“We know what we are, but know not what we may be.”

Hamlet, Act 4, Scene 5

William Shakespeare

Sorry for not posting for ages – my History coursework got the better of me and I’ve been ill for the last few days *pity me* But, on the bright side, it’s now the Easter holidays and so you’ll probably be hearing a lot of me while I’m procrastinating from dreaded revision.  Plus, I finally finished ‘Cloud Atlas’, which is a pretty hefty tome, so now I have loads to write about.

Today’s post, then, is about the two lengthy contemporary novels I’ve recently read, both dealing with the subject of the relationship between the past and the future, reincarnation, philosophy and particularly, sociology. Both ‘Making History’ by Stephen Fry and ‘Cloud Atlas’ by David Mitchell deal specifically with the idea of society and the changes any slight or great event can cause to the rules of a society.

So, I’ll start with ‘Making History’ by Stephen Fry. This was actually recommended to me by my current History teacher, since the main period of History it deals with is Hitler’s Germany and the Third Reich which I’m sitting an exam on this summer.100_2149 However, it really isn’t a history book, but a novel about what happens when Michael Young, a postgrad Cambridge history student, just about to complete his doctoral thesis, and Leo Zuckerbaum, a physics professor with an unhealthy obsession of Auschwitz, combine forces and…hold your disbelief… Change history. That’s right, they time-travel back to before Hitler was born and sterilise his father so that the darkest period in human history never happens. Naturally there are huge consequences for this decision that no one can forsee… duh duh duuuuhhh…


It’s pretty good if you’re studying the whole historiography stuff, as it suggests the individual is not as important as the context ; without giving too much away, another, even worse ‘Fuhrer’ rises up to take Hitler’s place. And if you aren’t into all that ‘what if’ conjecture, the novel itself is pretty well written, though very obviously Fry-esque. The plot is reasonably fast-moving, although unfortunately much of the story is told through Michael’s viewpoint and he is, to put it kindly, a little bit slow when it comes to observing things. Yes, I know, once again I found the protagonist irritating; he lacked all common sense, was ridiculously over-eager and pretty pathetic a lot of the time. That said, he wasn’t so annoying that he spoilt the book – I just think the character could have been more likeable. You will absolutely have to suspend your disbelief for much of ‘Making History’. What with time-travel, fictional recounts of Hitler’s life with his parents, the CIA, bugging, spies and a whole invented history of modern Europe, most of the novel requires quite a lot of imagination and a willingness to embrace the crazy.

Personally,  both my favourite and my most infuriating section would have to be the part where Michael finds himself in the ‘present’ he has created. I loved discovering this altered world through his eyes, yet I also found his bewilderment highly annoying. I know, I know, if I had time-travelled into a parallel universe where I was the same person but different, but I could only remember my old self, yes, I suppose I would be pretty confused too. I accept all of that. But that doesn’t change my excessively low levels of tolerance when it comes to main characters.

Luckily, David Mitchell’s ‘Cloud Atlas’ has a wealth of protagonists to choose from, as it combines six different stories set in the past, present and future into one mammoth novel, in a pyramid structure from 1850-1931-1975-present day-dystopian future –post-apocalyptic future and all the way back again.100_2149 Basically in order of interesting-ness it goes:

