Can We Steer the Drive to Survive?

At the end of the novel Cloud Atlas, Adam Ewing sits hopefully pondering the fate of the world as he watches children of all different heritages playing peacefully together in a tree. Despite all the troubles of the world that he has seen and experienced on his voyage, he still has faith in the ability of people to control their savage nature and create a harmonious world. While Mitchell’s own opinion as expressed through the novel is largely up to interpretation, looking at the results of each story within it appears to me to result in a strongly pessimistic outlook for the human race.

In Ewing’s story, even though Atuwa survives, the entire Moriori race is either eliminated or entirely enslaved by the Maori. In Robert Frobisher’s story, Frobisher creates a masterpiece only to be destroyed by the process of creating it, and he does not even reach his goal of becoming a prolific British composer in the process. In Luisa Rey’s story, there is somewhat more hope–Swannekke power is defeated, but the corporate structure that allowed the corruption to occur is still firmly in place. In Timothy Cavendish’s tale, although he gains his freedom back, his experience has severe effects on his health, and he lives without his friends in a lonely (although somewhat peaceful) existence. In the tale of Sonmi 451, things seem entirely hopeless as her story is nothing more than a ruse put on by Unanimity; even her valiant attempt at rebellion is ineffective in the face of the complete power of Unanimity. Zachary’s final story in the far future is even more hopeless, as the only race that appears to have continued success in survival is the ruthless, savage Kona. 

Overall, rather than pointing towards hope for civilization, these stories point towards an inescapable cycle for humanity as the very drive that pushes us to survive, to achieve, to conquer the world around us, and to be in control is the same drive that will push us towards our destruction. The people groups that survive are those that rise through the ruthless subjection of other peoples. While some races might try to justify this ruthless suppression to help them sleep at night (like the colonial British forces in Ewing’s tale) and some might go about killing off other races with no qualms (like the Kona), the end result is the same. It is the ruthless people that survive and have success in the world. The question is whether we have the ability as humans to create a world in which morality is an asset and power is not a force for corruption. Looking at the world today (just look at the Ukraine), we’ve got a long way to go.

-Mary Virginia Harper

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~ by mvharper on March 17, 2014.

One Response to “Can We Steer the Drive to Survive?”

  1. Interestingly, I interpreted the story in the completely opposite way. I took the entire novel to be along the whole “life finds a way” vein that Jurassic Park preaches. That as much as you engineer or control or influence or try to overpower, there will always be a spark somewhere. In someone. You can see that in Sonmi ~451 and her declarations and her ascension or Cavendish’s escape from Aurora house or when Frobisher dies knowing that he’s passed on the information and has at least tried to stop Swanneke. I think that what Cloud Atlas communicates to the reader is that people are ephemeral, but ideas can span centuries, ideas can’t be stopped and people are the means in which they travel through time.

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