Reviewed by Ted Gioia

In adopting the term “conceptual fiction” to describe a
body of modern writing—which I have done in more
than fifty essays and reviews to date—I have aimed to
draw attention to an area of experimentation in
contemporary storytelling that is
still poorly understood.

These works of conceptual fiction
cut through the great divides in
criticism: divides between high-
brow and lowbrow, genre and
mainstream, popular and literary.
They represent the fruition of a
quasi-hidden alternative tradition
in modern writing, with its own
genealogy and masterworks. As
such, they deserve—but rarely
receive—a response from critics
and scholars that is sensitive to
this larger framework.

These works have their deepest roots in the often
despised—but more often merely neglected or
patronized—science fiction and fantasy books of the
middle of the 20th century. This alone explains much
of the incoherent response to this tradition, which
treats half of the defining books as hack work, and
bows down before the others—
Márquez, McCarthy,
Saramago, Rushdie, Auster, Murakami, etc.—but only
after isolating them (safe from contamination) in a
different section of the library. Yet this is only part of
the richness and complexity of the conceptual fiction
tradition: an even longer lineage can be constructed,
back to
Verne and Wells in the nineteenth century,
even further to Swift’s
Gulliver Travels, Thomas
More's
Utopia, and eventually to the earliest stirrings
of conceptual fiction in myths and folktales. In short,
the tinkering with conceptions of reality and delight in
the fanciful—key qualities of these works—are as old as
storytelling itself.

David Mitchell’s
Cloud Atlas is almost a textbook
example of how this tradition is enlivening
contemporary fiction. It is an exemplar of this vital
area of development in modern writing—all the more
vital because it manages to be bold and experimental
without destroying the key elements of narrative
structure, character development and linguistic
comprehensibility that earlier progressive movements
often ignored at their own peril. The power of a book
such as
Cloud Atlas is amplified because its higher level
complexities don’t require the ground floor level of the
story be burnt, pillaged and destroyed. Instead of
trying to keep up with the Pynchons and Gaddises,
who only live in the penthouse, Mitchell occupies the
whole building, even the boiler room and broom closet.

On its simplest level,
Cloud Atlas is a set of six sharply
contrasting stories, each one capable of standing alone
as a complete tale, but only revealing its full resonance
when viewed in the context of the total work. The
stories cover a wide range of territory, writing styles
and psychological perspectives. We find here a travel
journal of a pious and gullible 19th century notary; an
epistolary novella about a morally bankrupt young
composer from the 1930s; a pulp fiction conspiracy tale
set during the Gerald Ford administration; a comic tale
of a vanity publisher who finds himself confined
against his wishes in a home for the aged; a sci-fi story,
in Q&A format, about clones working in an
underground fast food restaurant; and an account of
tribal warfare in a post-apocalyptic island society.

The structure of the novel is palindromic. The five
opening sections each represent the opening of a tale
that will be concluded, in reverse order, by the five
final sections of the book. This same form is adopted by
the composer Robert Frobisher, the protagonist of the
epistolary novella, who describes it as follows:

“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, and by then it'll be too late.”

This composition is called the “Cloud Atlas Sextet,” and
the passage above might seem to unlock the meaning
of the title of Mitchell’s novel. Yet the concept of a
“cloud atlas” appears elsewhere—for example, as a
symbolic representation of the transmigration of souls
—or in a rare recording of Frobisher’s composition that
figures as a plot elements in a separate story. The
multivalent meaning of this one element is an example
of the many prefigurings and reverberations that give
depth and suchness to this ambitious novel.

As a result, the linkages between the six narratives are
difficult, perhaps impossible, to summarize. But let me
propose a (Philip K.) Dicksian way of approaching this
interconnectivity. Imagine that the defining stories of
our lives are
not rooted in reality, as many critics
assume, but in other stories. This may seem a radical
notion, but upon reflection, you can see that this is
simply another way of expressing the lineages of fiction
described above—or, for that matter,  most oral / aural
storytelling traditions. In this instance, the connection
is made explicit in Michell’s narratives for “overlapping
soloists.” Each of the five half-tales that open his novel
serves as a plot element in the succeeding story, and
usually in a surprising way.

We have thus entered the world of the “meta-
narrative,” where stories build their house of cards
within the framework of other stories. Yet, in a marked
departure from the way such meta-narratives are
typically constructed—i.e., flamboyantly with the
author’s presence constantly felt—Mitchell remains
hidden from view throughout
Cloud Atlas. The writing
style of each of the sections is perfectly matched to the
tale, with even the flaws of the genre mimicked with
perfect fidelity. The novelist is clearly dealing the
cards, and playing them brilliantly, but he is about as
hard to second-guess as those poker champions on TV,
with their wraparound sunglasses, floppy hats and
other accessories designed to maintain a face of
mystery to all onlookers.

On top of this intriguing structure, Mitchell
superimposes echoes of Nietzsche’s theory of eternal
recurrence. You may recall that this odd and seemingly
implausible philosophical concept proposes a universe
that does not advance chronologically, but merely
repeats itself, over and over again. This cyclical concept
of history does not presuppose any theistic doctrines,
but can be made congruent with a belief in
reincarnation. Mitchell clearly draws on this
metaphysical angle, and sets in motion story elements
that imply that the characters in his six tales may be
reincarnations of each other.

Of course, none of this is presented in the blunt, point-
by-point way that I have just outlined it. Mitchell
works his changes subtly, and even at his most
philosophical, he “clouds” his points in a fog of
ambiguity. He is, after all, a storyteller and not a
theoretician, and the narrative is never dislodged by
the higher order meanings. They merely float above
the action. After a lifetime of reading novels that
proclaim their “message” in heavy-handed ways, I
found this immersion in the loosely defined and
amorphous to be one of the most endearing aspects of
Mitchell’s extraordinary novel.

Then again, that might be just what one
should expect
from a cloud atlas.
conceptual
fiction
Back to the home page
Cloud Atlas

by David Mitchell
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to reviews)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.
Flatland

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

Apuleius
The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.
Crash

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Borges, Jorge Luis
Ficciones

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.
Babel-17

Delany, Samuel R.
Dhalgren

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.
Ubik

Dick, Philip K.
VALIS

Disch, Thomas
Camp Concentration

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Fuentes, Carlos
Aura

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil
Neverwhere

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William
Neuromancer

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
Light

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank
Dune

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw
Solaris

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Morrison, Toni
Beloved

Murakami, Haruki
1Q84

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry
Ringworld

Noon, Jeff
Vurt

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Pohl, Frederik
Gateway

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Saramago, José
Blindness

Shelley, Mary
Frankenstein

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert
Nightwings

Simak, Clifford
City

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer
Norstrilia

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Stross, Charles
Glasshouse

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.
Slan

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt
Slaughterhouse-Five

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim
Cloudstreet

Woolf, Virginia
Orlando

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light



Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute


Links to related sites
The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter


SF Site
io9
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
Jospeh Peschel
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction


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