Cloud Atlas is a novel composed of six interlacing narratives, each one housed within the next, so that the first is a book read by a character in the second, the second a series of letters cherished by a character in the third, the third a populist novel being considered by a publisher in the third, and so on. To fully realize this Russian-doll experiment Mitchell divides each tale in half and places them, sandwich fashion, at opposite ends of the book. Thus the opening narrative is the last to be concluded, the second the penultimate, etc. At the centre of the novel lies the indivisible doll, an unbroken post-apocalyptic tale wrapped fivefold. Despite this symbiotic, intra-textual concept, further emphasized by the unifying themes of recurrence and predation, each narrative stands as a novella in its own right.
'The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing' is an eighteenth century maritime romp in diarised form. Ewing, an American notary, waits upon repairs to his ship on the Chatham Islands where he hears a detailed and brutal account of the indigenous people. Aboard the tyrannically captained schooner he discovers that his medical companion is more foe than friend, more dupe than doctor and that the treatment he receives for his apocryphal brain disorder is devised to kill not cure. Ewing narrowly escapes loss of life and property and the infamous ‘Arsenick Goose’ flies off to filch elsewhere.
Set in 1931, ‘Letters from Zedelghem’ adopts the epistolary form to capture the final brilliant months of the precariously bi-polar, precociously bi-sexual Robert Frobisher. Fleeing ignominiously from his debtors in England, he arrives in Brussels to realize his whim of serving as amanuensis to a dying world-class composer. Whilst aiding the irascible genius in the creation of a masterpiece or two, he sleeps with his wife, surreptitiously sells off some of his property then falls unrequitedly in love with his daughter. In a final fit of manic creativity he produces his own magnum opus then kills himself.
‘Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery’ assumes a populist prose style to rework the classic ‘intrepid journalist takes on ruthless captain of industry’ formula. It is 1970's California and Luisa Rey discovers that the much hyped local nuclear power plant is not as safe as it seems. Unlike two of her moral allies she survives the inevitable car chases, explosions and fisticuffs to deliver the equally inevitable, all-vindicating report to the authorities.
‘The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish’ is the comic tale of an over educated underachieving vanity publisher who unexpectedly finds one of his books flying off the shelves when its author propels a scoffing reviewer from a rooftop. Unable to meet the demands of the author’s thuggish brothers, who violently demand a slice of the profits, he flees to Hull where he ends up incarcerated in a high security nursing home. Along with two of the homes more spirited inmates, he masterminds then executes an escape plan that delivers him into a bucolic, wealthy retirement.
‘An Orison of Somni~451’ is the dark dystopian autobiography of a service industry slave who evolves beyond her laboratory controlled, genetically engineered social function to become a martyr for the abolitionist cause. It is set in a futuristic Korea where eugenics and corpocracy have combined to create a nightmarishly Orwellian world and everything, including Somni~451’s insurrection, is dictated by a state intent on maintaining its grip on power.
‘Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After’ is a grim post-apocalyptic narrative set on the island of Hawaii where life has reverted to the days of tribal pre-civilization. Valleysman Zachry loses his brother and father to a neighbouring tribe of savages when he is young, and his remaining family later play host to Meronym - a mysterious dark skinned member of an advanced tribe from across the seas. Though he at first suspects her of espionage, he is at last persuaded of her good intentions when she uses her ‘smart’ to liberate him from the marauding savages.