Saturday, April 05, 2014

What plighted cunning hides

It took me a few tries to get into Cloud Atlas; the first of six stories was rather boring and written using too-colloquial styles. But once I got past it, I really enjoyed the rest of the book. Weaving together 6 stories across time, David Mitchell illustrates how power and identity are shaped and shifted and endure.

The stories are dystopian: they involve the struggles of individuals against forces of society and hegemony that are pitted against them. From racism and greed in the 19th-century South Pacific, to corporate environmental destruction, to containment of undesirable old people, to a future filled with clone slaves, to a Lord-of-the-Flies-like anthropology exercise ... the stories are so captivatingly written and the underlying themes so compelling that I couldn't stop reading. Humans subjugate other humans across time, create feudal roles for each other, and draw inspiration about hope and human identity from previous ages.

As a history nerd, I love how primary sources become a daisy chain throughout time: the diary from the 19th century South Pacific adventurer is read by the composer in 1930s Belgium, whose musical masterpiece is bought and listened to forty years later by an investigative reporter, whose experience taking down a nefarious corporation is told in a detective story read decades later by a prospective publisher, whose harrowing ordeal in an abusive nursing home is made into a movie watched years in the future by a clone slave, whose testimony about oppression is later revered by inhabitants of a post-apocalyptic Hawaii.

It's like The Pinball Effect, only darker and more philosophical.

Pinging around the globe is also something I'm trying to plot out for the next year. I'm patching together a hiking trip to Wales later this spring or early summer, and trying to figure out if I can finally make it to New Zealand this winter to visit La Otra Hermana y los Sobrinos.

For some reason, I've become obsessed with stopping by the Isle of Anglesey on my trip. Maybe it was the Medicus series that did it. At any rate, since I'm trying to swing a trip to where the Druids made their last stand against the Romans, my interest was naturally piqued when Netflix oh-so-helpfully suggested Centurion for Instant Viewing.

It was so predictable, in a "this is where your heritage comes from / everybody dies / Saving Private Ryan" kind of way, with overdone tints like Gladiator, except gray instead of sepia. (Like Gladiator, it also assembles a racially diverse array of fighters that most likely reflect current 21st-century viewing demographics rather than an actual 2nd-century legion. But whatevs. It was believable enough.)

Though it's obviously a work of fiction and a larger parable for British national identity, at least it has a somewhat decent basis in Roman British history: it tries to answer the millennia-old mystery of what happened to the Ninth Legion. (I geeked out at the end when this became apparent.) But up until that point, it basically just follows the survivors of an ambush as they're hunted across Scotland by bloodthirsty, vengeful Picts.

And I liked it. It was exactly the sort of entertainment I needed for a windy Northwest night.

No comments: