by Jessica Wu
David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2004/2012) is undoubtedly a structurally intriguing novel: five out of the six featured narratives end abruptly in the middle, to be revisited in a reversed order after the climax of the novel.
It is common for one to assume that the ‘end’ of the world in turn indicates a complete and irreversible destruction and upheaval of its structures and institutions—Fiona Stafford (1994) even argues that ‘[o]nly when time is perceived as a line and change as irreversible can “the last” have any meaning’ (p. 43). The absolute finality of the apocalypse is a recurring ideal: Christian eschatology associates the apocalypse with a time of perpetual torture and torment for non-believers, and in apocalyptic fiction today, the increasingly relevant climate apocalypse genre most often depicts Earth in a state of total, irreversible ruin—exemplified by movies like Don’t Look Up (2021) or Interstellar (2014). Still, at the point of the apocalypse, the old world falls away to bring forth the new—despite the destruction of what humanity knows the world to be, it is undeniable that a new world, however bleak, begins when the old world ends.
Cloud Atlas is a novel that defies the assumption of finality that most apocalyptic texts adopt, demonstrating the connection of peoples and structures across the landscape of devastation in its portrayal of new and old worlds. The novel opens with ‘The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing’, an 1840s epistolary narrative revolving around the experiences of the titular character on Chatham Island. Ewing’s journal reveals a missionary context to the journeys undertaken by him and other Caucasian characters. The journey is nothing short of an adventure, sending Ewing scouring beaches for human teeth and saving a Moriori slave, while being the chronologically furthest from the apocalypse in the novel. More importantly, ‘Pacific Journal’ provides the reader with an immediate insight into the ‘civilised’ society emerging on Chatham Island, carefully nurtured by the ‘helping hands’ of White missionaries. The social mechanisms, including tiers of privilege and standing, of a time long past is introduced in ‘Pacific Journal’.
On the other pole of Cloud Atlas’ chronological timeline lies ‘Sloosha’s Crossin’ An’ Ev’rythin’ After’, wherein narrator Zachry verbally recounts the greatest adventure of his life to young members of his tribe. Zachry weaves tales of his ‘civilised’, peace-loving tribe (Valleysmen), the nomadic Kona tribe, and the technologically superior, mysterious Prescients. Zachry details his journey with a Prescient, Meronym, and their discoveries as they navigate the ruins of the pre-apocalyptic world. These ruins, however, are not just tangible but also intangible—the relics of pre-apocalyptic social thought and structure continue to influence the post-apocalyptic societies in ‘Sloosha’s Crossin’’.
The pre-apocalyptic ‘Pacific Journal’ and post-apocalyptic ‘Sloosha’s Crossin’’, in their chronological polarity, are two narratives out of Cloud Atlas’ six that are most relevant to the comparison across time this article intends to achieve. Direct parallels can be drawn between ‘Pacific Journal’ and ‘Sloosha’s Crossin’’, demonstrating their high degrees of similarity in social structure, and how their mechanisms of social othering persist through apocalyptic events. Therefore, this article argues that the institutions of a pre-apocalyptic ‘old world’ remain intact in the post-apocalyptic ‘new world’, influencing survivors’ social habits and norms in similar ways these same social characteristics defined their ancestors’ experiences.
A persisting feature of society takes the form of social othering: creating and reinforcing boundaries between different identities. This social feature exists in both ‘Pacific Journal’ and ‘Sloosha’s Crossin’’, each fulfilling distinct inter-community agendas. In discussing myth-making in relation to apocalyptic imagination, Karl Becker (2010) identifies ‘the idea of the cannibal’ as a means of social othering that exists in both pre-apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction alike. Tribes accused others of cannibalism while distancing themselves from the barbaric act, ‘establishing boundaries between an “us” and a “them”’ (Becker, 2010, p. 66). Both ‘Pacific Journal’ and ‘Sloosha’s Crossin’’ display this phenomenon by chronicling extreme violence, utilising a first-person perspective to highlight how each narrator distances themselves from the observed violence. Encountering a public lashing of a Moriori slave by his Maori master, Ewing is told that ‘a wise man does not step betwixt the beast and his meat’ (Mitchell, 2012, p. 6), and thus discouraged from inquiring into the matter. The designation of each party’s role—Ewing to an elevated position of a wise man, while the Maori and Moriori are degraded to mere beast and meat—is telling of the othering already occurring early in the narrative. The fact that Ewing can, and is encouraged to, walk away from the violence is indicative of his distancing from violent others, even if they continue to exist in the same environment.
