After having finished Cloud Atlas (both book and movie), I'm left with a rather perplexing question.

It is lightly implied in the book that almost none of it was actually happening to real people. The only bit that seemed genuine was Zackry's telling of events.

For example,

Adam Ewing's journal was being read by Robert Frobisher, whose letters were being read by Luisa Rey; Luisa Rey's story was, well, a story. A novel, to be exact, being read by one Timothy Cavendish... in a movie, being watched by Sonmi-451. Sonmi's Orison, which was found and viewed by Zackry, could imply that both her and Zackry's stories actually did take place in the grand scheme of things.

So... Just how much of the story was real?


3 Answers 3


In the movie

I am sure that it's intended to be all real; I don't remember anything that directly contradicts this interpretation.

While each main character reads or sees a story about the previous one (and is influenced by it, which is supposed to be the main point of it all), what we as audience see is what actually happened.

This distinction is pretty clear in the movie about Cavendish that Sonmi sees: the movie is cheesily dramatized, but different from what the audience is shown - there's even a direct cut between the two versions.

The only element that is a bit dubious is the birthmark shared by all the main characters, but I'd say that's too weak to conclude Zachary made it all up, especially since the other stories contain too many elements completely outside his sphere of experience.

In the book

It's a lot more complex here. There are at least two factors that contradict the straightforward interpretation:

  • Vyvyan Ayrs mentions a dream he had, which is a pretty detailed description of Sonmi's working environment at Papa Song's. To accept that in-universe would require some sort of prescience.
  • Unlike the movie, Luisa Rey's story ends with the conspiracy being exposed to the public and the president of the USA vowing to have it fully investigated. It's also a bigger scandal, with multiple murders and the involvement of a top-level politician. My point is that it's so big that Cavendish would have heard of it and couldn't accept the story as simple fiction (but that's what he does).

But I don't think the correct conclusion is that certain parts of the story are in-universe fiction and the others "real". There are too many cross-connections between the stories (Luisa Rey sees the actual ship Ewing travelled on, Meronym mentions Buenas Yerbas and even Swanneke, Cavendish mishears a taxi driver saying "exactly" as "Zachary", etc.). The biggest hint is Frobisher's description of the structure of his Cloud Atlas Sextet: it actually matches exactly the structure of the novel we're reading.

It's, of course, all fiction - one big story about people living at different times, but interconnected in various ways, not just through simple causality.

  • Just because there are two versions of a fiction doesn't mean one is real. Cloud Atlas itself comes in two very different versions. Jan 18, 2013 at 18:52
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    @DJClayworth: well, when one version is explicitly designated as fictional, and the other, different one is shown in great detail with no hints that it's not real, then I'm willing to accept it at face value. Of course, in reality all of it is fictional. But it doesn't seem to be fiction with the unreliability of narration as its central theme à la Rashomon. Jan 18, 2013 at 22:23
  • The book makes it clear that at least one part of it is definitely NOT real (spoilers prevent me from saying more). And that's not counting The First Luisa Rey Mystery, which is portrayed as a novel. Jan 21, 2013 at 18:45
  • @DJClayworth: well, I have just started reading the book so I can't say much about it, but my answer is explicitly about the movie, and there I see no reason not to assume that what we see is real, though the texts/films that connect each time period's events with the next may be fiction and not 100% faithful to reality. Jan 24, 2013 at 0:21
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    @DJClayworth: I've expanded my answer after finishing the novel. But I'm still not sure what part you think is "definitely NOT real" and why. Can you add an explanation to yours? Site policy is that spoilers are fine as long as you use the special quoting mechanims that hides them until mouseover, as in the question. You use it by putting >! before the text containing spoilers. Feb 2, 2013 at 13:25

I don't know of any definitive statement by David Mitchell or anyone else answering this. However there are some hints in the book that might indicate that it is not necessarily intended to be real. The main one is the Mitchell himself talks a lot about "the power of fiction to influence events"; I would wager that at the very least it is intended to be ambiguous, and that our inability to be certain as to what is real and what is story is part of the point. There are some specific hints in the book (not so many in the movie) that all is not as real as it might seem:

  • Frobisher says that he is unsure as to whether the journals of Adam Ewing are fact or fiction
  • Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery is not just portrayed as a novel, but as a novel submitted for publication in the 21st Century. It isn't even claimed that it was written in the time period it portrays (though it might be).
  • Statements made at the end of The Orison of Sonmi 451, which I won't go into in case of spoilers
  • A close reading will reveal that in the book the teller of Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After isn't Zackry, but one of his descendants.

Of course that leaves us with questions like: If The Pacific Journals of Adam Ewing is a book mentioned in fictional letters which are part of a novel, why do they exist and why can we read them?

The movie plays this ambiguity down compared with the book.


I just finished reading David Mitchell's Ghostwritten where some Cloud Atlas characters make a cameo. If the events in that novel can be considered as real then I would think all of the stories in Cloud Atlas are also real. The exact reason: (Ghostwritten spoilers follow)

Luisa Rey, she is the main connection given that if the story in the novel Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery is real, then Letters from Zedelghem is real and so (well, most likely) is The Pacific Journals of Adam Ewing. In Ghostwritten we find a Luisa Rey (possibly on her sixties) who is known to be (now) a writer, she humbly says she had two minor successes, the latest been The Hermitage described by Bat, the radio DJ, as "a true-crime psychological exposé" which of course leads us to speculate that her first novel of the same nature was, indeed, Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery. The second fact taken from Ghostwritten that gives evidence of Luisa Rey being real is Marco's storyline, where he saves a woman from a car accident and later we learn that he works as a ghostwriter for, surprise surprise, (a younger) Timothy Cavendish. The woman Marco saved is Mo, the physicist who will eventually create "the zookeeper" and it is "the zookeeper" who will later constantly call Bat, the very same DJ that Luisa Rey was chatting with. In short: Luisa did experience the events in Swanekke island, wrote a novel about it and then submitted it to Timothy Cavendish as hinted in the movie ("This would make a great book!" -"I'll drink to that"). This would possibly disprove the theory that the comet indicates the same soul in another body given that Timothy cannot be reincarnation of Luisa, but that's another matter.

Hope this gives more light on the topic, I would gladly like to compare theories.

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