Cloud Atlas vs. The Years of Rice and Salt

(I am back in school for the next eight weeks so expect that columns will post a little erratically and be a little shorter than usual.)

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell has been confusing me for some time. When it first came out I thought it was by comedian, actor and pundit David Mitchell of That Mitchell and Webb Look fame. When it turned out to be literature, a genre that I find is often dull, pompous and too focused on men who profess to be unable to understand half of the species, i.e. women, I kind of lost interest. But then I started seeing ads for the film, which is directed by the same director as Run Lola Run, a movie I loved, and became interested again. After reading it I am even more confused. How in the world is this intricate, braided, generation-spanning novel going to be narrowed down to one 164 minute film?

Cloud Atlas reminded me strongly of The Years of Rice and Salt, by Kim Stanley Robinson. Rice and Salt is an alternate history novel that posits a world where the black death wiped out almost all of the Christians, leaving Islam and Buddhism as the major religions. The time frame is from the eighth century BCE and runs all the way into the future. The main characters recur in each part of the book, reincarnating as different genders, ethnicities and members of different cultures and religions. You can tell which is which by their initials, which stay the same throughout the book. Rice and Salt is probably my favorite book by Kim Stanley Robinson – big, bold, brave and sprawling.

Cloud Atlas has a similar feel, telling different stories over the course of centuries and following the same characters as they reincarnate in much the same way. But Cloud Atlas has a very different format. Rice and Salt is a linear story while Cloud Atlas has an unusual structure. The book begins with the journal of a man who is on a sea voyage and cuts off halfway through the story. The next portion is a series of letters written by a musician who is a bit of a scoundrel. He makes reference to the journal, saying he only found half of the book. His story is then cut off halfway through, and the next portion makes reference to him. This goes on for a bit until we get a complete story, which is followed by the missing half the next to last story, etc, finishing with the rest of the journal of the man who is on a sea voyage. (I've unfortunately forgotten his name and I had to take Cloud Atlas back to the library so I can't look it up for you.)

Each of these stories are written in a different style. One is in dialect, one is a kind of modern industrial thriller, one is the stylized writing of a novel like Moby Dick, etc. Between that and cutting the stories in half the novel could seem gimmicky but Mr. Mitchell is a strong enough writer to pull it off. But the dialect is kind of hard to read and the stilted language of the first story slowed this reader down. I enjoyed the book very much, but I never felt really pulled into the story. I was always aware that I was reading fiction; as though there was a pane of glass between the story, characters and myself.

Rice and Salt on the other hand completely swept me into the story. My only real complaint is that it is very long and I was tired when I got to the end, but that's really my fault because I could have put it down and taken a rest, instead of trying to finish it up in one sitting. So of these two books I liked Rice and Salt better, but Joe Hill, author of Heart Shaped Box and Horns, has an interesting post about the joys of reading Cloud Atlas a second time, which you can read here:

You can read an excerpt of Cloud Atlas here: Sadly I could not find an excerpt from the Years of Rice and Salt. Sorry.

Bonus Treat:
This week's bonus treat is the first in a series called Minus, written by Ryan Armand. This particular strip is about a super adorable boy who runs into a couple of heartless oafs, and what happens when they are awful to him.