An Orison of Sonmi~451
Re-Reading Cloud Atlas Part III
By Kim Hollis
October 31, 2012
An “orison” is effectively an interview for the novel’s purposes (though it also is a technologically advanced device, as we’ll discover later). Essentially, Sonmi~451 is giving her final words to an archivist. Interestingly enough, although she is considered a criminal, the archivist gives her considerable leeway through the course of the conversation, allowing us to perhaps believe that although Sonmi~451 and her cohorts are defeated, there are still people whom she has impacted.
This story is somewhat reminiscent of 1984 or Brave New World, placing its heroine in a distant future where clones must abide by strict rules and routines, and anyone who breaks from them is threatened with extinction. There’s a strong element of science fiction present, and carries over somewhat nicely from Timothy Cavendish’s warning to the denizens in the previous novella’s nursing home that “Soylent Green is people!”
The Chinese Box/Russian nesting doll design is carried over into this section of the novel as Sonmi~451 watches a movie version of The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, enraptured by its storytelling and stimulated to thought by seeing a past where the seeds were only just being planted for corporations to rise as rulers of the planet.
Sonmi~451 is a fascinating character, because hearing her story is like watching a child blossom into an adult. She moves from being an innocent who simply follows the rules to being the ultimate rebel.
Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of Sonmi~451’s personality is her language, which is simply magical. The archivist is shocked a number of times by her turns of phrase, and indeed she has some of the most beautiful and lofty commentary of any of the characters in the novel. “Perhaps those deprived of beauty perceive it most instinctively,” she tells him, and that comment is given real weight because of her eloquence. Sonmi~451’s daily experience had been full of rote, mandated activities; thus, when the world opens to her, it expands that much more than it would for an everyday human being.
As has been the case throughout the book, we have degrees of evil, from the very, very small and seemingly insignificant all the way to an entire political system. The lesser villains include Seer Rhee, the “manager” of the Papa Song restaurant where Sonmi~451 works, who takes advantage of the replicants and consumes Soap for pleasure. When Sonmi~451 goes to assist graduate student Boom-Sook Kim, she finds that he is an unenlightened, lazy young man who has only gotten as far in life as he has because he is the son of a corporate exec. He is careless with Sonmi and would kill her if it made him look better in the eyes of his peers.
All villainy is relative, though, and Sonmi~451’s previous persecutors are nothing when compared to the corpocracy of Neo So Copros. Not only are they enslaving clones to do menial tasks, but they also plan Sonmi~451’s entire ascension, escape, and eventual arrest as a way to continue their reign.
Themes and Ideas
Mitchell explores religion to some degree with Adam Ewing and the people surrounding him, with Adam representing the light side and men like Reverend Horrox symbolizing the evil that it can cause. Here, religion is simply a creation of the corporate political machine to keep the fabricants in their place. They instill the clones with six Catechisms that they recite daily, and they hear sermons that reinforce the oppression by making it appear palatable. We learn that the supposed “heavenly” location and ultimate reward for the clones is anything but. They go to their final destination happy, never realizing that they will be killed and recycled as food for the newer, less degraded clones.
This is a fairly cynical view of religion; yet, it feels all-too-topical in today’s political climate where evangelicals seek to impose their beliefs into policy and law. The world of Neo So Copros is a cautionary tale that shows a potential future.
Although it’s not as prevalent as in other sections of the book, Sonmi~451’s interview still has moments where the theme is revealed. As with previous characters, we learn that Sonmi~451 also has the comet birthmark, an oddity and an embarrassment for a fabricant since they are expected to be perfect specimens.
At a moment during her escape, Sonmi~451 has some unexpected memories. “The final drop shook free an earlier memory of blackness, inertia, gravity, of being trapped in another ford. Where was it? Who was it?” she wonders. This memory directly correlates to Luisa Rey’s car crash from the bridge. Then, while visiting with a peaceful society outside of the city, Sonmi~451 learns that that the people worship Siddhartha, who “taught about overcoming pain, and influencing one’s future reincarnations.” Avid readers will know that Siddhartha is a novel written by Herman Hesse in 1922, one that tells the story of a Nepali man’s quest for enlightenment. Every action and event that he takes throughout the story leads Siddhartha to a cumulative experience that brings him closer to Nirvana. The characters in Cloud Atlas are having a similar cumulative experience, though it expands over centuries rather than one brief lifetime.
