So, six stories nestled together, taking different forms and genres somewhat appropriate to their place and time: a mid-nineteenth century American notary's diaries as he travels through the Pacific; a post WWI musician/con artist's letters to his former lover; a novel set in 1960's California about a dangerous nuclear power center and the journalist who tries to take it down; a movie (or so it claims) about a 1990's British publisher on the run who finds himself trapped in a nursing home; a futuristic dystopian interview of a genetically modified slave a la 1984 and Brave NewWorld; and the oral tale of a man after the collapse of said dystopia who worships said slave and lives off the land, as one must in that time. As for the form of the novel, Mitchell explains it far better than I could hope to:
...an infinite matryoshka doll of painted moments, each "shell" (the present) encased inside a nest of "shells" (previous moments) I call the actual past but which we perceive as the virtual past. The doll of "now" likewise encases a nest of presents yet to be, which I call the actual future but which we perceive as the virtual future." (393)This is literally the form that the novel takes: the most futuristic/last story (the present) is located in the middle of the book, bookended by the other stories, each of which touches on the last and the next in some way.
A lot of reviews and summaries of Cloud Atlas claim that the main theme running through all of these stories is power; I argue that it is greed, often (but not always) represented as greed for power. However, there is also greed for money, sex, and just things in general. The government of the dystopia is a "corpocracy" focused on efficient production and enforced acquisition of mere things, while power is pursued by very few (and even fewer than it initially seems). Greed is shown to be the vein running through all of human existence, from pre-modern times to post. It is the element that motivates us to produce and advance and also the force that destroys us. It is not an accident that the two stories that are the most similar are the first (set farthest in the past) and the last (set farthest in the future. Human greed has made a loop that cancels all progress. In this, I think that Mitchell has identified a truth familiar to us all.
It was a little overdone though, and underdone too. Underdone, because not all of the stories were that great. The quality of the writing varied greatly and in his effort to imitate certain forms (e.g. the airport newsstand thriller), Mitchell sometimes did too good of a job - I was bored by the Luisa Rey mystery's predictability and didn't advance far beyond that. It was overdone because...well...see the paragraph I quoted earlier. In the second half of the book (and the second incarnation of each story), Mitchell explains his form and his themes in far more detail than was needed. I'd already figured out most of what he said and it feels a little desperate to have the author explain his own work to me. In this, and also in the form of overlapping, interrupted stories, it reminded me a lot of If on a winter's night a traveler by Italo Calvino. I think that this was probably an intentional homage but also just a quality of post-modernism, which I'm not all that familiar with (though I have tried to understand). It's fun and quirky but feels a little empty in the end. I guess it's supposed to be ironic (maybe?) but as a lover of stories and rich writing, it falls a little short. An interesting form can't take the place of all the other elements that make a story great.