  1. Robert Frobisher – 1930s disinherited, aristocrat composer whose story is told through his letters to one of his friends in England. Robert is quite clearly the best and funnest character in ‘Cloud Atlas’. He is by turns satirical, lyrical, witty and poetic, and you can see why his correspondent, Sixsmith, can’t stop himself helping him at every opportunity. Even though his story (his life whilst staying at the house of a blind composer, Ayrs, in Belgium and *SPOILER ALERT* the events leading up to his tragic suicide*END OF SPOILER*) isn’t the most interesting, his character is just so fun and charming that he has to top my list.
  2. Sonmi~451 – Set in Nea So Copros, a dystopian, futuristic Korea, a totalitarian state evolved from corporatism, Sonmi is a clone, bred specifically to serve humans, or ‘purebloods’ as they are known. This section of the novel is a lot more action-packed than Frobisher’s, and probably this is why it’s my second favourite. Although I admired Sonmi’s desire for justice and intelligence, I found her story much more interesting than her character; the twist at the end is amazing!
  3. Luisa Rey – Backpedalling through time at bit here, Luisa’s story takes place in 1975 California and, written in the style of a thriller, is the paciest of all the tales. Once again, there are tons of twists and turns that kept my on the edge of my seat, biting my nails to the bone, worrying about who or what would survive. However, although the story was certainly gripping enough, and Luisa herself was pretty strong and independent, though reckless, most of the other characters were just thick. Maybe, because we know all sides of the story the whole way through, I just find it impossible to have sympathy for them and their obliviousness. But whatever the reasons, the fact still remains that I found them irritating – so sue me.
  4. Timothy Cavendish – Timothy is ridiculously annoying, but in a very different way – since his is the comedic story, I’ll let him off. Despite the slightly surreal feel of some elements, the story is the only one set in the modern day, and I found it became increasingly funnier and more enjoyable as it continued. Saying that…the reason Timothy doesn’t come higher up on my list is his pompous manner; it took me ages to get used to his style and actually find it funny, rather than just confusing. His story was fun, but not by any means the most meaningful or unique.
  5. Zachry – I’ll be honest, Zachry’s only saving grace was the fact that his story took place in a post-apocalyptic world, meaning that there were all sorts of things to discover about the new rules and why humans had regressed back to an almost primitive existence. Overall, I found this story one of the most boring and lengthy of all the six, and the mystery surrounding its history was the only thing that was truly interesting; Zachry wasn’t particularly special in any way, and the plot was really slow.
  6. Adam Ewing – Adam must be one of the slowest characters. Ever. Not only is his story pretty boring, he as a character, I feel, is almost unrealistic in his naivety and stupidity; Robert guesses the ending way, way before he has even the tiniest inkling. Unfortunately, his section both starts and finishes the book, which, for me made beginning and ending the novel seem something of a trial.

The idea behind ‘Cloud Atlas’ was interesting; the universality and fixity of human nature was demonstrated by the birthmark all the protagonists share, and recurring themes throughout the stories. 100_2149 I liked the variety that so many different tales gave as well – there really is something for everyone, but the problem there is also something not for everyone. Anyone read this and agree/disagree with which characters are the best? I’d be interested to know if this is just personal preference or a general agreement. One thing I found a bit clumsy was the random philosophical thoughts of some of the characters. Although they were often very beautifully put, they simply felt out of place and just shoved in hotch-potch to make the stories more intertwining. An enjoyable read, but not as jaw-droppingly amazing as I’d heard – though I still really want to watch the recent film.

Wow…hope I haven’t put you to sleep with this ridiculously long posting, and that you’ve actually enjoyed reading it. Currently I’m reading D.H. Lawrence’s ‘Sons and Lovers’ and next Monday I’m going to see ‘Macbeth’ starring James McAvoy – ahhh exciting!  Thanks for checking out my page, and please comment with any suggestions of what to read next 🙂

5 thoughts on ““We know what we are, but know not what we may be.”

  1. I’m just not sure I could get into a book where they “change history” about the Holocaust. I’m teaching Night to my 9th graders currently and that would just way blow my mind too much. I think everyone I’ve ever talked with about Cloud Atlas is in love with Frobisher. He’s such a great character!

    1. One of my friends hates the whole ‘what if?’ conceptual element to history, and he had to stop half way through Fry’s novel out of sheer frustration. That being said, he is very easily frustrated, so probably isn’t that reliable a critic! Frobisher is genius – though I wish I could hear his final sextet.

  2. Impressive reviews. (Unlike you) I loved Cloud Atlas while also thinking that (like you) it didn’t entirely work. I’ just glad that there is a place for someone like David Mitchell: talented, with a huge imagination and the ambition in scope to bring his ideas to life.

    I’m half way though reading Richard Ford’s latest book – Canada. And I’m loving it so you might want to give that a go. And I had a moment of mini-inspiration this afternoon which might inspire a mini-post later this week so watch out fort hat too!

    1. I totally agree about Mitchell – I also like that the action is spread all over the world, from New Zealand to Belgium to New York to London to Korea to Hawaii. It definitely emphasises the ‘universality’ aspect of it. Have you seen the movie? I’m still slightly dubious, but apparently he had a huge part in making it, so surely it should be reasonably good! *crossed fingers*

      Ooh, that sounds good, thanks a lot. Also being inspired by your ‘top 34 books’ post, of which I’m ashamed to say, I’ve read barely any! Looking forward to reading the mini-post.

  3. I haven’t seen the film yet… but I plan to soon. They’ve obviously had to take a slightly different approach but I’ve heard good things about it.

    And as for my ‘favourite books’ list – well I’m sure I’ve probably read very few of the books that would be on your list! But if it inspires you to check any of them out, then great.

    P.S. I just re-read my last comment and realised that I didn’t say that the inspiration for the mini-post came from reading Canada… that makes more sense now!

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