If Eternal Recurrence is considered only slightly in Sonmi~451’s interview, the scales are tipped to the theme of predation, because this novella deals with the idea more than other portions of Cloud Atlas. As we have discussed here, Sonmi~451 is by her very nature designed to be a slave, because for the government and citizens of Neo So Copros, “To enslave a clone is no more troubling than owning the latest six-wheeler ford, ethically.”
Just as Mitchell’s ideas on religion and its misuse are prescient, so are his thoughts on the rise of corporations. In Sonmi~451’s world, companies like McDonald’s, Sony and Ford rule the world – or what’s left of it. Those who are at the top of the heap financially own everything, and all laws and customs are put in place purely for the service of advancing corporate profits. Sonmi~451 recognizes the world’s evolution toward this point while she watches the Timothy Cavendish movie, noting, ““Corpocracy was emerging and social strata was demarked, based on dollars and, curiously, the quantity of melanin in one’s skin.”
Sonmi~451 also sees that the people in power enslave others through lack of knowledge, another keen observation. When she is given a device that allows her to read all kinds of books, novels, philosophy and histories, she says that she “[was] warned…never to let a pureblood catch me gathering knowledge, for the sight scares them, and there is nothing a scared pureblood will not do.” Sonmi~451 expands on this thought when she considers, “What if the differences between social strata stem not from genomics or inherent xcellence [sic] or even dollars, but merely differences in knowledge? Would this not mean the whole Pyramid is built on shifting sands?”
As with all of our stories, Sonmi~451 rises above the people who would enslave her. First, she does this by “ascending” and gaining more awareness and knowledge, and then by escaping and joining the cause of Union, which is rising up against Unanimity and the corpocracy. Readers of the book might wonder why, then, she is put to death and accepts her sentence with such grace. In fact, Sonmi~451 realizes that her entire arc has been carefully planned and arranged in a way that is intended to discourage anyone else who might consider following a similar path.
The archivist questions how her sacrifice could be considered a victory, and Sonmi~451 tells him, “All rising suns set, Archivist. Our corpocracy now smells of senility…“Why does any martyr cooperate with his judases? We see a game beyond the endgame…No matter how many of us you kill, you will never kill your successor.”
In fact, although her archivist is working in service of the government, we speculate whether her story hasn’t compelled him to try to change the world himself. Sonmi~451 tells us, “All revolutions are [fantasy, lunacy], until they happen, then they are historical inevitabilities.” Her death delivers her from slavery, and sets transformation in motion.
Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After
Whereas all of the previous stories were told in “written” format, Zachry’s story is simple: He is telling his tale to a group of children who surround him, listening in rapt attention. Set in a time well past Sonmi~451’s future, Zachry’s world is primitive, mainly because mankind has more or less consumed itself in exactly the ways that previous characters in the book have foretold. Only a few habitable locations remain.
The language in this particular section of the book is fascinating. The characters speak in a pidgin English that can be challenging and sometimes difficult to understand. The heavy reliance on dialect reminds me of Mark Twain, though the storytelling itself has a unique quality and feel to it. As with all of the other novellas, Mitchell fully inhabits his characters with a voice that is consistent and rings true.
We get to the smallest of the Russian dolls with this portion of the book, as Zachry’s people not only worship Sonmi~451, but he eventually sees her interview on a device (an orison) carried by Meronym. “Sloosha’s Crossin’” is the only novella that is told in full all in one sitting; from there, we go in reverse through the other stories until we reach the end, with Adam Ewing.
Zachry is an interesting character. He’s intensely likable, but deeply flawed. His story begins with an act of extreme cowardice, but like Sonmi~451, he thirsts for knowledge. As Meronym teaches him more about the outside world, his bravery increases, and he is eventually key in helping a society find a new home.
He’s also unique amongst the protagonists of the novel in that Zachry is not the character who has the comet birthmark. Instead, Meronym is revealed to have the birthmark, showing her to be the connection to the past.
Just as our protagonist is unique, so is our villain. Zachry’s constant fight is against Old Georgie, who is the equivalent of Satan. Old Georgie is constantly tempting Zachry to do the wrong thing, whether it is to hide when his family is being attacked or to kill Meronym because she is “deceiving” the Valleysmen. Although Zachry’s people believe in Old Georgie, he can actually be viewed as a manifestation of all Zachry’s worst qualities, his constant battle with himself between his higher purpose and his baser instincts. “Zachry the Cowardy, they said, you was born to be mine, see, why even fight me?” Old Georgie asks him.
Along with Old Georgie, we also have the larger evil in the form of the Kona, a violent tribe that mirrors the Maori in Adam Ewing’s story (while Zachry’s Valleysmen are similarly peace-loving as the Moriori). The Kona enslave people from the Valley, or kill them if they are too old to assimilate.
Religious questions continue throughout Zachry’s story. The Valleysmen worship Sonmi, praying to her and heeding her “word.” “Valleysmen only had one god an’ her name it was Sonmi…She lived ‘mongst us, minderin’ the Nine Folded Valleys.” Ultimately, her manifesto has made its way in some form to a people who follow her teachings. As a pacifist society, perhaps they are the ideal that Sonmi~451 might have hoped for.
On the opposite side of things is the aforementioned Old Georgie, who plays the role of the devil for Zachry’s people. He is believed to inhabit a mountain in the area, causing the people to be terrified of ascending it. This makes Zachry’s willingness to accompany Meronym to its peak all the more impressive, though he already believes himself to be cursed and therefore has nothing to lose.
As Zachry and Meronym talk, he learns not only that she and the other Prescients do not believe in Sonmi or Old Georgie, but a device she carries reveals Sonmi~451’s orison, proving to Zachry that she was a real person who may not match the idealized version the Valleysmen carry of her. Meronym tells him that she’s unconcerned about Old Georgie’s presence on the mountain as well, that she doesn’t even believe in him. Zachry is blown away by this possibility. What I particularly like about the treatment of religion in Zachry’s story is that we can see the inherent value both in Zachry’s point of view as well as Meronym’s. Zachry’s people lack science, but they have a strong moral core. Meronym and the Precients have an abundance of knowledge, and their code is uplifting and well-intentioned as well. No one is positioned as right or wrong here, and they can coexist peacefully.
As I mentioned before, the comet birthmark finds its final character in Meronym. Zachry describes his glimpse of it, saying, “Lady Moon lit a whoahsome wyrd birthmark jus’ b’low my friend’s shoulder blade as she sleeped fin’ly.” She completes the cycle, and she seems to embody all of the finest qualities of the characters throughout the tale.
Meronym is clearly not our only character who understands the concept of Eternal Recurrence, though. The Valleysmen’s religion carries it as a core belief, much like the worshippers of Siddhartha in Sonmi~451’s time. At one point, Zachry notes, “I glimpsed all the lifes my soul ever was till far-far back b’fore the Fall, yay, glimpsed from a gallopin’ horse in a hurrycane, but I cudn’t describe ‘em ‘cos there ain’t the words no more.”
By this point in the book, we’ve crossed from the oceans of the 19th century to the melodies of Belgium in the 1930s. We have journeyed through the 1970s up to present day, and into the future and beyond. Through all these ages, people have grown, have fought for their own rights and the rights of others, and as readers, we are part of the experience. “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 who the soul’ll be ‘morrow? Only Sonmi the east an’ the west an’ the compass an’ the atlas, yay, only the atlas o’ clouds.”
At the very beginning of Zachry’s tale, his family is preyed upon by the Kona. This struggle between the more innocent Valleysmen versus the violent, cannibalistic warriors prevails throughout the entire novella, culminating in the village being destroyed and Zachry being taken captive. Meronym rescues him and takes him with her and the the other Prescients to a better, safer world, one where knowledge is power, but hopefully that power will be used to great advantage rather than for persecution.
