The Real Luisa Rey: Karen Silkwood.

To what extent is the fantastic Cloud Atlas based on reality? Aside from the future Seoul and post-apocalyptic Hawaii, the answer: more than you think. In another of my series of posts on Cloud Atlas (see especially my earlier post on real cloud atlases), today I’m looking at the real-life inspiration for Luisa Rey, one of the novel’s chief protagonists.

About Luisa Rey

In David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, the section “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery” stands out as the most accessible, and perhaps most dramatic, section. (Not so, sadly, in the Wachowski/Tywker film, although the movie is still superb and well worth seeing.) Under the guise of a submitted mystery manuscript, the story follows Luisa Rey, a journalist living in 1970s California, who stumbles upon a nefarious plot by the local nuclear plant to cover up serious safety concerns about one of its reactors. Without giving too much away if you’ve not read/seen Cloud Atlas (and if you haven’t, stop reading this right now and do one of the two, at least), Luisa Rey’s car is knocked off a bridge—intentionally—because of what she finds out.

If this all sounds familiar to you, you know your history well. Mitchell, who admitted in an interview that, as a youth, he worried immensely of nuclear annihilation, surely took some historical inspiration for the Rey chapters of Cloud Atlas from the real life story of Karen Silkwood, whose discovery of similar safety failures at a nuclear reactor perhaps cost Silkwood her life.

About Silkwood

Unlike Rey, Silkwood was not a journalist; she was a labor union activist, much more politically focused than the scrappy reporter in Cloud Atlas. She was hired in the early 70s to work for the Kerr-McGee Cimarron plant near Crescent, Oklahoma, to grind and polish plutonium pellets that would be used in fuel rods. Silkwood quickly became involved in the unions, and in that capacity was eventually charged with investigating certain facets of plant safety. She apparently found—as Luisa Rey does when she obtains Sixsmith’s reports—massive issues with the nuclear plant’s safety. Just as she was about to go public with the information, Silkwood died in a car accident on her way to meet with a New York Times journalist; similarly, Rey’s car—a copy of the Sixsmith’s report in the trunk—gets knocked off a long bridge by Bill Smoke. (I’ll leave her fate up to you reading/watching Cloud Atlas.) While, in reality, it is unclear if Silkwood was actually murdered—there is both evidence for and against that conclusion—her case remains a touchstone for environmentalist, anti-nuclear and anti-corporate fighters. (Probably aided by the well-known popular film about her, Silkwood.)

Silkwood in Cloud Atlas

Rey was, obviously, only partially based on Silkwood, and Mitchell made a number of decisions to keep them distinguishable. Rey’s story is set in 1973; Silkwood died in 1974, nearly the same time—probably necessitating Mitchell to set Rey slightly earlier to avoid any comparisons to the Silkwood issue (that is, if Silkwood even exists in the world of Cloud Atlas.) Rey, as well, had much purer motives than Silkwood may have had—depending, of course, on whom you believe. At any rate, it’s impossible not to root for Luisa, both because she’s sympathetic (either as a character devised by Mitchell or by Javier Gomez, the writer of the manuscript.)

The stories of both Silkwood and Rey takes one back to an era still relevant to our own: while such pervasive fear of nuclear plants has somewhat subsided, and nuclear power is once again is seen as a potential fix for energy independence and global-warming—President Obama declared in his 2010 State of the Union that a solution to energy woes was, in part, “building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country”—incidents like those at the Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi Plant still makes us reconsider that source of power. Regardless of whether it was Rey publishing the truth herself, or Silkwood trying to help the Times publish it, both stories reflect one particular aspect of culture as we know it.

In Cloud Atlas, Hester Van Zandt, the leader of a political group opposing the nuclear power plant, tells Luisa Rey that the battle over information is the most important battle: “The world’s Alberto Grimaldis can fight scrutiny by burying truth in committees, dullness, and misinformation, or by intimidating the scrutinizers,” she says. “They can extinguish awareness by dumbing down education, owning TV stations, paying ‘guest fees’ to leader writers, or just buying the media up. The media—and not just The Washington Post—is where democracies conduct their civil wars.”

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