THR Web Features   /   December 29, 2023

Taking the Long View

Looking backward (and forward) in historical fiction.

Richard Hughes Gibson

( THR illustration (Bonki Studio/Shutterstock).)

Soon I was taking an interest in medieval life in general. And I began to get a picture of how the building of the great cathedrals must have seemed like the right thing to do for medieval people.

The explanation is not simple. It is a little like trying to understand why twentieth-century people spent so much money exploring outer space. In both cases, a whole network of influences operated: scientific curiosity, commercial interests, political rivalries, and spiritual aspirations of earthbound people. And it seemed to me there was only one way to map that network: by writing a novel.

Ken Follett, Preface, Pillars of the Earth (1999)


Do servers—unascended servers, I mean—never wonder about life outside your dome, or did you believe your dinery was the whole cosmos?

Oh, our intelligence is not so crude that we cannot conceive of an outside. Remember, at Matins, Papa Song shows us pictures of  Xultation and Hawaii, and AdV instreams images of a cosmology beyond our servery. Moreover, we know both diners and the food we serve comes from a place not in the dome. But it is true, we rarely wonder about life on the surface. Additionally, Soap contains amnesiads designed to deaden curiosity.

What about your sense of time? Of the future?

Papa Song announces the passing hours to the diners, so I noticed the time of day, dimly, yes. Also we were aware of passing years by annual stars added to our collars, and by the Star Sermon on New Year’s Matins. We had only one long-term future: Xultation.

David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas (2004)

To much fanfare a few months back, Ken Follett released Armor of Light, the fifth and final “Kingsbridge” novel, a series of historical fictions that trace the history of a cathedral town from the Anglo-Saxon period to the Industrial Revolution. Before the publication of the first installment, the bestseller Pillars of the Earth (1989), Follett’s bread and butter had been the spy thriller. But as he explains in a preface added to Pillars in 1999, the writer had developed a fascination with cathedrals in his twenties, and so for years prior to the novel’s debut had been paying homage to England’s old churches in his free time: “Most people take an hour or two to ‘do’ a cathedral, but I like to have a couple of days.”

These experiences raised a question—“Why were these churches built?”—for which the obvious answers, as monuments to divinity and/or human vanity, appeared insufficient. So down the rabbit hole Follett went: Visits to cathedrals led to reading their histories, and then he grew interested in the churches’ groundling builders, and those inquiries drew him to the wider topic of medieval technology, and so on. At last, as he indicates in the excerpt above, he “began to get a picture of how the building of the great cathedrals must have seemed like the right thing to do for medieval people.” A cathedral, he could now see, has no simple explanation; it was the product of a “network of influences,” including “scientific curiosity, commercial interests, political rivalries, and spiritual aspirations.” The first extract is underwritten by the traditional creed of historical fiction. It is a genre resting on two foundational beliefs: that the past is truly different from the present, and that the writer can, through long study and the powers of the imagination, bridge the gap. The historical novel, as Follett suggests, strives to recreate not only the material dimensions of a past age but also its mindset.

The identity of the genre’s originator, and thus the creed’s first confessor, remains a matter of debate, but the unquestionable breakthrough occurred with the publication of Walter Scott’s Waverley; or, ’Tis Sixty Years Since (1814), one the best bestsellers of the novel-mad nineteenth century. Like Follett, Scott sought in this and his subsequent historical novels (all marketed as “Waverley novels”) to “map the network” of other ages’ influences. In his critical classic The Historical Novel, Georg Lukács argued that Scott’s predecessors dealt with history as “mere costumery,” as if writing the past entailed no more than slipping modern people into antique apparel. Scott understood that the past was a foreign country because he’d spent considerable time unearthing it. An antiquarian, he sought out old piles in his leisure hours with the same zeal as Follett so many generations later. He collected ancient coins, weapons, and curios. Scott was drawn, too, to old words, assembling a landmark anthology of medieval “border ballads” that was published a decade before the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales. (“He had entered literature by the ruined gateway of archeology,” a nineteenth-century editor observed.) In Scott’s novels, Lukács saw a new thing afoot: “the derivation of the individuality of characters from the historical particularity of their age.” The historical novel pioneered by Scott, and continued by spiritual descendants like Follett, would explore the past from an insider’s point of view.

The source of our second extract begins in that vein. The opening section of Cloud Atlas consists of entries from the mid-nineteenth-century journal of an American attorney, one Adam Ewing, who has been sent by business to the Chatham Islands. The acknowledgments at the front of the book attest that Mitchell did his homework to write this section, visiting the South Pacific and researching the history of the indigenous people of the Chathams, the Moriori, whose decimation by whites and their Pacific neighbors Ewing’s journal records. Here’s a sample: “All these misfortunes the Moriori might have endured, however, were it not for reports arriving in New Zealand depicting the Chathams as a veritable Canaan of eel-stuffed lagoons, shellfish-carpeted coves & inhabitants who understand neither combat nor weapons.” The sentence is an effective imitation of the era’s prose rhythms, but the real achievement is Ewing’s Biblical allusion to Canaan, the land flowing with milk and honey. Those flavors, he suggests and assumes his reader will immediately grasp, are all too tempting to the Maori of New Zealand, who (as the passage goes on to explain) soon thereafter arrived as fearsome conquerors. Nearly every sentence of the journal is marked by such care not to break character, with the result that Mitchell overcomes what the critic John Bowen judges “the greatest difficulty of writing historical fiction”: “creating a flexible yet authentic historical idiom” for the period in question.