The ultimate predation, though, is man’s own mind working against his best interests, and Zachry embodies this problem perfectly. In the form of Old Georgie, he finds reasons to give in to the very worst parts of himself, and he struggles to fight these impulses. When he makes the wrong choices (hiding when his family is in danger, slitting the throat of the Kona warrior), the consequences are dire. When he powers through and goes with “the word of Sonmi”, he rises above. Eventually, Meronym shows him how to persevere, though not without warning about how the master/slave paradigm evolves. “Old Uns tripped their own fall… Old Uns’ Smart mastered sicks, miles, seeds an’ made miracles ord’nary, but it din’t master one thing, nay, a hunger in the hearts o’ humans, yay, a hunger for more.” Is that “hunger” humanity’s doom? As long as there are people like Adam Ewing, Autua, Robert Frobisher, Rufus Sixsmith, Luisa Rey, Timothy Cavendish, Sonmi~451, Zachry and Meronym in society, hope stays alive.
My second reading of Cloud Atlas was immensely rewarding, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed seeing other people come to the novel as the release of the film approached. I was involved in a discussion the other day regarding which portions of the book are our favorites, and I stated that mine is Robert Frobisher’s story, “Letters from Zedelghem.” Interestingly enough, having now seen the film from the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer, I found Timothy Cavendish to be the most enjoyable in that format. It’s given me a renewed appreciation for that character and the way his tale is revealed.
With regard to the movie, I found it somewhat unsatisfying, though I was expecting this to be the case. While I admire the ambition and creativity the creators embraced, I think it both failed and succeeded. Carrying over *so many* characters from setting to setting is unwieldy and confusing, and I can’t imagine that someone who hasn’t read the book would fully enjoy the experience. Also, while I do understand the need to change some plot points in the story, I was disappointed by some, including the decision to make Zachry much (much) older than the character was in the story. Meryonm being significantly older than Zachry (and all of the Valleysmen) is important. With that said, the author seems to be pleased with the film overall, so I have some trouble legitimizing my complaints.
During my re-reading of the book, my BOP compatriot Eric Hughes was reading Cloud Atlas for the first time. I really enjoyed seeing someone new to the novel enjoying it the way I did when I initially experienced the book. In his review of the book, he brought up the various means of communication employed throughout the book, and I found myself regretting that this was something I hadn’t considered more deeply. I may leave that for the next time I read the novel, as I’m sure I inevitably will.
Finally, I’ve enjoyed this process so much that I’m considering choosing another book at some point in the future and dissecting it in a similar manner. Perhaps BOP readers would like to get involved in a “Big Read” at some point. If so, please drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org and if there’s enough interest, we’ll see what we can get going, maybe as early as December 2012.
I’ve listed some “extras” below. Cloud Atlas is full of musical and literary allusions, several of which I’m sure I missed. If you know of any that you don’t see on the list, let me know and I’ll add them to the lists.
Cloud Atlas Music List
Air and Dance for Strings, by Frederick Delius
Blood on the Tracks, by Bob Dylan
Cloud Atlas I-VI, by Toshi Ichiyanagi
Tapestry, by Carole King
St François d'Assise: la prédication aux oiseaux, for piano, Franz Liszt
Capricci armonici sopra la chitarra spagnola, by Ludovico Roncalli
Trois Gnossiennes, by Erik Satie
Gnossiennes Nos. 4-7, by Erik Satie
Sonata in A Major K, No. 212, by Domenico Scarlatti
Sea Symphony, Ralph Vaughan Williams
Suggested Reading List
If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, Italo Calvino
Two Years Before the Mast, Richard Henry Dana Jr.
Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond
Siddhartha, Herman Hesse
The Odyssey, Homer
Wreck of the Hesperus, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Benito Cereno, Herman Melville
Moby Dick, Herman Melville
Typee, Herman Melville
Black Swan Green, David Mitchell
Ghostwritten, David Mitchell
number9dream, David Mitchell
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, David Mitchell
Thus Spake Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig
Une Saison en Enfer, Arthur Rimbaud
The Island of Dr. Moreau, HG Wells
Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman
The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Thornton Wilder