Comparatively, as Zachry witnesses the aftermath of a Kona attack in ‘Sloosha’s Crossin’’, he observes how a dead man was hung ‘by his ankles in the Kona way’ (Mitchell, 2012, p. 312). The specification of a ‘Kona way’ of tying a body up is a deliberate detail: it limits the knowledge of how to carry out this cruel practice to the tribe Zachry tells the reader is cannibalistic and blood-thirsty. By implying that no other tribe was capable of replicating of such an act, Zachry distances himself from the extreme violence associated with Konas. In their respective narrative, Ewing and Zachry remove themselves from the contexts of violence they encounter in their environment, doing so under encouragement or of their own accord. The ‘us vs them’ narrative that Becker views as a staple of societies is thus visible in both ‘Pacific Journal’ and ‘Sloosha’s Crossin’’, demonstrating the timelessness of social othering and differentiation in both pre-apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic contexts.
There, of course, exists more specific forms of othering and differentiation, especially when manifested in the form of systems of hierarchies. As an extension of social othering, each group makes meaningful their own existence by ‘conjuring up others as categorical opposites’ (Becker, 2010, p. 66), proclaiming the inferiority of other groups to emphasise the perceived superiority of their own.
Just as acts of racism plague our modern societies, neither the pre-apocalyptic nor post-apocalyptic worlds of Cloud Atlas are stranger to blatant, yet self-aware displays of racial superiority. Though the racial dynamics in ‘Pacific Journal’ may later be inverted in ‘Sloosha’s Crossin’’, the continued existence of the dynamic even after its evolution further proves the persistence of racial hierarchies through time.
From the very beginning of the novel, the language used by Ewing in ‘Pacific Journal’ reveals an inherently racist approach to Chatham Island and its inhabitants. Though Ewing is one of the few Caucasian characters willing to treat an ‘Indian’ fairly, his journal details a self-evident belief that the White man is conclusively superior to races of darker peoples. Ewing’s first impression of the Moriori people brands them ‘heathens of those dwindling ‘blind-spots’ of the ocean still unschooled by the White Man’ (Mitchell, 2012, p. 12). From the capitalisation of the ‘White Man’ lending further importance to the Caucasian population inclusive of Ewing, to the degrading use of ‘heathens’ to label the Moriori, this simple sentence in Ewing’s journal widens the perceived strait between light and dark-skinned races, striking readers with the unabashedly racist attitudes that will shadow much of Ewing’s narrative. Ewing is not alone in expressing racist tendencies; when he later displays sympathy towards a Moriori stowaway, a fellow Caucasian passenger reminds him that ‘friendships between races … can never surpass the affection between a loyal gun-dog & its master’. Ewing presents this as a fact he had been told, leaving the dehumanising comparison of dark-skinned people to a working animal unquestioned, and further reinforcing the general belief that the dark-skinned are inherently subservient to the light-skinned.
The roles of the dark and light-skinned are reversed in the later ‘Sloosha’s Crossin’’, though similar hierarchies remain. In ‘Sloosha’s Crossin’’, racial superiority appears to be universally recognised, since Zachry and fellow Valleysmen approach Prescients with an unconcealed sense of wonder and curiosity. The technologically advanced Prescients, whom ‘everythin’bout … was wondersome’ (Mitchell, 2012, p. 259), are described to have ‘dark skins like cokeynuts’ (Mitchell, 2012, p. 264), opposite of Zachry’s tribesmen. Later, it is revealed that the Prescients’ dark skin were engineered by the tribe themselves to ensure survival against a sickness, granting them a relatively higher life expectancy, a privileged trait that other races do not possess. Furthermore, the Prescients, believed themselves to be ‘Civ’lize’s last bright light’ (Mitchell, 2012, p. 310) amongst the multitudes of surviving societies in ‘Sloosha’s Crossin’s’ post-apocalyptic age. Race is not as much as a divisive factor in ‘Sloosha’s Crossin’’ as it is in ‘Pacific Journal’. Still, the reverence with which Prescients are regarded, accompanied by their clear racial distinction from other surviving tribes, which their superior lifespan and technology is attributed to, concretises their higher social standing amongst the races of ‘Sloosha’s Crossin’’. Though less apparent than the racial hierarchies demonstrated in ‘Pacific Journal’, the recurring evocation of differences in race and skin colours in ‘Sloosha’s Crossin’’ undoubtedly connotes a persisting hierarchy of race and a sense of superiority brought about by racial difference, regardless of the extended time between the pre-apocalyptic missionary and post-apocalyptic tribal contexts in each narrative.