Yet we only stay with “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing” for roughly forty pages before it cuts off mid-sentence. Then a new section begins, “Letters from Zetelghem,” which shifts us both in time (1931) and location (Belgium). Language shifts conspicuously too: “Dreamt I stood in a china shop,” the new section begins, “so crowded from floor to far-off ceiling with shelves of porcelain antiquities etc. that moving a muscle would cause several to fall and smash to bits.” This section, the correspondence of a broke music student to his lover in Britain, also cuts off inconclusively. The third section, set in 1975 California, and the fourth, occurring in contemporary England, likewise locate themselves in time through not only period furniture but also period diction and syntax. Because these stories are unfinished as well, and the seams connecting them highly ambiguous, the experience is disorienting. Where is Mitchell going with this?

The novel’s answer is, from the perspective of historical fiction, unorthodox: the future. That is what is on view in the second extract, which occurs in a not-too distant future in which humans still get around town in cars, visit fast food joints (like Papa Song’s), and send wealthy kids to university. The big change is in science: Human cloning has reached industrial scale, producing small armies of service workers that liberate “purebloods” to focus on the consumption economy. The section in question recounts the interview between Sonmi-451, a clone who has achieved full consciousness (“ascension”), and a state archivist in the wake of the clone’s arrest for rebellion against the “corporacy” (i.e., rule by the corporations) that governs Nea So Copros (“New East Asian Sphere of Co-Prosperity”). Cloud Atlas’s future, then, is not the self-congratulatory one of Star Trek in which humans have sloughed off the barbarism of their ancestors in order to zip around space, the final frontier. Mitchell’s future is a dystopian one along the lines of Orwell and Huxley in which technological prowess only magnifies humanity’s worst sides, above all the arts of cruelty and deceit. In one of the book’s most brilliant jokes, Sonmi, plowing her way through her age’s great books curriculum, encounters “two Optimists translated from the Late English, Orwell and Huxley.” In other words, for the intellectuals of this age, our dystopian prophets look like visionaries.

Cloud Atlas thus looks backward and forward, effectively fusing the operations of Waverley; or, ’Tis Sixty Years Since and H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895). Mitchell carries the antiquarian’s fascination with linguistic change into the future, imagining how language might warp under the pressure of a consumerist brand of totalitarianism. Visually, the most prominent change in Sonmi and the Archivist’s speech is the orthographic change whereby e’s drop off the front of words that previously began “ex” (“Xultation,” “xec,” “xit,” “xpensive”), but as the section progresses a more insidious trend develops. Proprietary eponymy—the process whereby brand names become a general category marker (“Coke” for “soda,” “Kleenex” for “paper tissue”)—has run riot in this world. Cars are “fords” (and traffic jams “fordjams”), photos are “nikons,” movies “disneys,” tablet computers “sonys,” shoes “nikes” (including boots, “icenikes). Consumerism permeates all discourse, assuming its most insidious form in the eschatology Sonmi recounts in which Papa Song, a hybrid of Ronald McDonald and Big Brother, promises his clone workers Xultation on Hawaii once his “investment” in them has been repaid by twelve years of slave labor (a banned term in Nea So Copros) in his “servery.” It almost goes without saying that clones are not, ultimately, Xulted but xecuted, their tissues then xtracted, Upton-Sinclair-style, for culinary reapplication.

In Waverley’s postscript (“which,” the author added, “should have been a preface”), Scott explained that the novel grew out of his recognition that “there is no European nation which, within the course of half a century or little more, has undergone so complete a change as this kingdom of Scotland.” Change—social, political, economic—was the deeper subject of his historical fiction, particularly the sort of change that occurs so gradually that we fail to perceive it happening: “like those who drift down the stream of a deep and smooth river, we are not aware of the progress we have made until we fix our eye on the now distant point from which we have been drifted.” Notice the word “progress”: As Scott surveyed the eighteenth century, he had no doubt that the river of history was flowing in the right direction, though he (and his readers) took pleasure in lamenting the old ways that had been lost along the way.

Cloud Atlas has no such confidence in the course of history. This belief, or better said, lack of belief, is instantiated in the form of the novel, whose furthest venture into the future—a post-apocalyptic Hawaii described by a voice that sounds like a debased Huck Finn—appears in the middle of the novel; from that point, Mitchell returns, section by section, to the lives traced earlier. The form raises the question, “Have we gotten anywhere?” Ewing, resident of Scott’s century, gets the last word, and it is a word of admonishment: “one fine day, a purely predatory world shall consume itself.” Under Mitchell’s management, the historical novel’s traditional function—to recollect earlier ages on their own terms—has been impressed within a wider exploration of the perverse tendencies in human nature that surface in increasingly destructive forms over time. In effect, Cloud Atlas is A Christmas Carol—with its ghosts of past, present, and future—for the human race.