Cloud Atlas is a series of six stories, linked by a birthmark and themes of oppression and the cyclical nature of history. They're also linked through documents and images that pass down stories through time, sometimes across centuries. In the first story, we get a glimpse of the damage Europeans did to Polynesian cultures during the nineteenth century by colonizing the islands and enslaving the indigenous people through an American's journal. In the second story, we get the letters of an unscrupulous musician who is blessed with talent, but little consideration for his fellow human beings. He's also a big fan of Adam Ewing's journal. The musician's letters end up in the hands of a cub reporter working on a big story about an unsafe nuclear power plant. The reporter's story turns up as a novel in the hands of a vanity publisher who ends up incarcerated in an old folks' home in Britain. That story ends up a film that a clone enjoys in a dystopian future Korea. The clone's story of revolution ends up as a digital file that no one can understand the far, far future. Once we get to that future primitive Hawaii, Mitchel takes us back through time to Ewing, giving us the conclusions to the stories he started along the way but then left off in cliffhangers. In an interesting meta note, some of the characters make references to time as a series of Russian dolls or as ladders with people making their way constantly up and down.
On the surface, the stories are wildly different. They've got different tones, structures, and even vocabulary. But the theme of cycles runs through the whole thing. In the last chapter (set on a nineteenth century South Pacific island), a blithely racist preacher expounds on his ideas of civilization being like a ladder. Some civilizations are on their way up and others are on their way down. The racist preacher believes that it's because whites are destined to win out in the end because of God's favor. He is contradicted by a doctor who plainly states that civilizations rise and fall because the strong always devour the weak. The only reason whites seemed to be on the ascendant is because they are the most rapacious race on the planet at the time.
Of course everyone is shocked by this, but this very thing has played out over and over during the preceding 500 pages of the book. Sometimes the underdog wins, sometimes the favorite wins.
The stories also linked by documents and media, which made me question whether these stories were actually meant to be taken as history (fictional, but otherwise true) or if Mitchell was pulling a complicated variation on Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler and hinting that none of his narrators are reliable. The journal might have been edited for publication and the musician's letters only show his side of the story. The reporter's story might have just been a novel and the vanity publisher's just a movie. The clone's story is testimony recorded by a government that has a less than forthcoming attitude toward the truth (even to the point of pulling a Soylent Green). And the story set in Hawaii at the center of the book is told as a nascent legend to the younger members of the tribe. So, in addition to theories about the nature of history and civilization, we also get a sly commentary on historicity.
Cloud Atlas is masterful, skillfully written, and very profound. I can tell that every time one rereads it, one will get something new out of it. It's not brain candy; you're going to have to think about and question what you're reading. This book is good for the brain.