On Cloud Atlases.

By: Jenny Liu

You may have chanced to read Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell’s (in my humble opinion) masterpiece novel of connected stories. Or else you may have recently seen the trailer for the film. But were you aware that “cloud atlases” were real things? I wasn’t—at least not until lately.

Cloud Atlases in “Cloud Atlas”

In Mitchell’s novel, Zachry, the Valleysman who narrates the “Sloosha’s Crossin’ An Ev’rythin’ After” section, makes the most detailed—and most metaphorically rich—reference to an “atlas of clouds”:

I watched the clouds awobbly from the floor o’ the kayak. Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an’ tho’ a cloud’s shape nor hue nor size don’t stay the same, it’s still a cloud an’ so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud’s blowed from or where the soul’ll be ”morrow? Only Sonmi the east an’ the west an’ the compass an’ the atlas, yay, only the atlas of clouds.

The eponymous hero of “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish” desires the same thing: “What wouldn’t I give now for a never-changing map of the ever-constant ineffable?” he narrates. “To possess, as it were, an atlas of clouds.” Cloud Atlas is also the name of a “sextet for overlapping soloists” composed by Robert Frobisher, the narrator of the “Letters From Zedelghem” section. Luisa Rey, of the later section “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery,” is drawn to the music after she hears an obscure recording of Frobisher’s composition and decides she must have it.

Real Cloud Atlases

But a “cloud atlas” is a real thing. The Wikipedia definition is rather precise and poetic: “a pictorial key to the nomenclature of clouds.” The article, which seems reliable (backed up by Britannica to boot), also notes:

Early cloud atlases were an important element in the training of meteorologists and in weather forecasting, and the author of a 1923 atlas stated that “increasing use of the air as a means of transportation will require and lead to a detailed knowledge of all the secrets of cloud building.”

Luke Howard, an Englishman, was the first to develop a nomenclature for the clouds (although to be fair a Frenchman, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, had tried earlier) when he published the Essay on the Modification of Clouds in 1803. He has been called the “Father of Meteorology,” but a plaque that honors him in London simple titles him “Namer of Clouds.” (I particularly like that phrase—it gives him the authority presented to Adam in Genesis.)

The Connection

I’m not sure Howard himself has much to do with Cloud Atlas, but Mitchell’s title suggests at least one thing: all clouds are all composed of the same things. As, of course, are all humans. (E.g. Zachry toward the end of “Sloosha’s Crossin’ An’ Ev’rythin’ After,” noting that everyone’s “souls” are composed of the same stuff.) Both are perhaps more alike than they are different, and all that is needed is a map to the different types. As a map itself, Cloud Atlas — filled with pathos, robust characters, moving stories, and highlighting the connections of all of our lives — points us in the right direction.


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