Religion, central as it is to communities in ‘Pacific Journal’ and ‘Sloosha’s Crossin’’, constitute another major fault line along which communities are divided and hierarchised. Be it the Christian faith and the missionary movement consuming Caucasian characters in ‘Pacific Journal’, or the worship of Sonmi by Valleysmen compared to various beliefs of other tribes in ‘Sloosha’s Crossin’’, religion has become a socially divisive construct in Cloud Atlas when different communities announce their own faith as superior while denouncing others.
Ewing especially notices this about the physical structure of an island he visits:
Ashore was a stratum of cruder thatched dwellings … occupied … by the baptised Indians. Above these were … buildings crafted by civilised hands, & higher still, below the hill’s crown, stood a proud church denoted by a white cruciform.(Mitchell, 2012, pp. 494–495)
In this description, Ewing does not necessarily impose upon the reader his own ideas of religious hierarchy, but the idea is nonetheless present in the imagery provided by his descriptions. The native Indians dwelled on the lowest part of the land, while ‘civilised’ people lived further above, before reaching the church at the peak. This effectively provides the reader with an image of a hierarchical pyramid, whereby the church as a symbol of Christianity as the ‘superior religion’ was literally placed at the capstone of the island. There is, then, an overarching physical reminder of an island-wide subscription (real or imposed) to a distinction between communities justified by faith.
On the other hand, Zachry directly provides his insight on the various religions present across different tribes in ‘Sloosha’s Crossin’’:
Valleysmen only had one god an’ her name it was Sonmi. Savages on Big I norm’ly had more gods’n you could wave a spiker at. … The Kona’d got a hole tribe o’ war gods an’ horse gods’n all.”(Mitchell, 2012, pp. 254–255)
The sense of hierarchy between spiritual beliefs is apparent here. Zachry’s perspective on religion scorns all other religions than the monotheistic one that his tribe subscribes to, as seen by the use of ‘savages’ to alienate and devalue other tribes that were polytheistic, with so many gods they were comparable to a ‘tribe’ of their own. More importantly, Zachry deems these other gods of polytheistic religions as not ‘worth knowin’, nay, only Sonmi was real.’ (Mitchell, 2012, p. 255). The sweeping denial of other religions present on Big I, accompanied by the validation of his own religion, demonstrates Zachry’s self-affirmed religious superiority over those of other beliefs. With one being tangible and structural and the other being personal and self-affirming, ‘Pacific Journal’ and ‘Sloosha’s Crossin’’ therefore exemplify different means of creating religious tiers, but nonetheless exhibit religion’s lasting power in segregating societies and creating divisive boundaries in pre- and post-apocalyptic cultures.
The divisions explored in this article are not necessarily lasting. Both narratives see their respective protagonists renouncing these divisions: Ewing devotes himself to the Abolitionist cause, while Zachry overcomes his initial wariness of the Prescients. But despite the eventual development of these individual characters, social division nonetheless haunts each narrative in Cloud Atlas, including those not analysed in this article. As Becker (2010) remarks, ‘the old world …is mirrored by the new’ (p. 53), just as how methods of social othering in the pre-apocalyptic ‘Pacific Journal’ are echoed in the post-apocalyptic ‘Sloosha’s Crossin’’. Against the novel’s backdrop of interconnection and continuity, the repetition of social differentiation reveals an uncomfortable truth: with the rise and fall of each human era, humanity dies and is reborn, but with it, the mechanisms of segregation are reincarnated and continue to persist.
Becker, K. (2010). The New World of the Post-Apocalyptic Imagination [Master’s thesis, The California State University]. ScholarWorks. https://scholarworks.calstate.edu/concern/theses/7s75dd07q
Mitchell, D. (2012). Cloud Atlas. Hodder & Stoughton. (Original work published 2004)
Stafford, F. (1994). The Last of the Race: The Growth of a Myth from Milton to Darwin. Clarendon Press.