Cloud Atlas is a collection of stories that are bound together in so many ways that a unified theme was not clear to me until the unique format begins to unfold the latter half of each individual novella. Its unique presentation builds up a series of short stories as novellas. Each one is not only a different genre but also ends up introducing the start of the next novella; creating a loose link between stories becomes more solidified as you read on. Then, after the last story is introduced and built up, you transition to continuing the previous stories endings in the same order they were introduced.
One such story is a cyberpunk corporatocracy which mass produces clones made to do every undesirable form of work in a futuristic Seoul, Korea. Neocapitalism has kicked it into overdrive, forcing the scared, huddled populace into purchasing products to be good citizens. Inundating them with propaganda that promises that the Korean superstate is doing well, so long as people buy, buy buy! Despite the rest of the world in collapse, this population appears to be thriving.
Sonmi-451 is a clone indentured to an eating establishment that feels like an extrapolation on what fast food and customer service might look like when serving is done by dehumanized, fetishized slaves. Clones eat different food—called soap—live on the premise, and only know a life in which they wake up and serve customers and then sleep; the cycle repeating every. Single. Day. No rest. All of them sharing in an unverifiable dream supplied by their employer that after a number of years of work, they are to be sent to live in a paradise for their service.
Sonmi-451 begins to question the nature of her reality when a fellow clone expresses a will that goes beyond their programmed existence, she ends up discovering what the world is actually like, as the notions she had about the globe are supplanted with a far more grim world than the service workers were educated with, suggesting a level of intelligence thought to be impossible from clones like her.
The resistance against the oppressive regime recruits her in their struggle with the hope that she might be the linchpin to a plan that could wake up the citizenry. Sonmi-451 ultimately must decide what her path forward will be. Her newfound agency parallels the massive amounts of knowledge she’s consuming, incidentally revealing the contours of a truth that not even the resistance seems to be aware of.
While the cyberpunk novella is exceptional in the way it conveys the depth and depravity of rampant capitalism and excels in world building, in general, the story becomes more interesting to me when the context around the story is considered.
Every novella compiled in Cloud Atlas carries similar themes. The characters, bound to one another across time, encounter some form of oppression. Even for those characters that “do the right thing,” we move on from to the next story, ultimately never learning what that impact may have had on the world overall. But we do learn what the impact is on the characters of each story.
I find it intrinsically hopeful that the cyberpunk story is not the last one being told. Life after post-capitalism exists in some form, implying the things we do now also have a ripple effect on people. Something we sometimes feel. Despite the presence of oppression. Insidious characters begin anew, their souls are given other circumstances, and those ripples are also felt throughout time. There is a true clashing of humanity that a single story could never convey.
There are also genuinely moving moments to be felt due to the decisions by each of the characters. There is no paragon, no perfect figure. People screw up, and alacrity stretches through genres and time. But so does love.
Within this broader context that Cloud Atlas draws, when all the stories build up to in a crescendo and cascade down to in a satisfying conclusion, the cyberpunk story could also be considered a solarpunk story or maybe even a hopepunk story, even. It feels explicit that every single action that is taken to stamp out oppression is meaningful and rooted in a love that reaches across a divide that no human can really fathom.
Years after reading Cloud Atlas the story of Sonmi-451, however short in its length, has stuck with me; even growing more pronounced with a re-read and re-watch of the movie (the two more futuristic novellas having story beats quite different than the book, mind you). This context around that story’s themes and motifs impact the entire text significantly, just as all the other novellas impact one another. They turn, for me, a good cyberpunk story into something wholly unique and more interesting than it could have been standing on its own.