad. I feel sorry for everyone that ever dealt with him (and to some degree, vice versa as well), but his flippant tone of voice does keep you amused even as you think, "Geez, dude, keep your hands out of the honey pot." So at least he's more interesting, if unpleasant. I feel a little sorry for the dude, though And I definitely feel sorry for Rufus.
- "Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery:" This one's a straight up mystery thriller, taking place in the 1970's. Intrepid young reporter Luisa Rey is investigating a power plant that is most likely very unsafe. Rufus Sixsmith, now an old scientist, meets her in an elevator during a power outage and realizes she's a person he can trust with this terrible secret, especially when she indicates she'd do anything to protect a source just like her dad used to. He tells her that the new nuclear reactor on Swannekke Island isn't as safe as it's supposed to be, so Luisa goes to investigate. Sixsmith flees for his life and is eventually killed, but he stashed his report of this...somewhere... Luisa has several near-death experiences as bad guys try to kill her repeatedly, and they do eliminate a lot of folks. Including Isaac Sachs, an engineer Luisa barely meets a few times, but he seems to have fallen in love with her at first sight. (Doesn't do him any good, though. Kinda pointless to bring it up, even!) While risking her life to investigate this, she does come across Frobisher's letters and starts to remember things about his life--and she even orders a copy of the Cloud Atlas Sextet.
This was my second favorite of the stories--it was very nearly number one except that Somni is such a whammy. This is also what really got me into reading the book compared to the first two. Maybe I'm just more of a mystery/thriller girl, but it's a good story and Luisa is very intrepid!
- "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish:" Tim Cavendish is a semi-shifty, kinda scammy old English publisher in our time who has a stroke of luck when a thug client of his pitches a client off a balcony. Suddenly his book is a best seller, or at least it sells enough to pay off Cavendish's debts. Alas, that gets the attention of the client's thug brothers who want a chunk of that money...which turns out to not actually exist. Cavendish goes aorund begging for funds from his brother, who is clearly tired of being hit up for cash. Instead, the brother offers him a "safe house" in Hull to hide at from the gangsters. Except Aurora House isn't a hotel--it's a nursing home/roach motel for old people. You can check in, but you can NEVER, EVER check out. And poor Cavendish gets drugged to the point where he thinks he had a stroke for awhile.... Then he starts plotting a breakout. Well, several breakouts.
On the one hand, evil nursing homes are definitely in my top ten list of things I never, ever want to read about in my life. I've spent enough time in those hellholes and it freaks me out. On the other hand, Cavendish is pretty much an older version of Frobisher in the same style of "you know he's a jerkass, but he's entertaining about it", and he's throwing off snarky quips left and right. It's both a horror story and a silly comedy all at once. Strange tale, and freaks me out in places, but it's not bad otherwise. I was also amused when he commented about the movie that would be made of this.... Oh yeah, and as a publisher, he's reading Luisa's story as a fictional novel submitted to him. Whatever that means here, I do not know. It's getting a little weirdly meta at this point on the crossovers here. I wish the Luisa book had been nonfiction because "it's made up!" just feels like the author threw that in to fuck with you. Come on, dude.
- "An Orison of Sonmi-451" is the recorded confession of a fabricant (manufactured slave) named Sonmi-451 in 2144, as she explains to an archivist how she got to the point of being executed. Sonmi is one of the many fabricants working at a McDonald's-ish fast food restaurant in Nea So Copros (formerly known as Korea) in a world where everything revolves around consumerism. Sonmi was of limited intelligence, but wondered as she saw her coworker Yoona-939, who had interests no other fabricants had and eventually tried to make a break for it--and died, of course.
After that, Somni starts noticing that her intelligence is going up--she's remembering more complicated words than she should be able to know--and worries about anyone noticing. Eventually she's abducted from her job and taken to a college, where she's supposedly the project/experiment of a rich slacker grad student. Left to her own devices most of the time, Somni starts reading like a fiend and educating herself way beyond her station--and eventually she's taken charge of by higher-up folks and even alllowed to attend lectures. You see, she's a science experiment--they're boosting her intelligence to prove that fabricants can be intelligent. She's recruited into a rebel movement....which is not going to end well for her, and she knows that.
This is the most gut-punchy story in the series. It doesn't end happily-- what would in these circumstances?-- but you'll remember this one. It's inspiriing in its own horrifying kind of way, I guess I'd say. The language is a little different--mostly the spellings (like "xactly") and reference to things like "disneys" (Cavendish's tale was turned into a movie!) --but it's comprehensible enough, thank goodness. Either way, this one was more of a mindblower than anything else to me.
- "Sloosha's Crossin' An' Ev'rythin' After:" In the far future, Zachry is a Valleysman living on Hawaii after the apocalypse came/the world ended/society collapsed/something. There's one society of Smart people remaining, the Prescients, and they periodically roll in on boats for visits. When one Prescient woman, Meronym, wants to stay with the tribe and learn their ways, Zachry is totally suspicious of her and her motives. However, they eventually become friends despite the differences in age (Zachry sounds pretty young, like teenager/20's, Meronym is 50), intelligence, upbringing, comprehension, language, etc. She even helps secretly save his sister's life with secret medicine. But when the evil Kona tribe charges in to kill or enslave everything, the two of them are stranded alone with only each other to save.
Oh god, the language in this one is a slog to read. It's an eroded future where the language went downhill, and Zachry is barely comprehensible to read at all. The entire chapter is kind of like slogging through mud that's up to your knees, and I suspect I definitely missed plot details because they're so hard to read through the dialect. (Sample: "Oh, you was right 'bout the dammit Prescients first time, Bro Zachry! She's fuggin' your b'liefs'n'all up'n'down'n'in'n'out!" Oh god, make the apostrophe use stop.) I can't help but want to say that future or not, your readers are still living in the modern era and they are just gonna find halfassed language like this FREAKING HARD TO READ AND YOU WANT TO STOP READING IT. It is a damn slog to plow through and makes you want to quit halfway through the novel. It has to be said.
As for the story itself, I wasn't super interested in the primitive tribesmen of the future or that cannibal slavers (it's always slavery around here!) are trashing Hawaii. Zachry is...okay as a person, I guess, but I can't say I was super delighted to have to wade through his rather childish POV and terrible speaking to get to the story. It would have been a drastically different story to tell it from Meronym's POV, I'm sure, but it's also weird that she's not the lead character/narrator if she's the comet reincarnated person (something I've heard is changed in the movie). I don't know...I guess I kind of didn't feel like there was much of a point to this one. Society's gone downhill, and there's very few Smart people left, but people are people? Um, okay. Whatever, I guess. This was probably my least favorite of the bunch.
Revolutionary or gimmicky? I....think I mostly lean towards gimmicky, mostly because I don't feel like the gimmick does much for the overall story. They feel like six tales, not one super overlapping one. The plots don't really relate to each other enough for that to happen, and I would have preferred that each tale kind of REALLY pick up on some level where the last left off, rather than it being some other book a character was reading or something.There's very little continuation and it doesn't feel like the one giant story I think I am supposed to think it is.
The individual stories are food for thought in their own ways. Some I liked better than others for various reasons, but overall...well, I kept reading it, even the Zachry ov'r'ap'os'tro'ph'd chapter. And that may just be a selling point right there: I cared enough to keep going, even with the drastic changes from section to section and the long periods of time before followups.
I'm going to give it three and a half stars. It's a relatively good read, though I don't quite feel like it got what it was shooting for. But eh, what does my opinion on this one matter by now anyway?