2) I spent much of the weekend enjoying David Mitchell's 2004 novel, which, if anything, is better than the film because it can explain its correlations more, and sometimes even mock them. For instance, Timothy Cavendish dismisses any thought of the 1970's-era Luisa Rey being the reincarnation of the 1930's-era tortured artist Robert Frobisher as "too hippie-druggy-new age," and he also makes fun of the portentous comet-birthmark (that many of the major characters possess) by mentioning how his birthmark looks like "Timbo's Turd" (357). Some of the story lines succeed more than others (I preferred the detective thriller 1970s of The First Luisa Rey Mystery to The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing), but what matters is the rapid interplay between genres, the way the movie and the book resist oppression through conceptual play, taking as its central dichotomy the struggle between freedom and servitude in forms that range from 19th century slaves, present-day elderly imprisoned within rest homes, and futuristic workers/replicants trapped within debt and systematized corporate control. As Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent in the movie) points out in the novel: "`Freedom!' is the fatuous jingle of our civilization, but only those deprived of it have the barest inkling re: what the stuff actually is" (356).
3) Critics who complain about the movie's complexity and impenetrability miss out on the way Cloud Atlas is way more fun if one can't get to the bottom of its juxtapositions. I will attempt to explore one aspect of Cloud Atlas' thematic depths by tracing some of its parallels/influences in Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation (2004), Soylent Green (1973), and Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962).
4) (spoiler alert) For me, the most compelling of the six narratives in the novel is An Orison [or prayer] of Sonmi-451, a Blade Runner-esque story of a replicant cloned to serve as a corporate drudge waitress in a restaurant for twelve years. She's supposed to attain "Xultation," or paradisal happiness in Hawaii, but instead she escapes, educates herself, and eventually evolves into a key figure in the Union underground resistance movement. In many ways, the future world of the Orison chapters reads like a satirical variation of our own, with a massive corporation running the world as it enforces an atmosphere of "Work, spend, work" (316) and "A Soul's value is the dollars therein" (325). Here, perpetually dissatisfied consumers enjoy riches at the expense of an unacknowledged underclass. The omni-present corporate popular media denies worldwide mass-pollution. Everyone has already suffered "the disastrous Pentecostalist Coup of North America" (327), and Papa Song restaurants resemble McDonald's in the way they cater to the children of the consumer clientele. My comparison to McDonald's might seem incidental, but Mitchell underlines the likeness by noting the "golden arches" of Papa Song's Golden Ark," where the replicants supposedly enter their blissful paradise.
"A slaughterhouse production lay below us, manned by figures wielding scissors, sword saws, and various tools of cutting, stripping, and grinding. The workers were bloodsoaked, from head to toe. I should properly call those workers butchers: they snipped off collars, stripped clothes, shaved follicles, peeled skin, offcut hands and legs, sliced off meat, spooned organs . . . drains hoovered the blood."
When her interlocutor asks her the purpose of such "carnage," Somni-451 coolly replies:
"What cheaper way to supply this [Soap] protein than by recycling fabricants who have reached the end of their working lives? Additionally, leftover `reclaimed proteins' are used to produce Paper Song food products, eaten by consumers in the corp's dineries all over Nea So Copros. It is a perfect food cycle" (343).
6) As soon as I saw the film's version of this slaughterhouse, I realized that Tim Cavendish's taunt of "Soylent Green is made of people!" makes perfect sense, although in that case he was just emphasizing his need to escape the Aurora House rest home. In his narrative, he also notes how his entrapment within the Aurora House has much in common with Randle Patrick McMurphy's plight in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Nobody, however, in Cloud Atlas, calls attention to one of Chief Bromden's dream of a slaughterhouse-like underground, a highly mechanized Metropolis (1927) world that includes "one of those trestle affairs like you find in meat houses, rollers on tracks to move carcasses from the cooler to the butcher without much lifting." One of the workers there lifts up a patient and "drives" a "hook through the tendon back of the heel, and the old guy's hanging there upside down, his moldy face blown up big, scared, the eyes scummed with mute fear." Then, the "worker takes" a "scalpel and slices up the front of old man Blastic with a clean swing and the old man stops thrashing around" (78-9).
"For eight and a half hours, a worker called a `stickler' does nothing but stand in a river of blood, being drenched in blood, slitting the neck of a steer every ten seconds or so, severing its carotid artery. He uses a long knife and must hit exactly the right spot to kill the animal humanely. He hits that spot again and again. We walk up a slippery metal stairway and reach a small platform, where the production line begins. A man turns and smiles at me. He wears safety goggles and a hardhat. His face is splattered with gray matter and blood. He is the `knocker,' the man who welcomes cattle to the building. Cattle walk down a narrow chute and pause in front of him, blocked by a gate, and then he shoots them in the head with a captive bolt stunner . . . which fires a steel bolt that knocks the cattle unconsious. . . . As soon as the steer falls, a worker grabs one of its hind legs, shackles it to a chain, and the chain lifts the huge animal into the air" (171).
8) Mitchell implies that the slavery of the past becomes the corporate exploitation and cannibalism of the future. Given the Nazi concentration camps of the past and the sweatshops of the present, some combination of both isn't hard to imagine. As Somni-451 says:
"in a cycle as old as tribalism, ignorance of the Other engenders fear; fear engenders hatred; hatred engenders violence; violence engenders further violence until the only `rights,' the only law, are whatever is willed by the most powerful. In corpocracy, this means the Juche. What is willed by the Juche is the tidy xtermination of a fabricant underclass" (344).