Review: Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

For the first time I ever known in my entire reading life, a movie I’ve never even seen spoiled a book for me.

I didn’t know there was a book about Cloud Atlas until trailers for the movie came out, and even then, I hadn’t paid attention until people in my facebook stream started complaining about the yellowface, and then other people started defending the yellowface, and then more people said they hated the yellowface but understood why it was there, and that the whole issue of reincarnation muddied up the works, and meanwhile, I was like, “Wait..What the heck are you talking about about? What’s Cloud Atlas?” And everyone was like “Get it together, LaShawn. Go read the book.”

And so I did, because, hey, controversial movie, yadda yadda yadda.

Cloud Atlas is six short stories that span from the 1800s to the far off future. Each story has a reoccurring element–a person with a tattoo, a cowardly, stupid jerk, a chase or some sort of pursuit, and mentions of the previous story appearing in some type of form: journal, letter, book, etc. Each story also had a unique voice, which, in several stories, made it very hard to read. In fact, the Sloosha story was so unreadable with its futuristic native slang and apostrophes, I pretty much skimmed through the entire thing without reading it through. Which was a shame, because I would have loved to read it more indepth once I realized it was a far futuristic time setting, but I just couldn’t get a handle on it. It also didn’t help that I was reading a “borrowed” ebook from Overdrive and I only had a 14 day window to read it–which sucked because instead of savoring it like I should have, I was under a time constraint.)

If I had discovered this book back in 2004 when it was published, I suspect Cloud Atlas would’ve blown my mind. And indeed, I loved the exploration of the privilege/unprivileged motifs, though the juxtaposition of the stories made the exploration a little odd sometimes. A bigoted coward unwillingly helping a slave, okay, I get it, but how does a young composer sponging off an older man compare to that? I think the author was exploring oppressed/freedom motif in all aspects, and in a couple of the stories, it felt like he was really stretching to hold on to that motif. The best stories that reflected it well was the Adam Ewing story (though it was hard to read because the Ewing was such a bigot, he made my skin crawl), the Luisa Rey story, and the Sonmi-451 story. In fact, I would have said that the Somni story was the best one in the entire book, but I can’t.

You see, the reason why I picked Cloud Atlas was because of the controversy of the actors appearing in yellowface in the movie. I wanted to know what justified them to do so. There are many good websites out there dissecting why it didn’t work in the movie. Suffice it to say, I’ve seen the pictures. So when I started reading Somni’s section, all I could see in my mind’s eye was the white men in Korean makeup. I tried to change it, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t come up with my own picture of the characters. And it absolutely did not help that the ebook I was reading had the cover of all the actors right there.

It spoiled the story for me.

I wish I never knew about the movie. I know that the movie was supposed to be about reincarnation and characters transcending race, but that’s not what the book was about. The book was about how powerful people use their privilege to keep back people without power. The book is about how such privilege is abused, and how it goes deep: culturally, ethnically, racially. The movie took that and said, “yeah, screw that. It’s going to be what we want it to be. And we want all our main white characters to appear in all the stories. And to make sure we won’t get yelled at, we’ll do the same for our only two POC women. But the black guy? Nah, let’s just keep him in only a couple of stories. It’ll be too hard to put makeup on him in a different race.”

(And wait a second…isn’t the first story set it in the Pacific Islands? Why did they change it to black slaves then? Arrrrghhh…)

Understandably, I’m bitter.

But, really, what did I think of the book? It was okay. Not spectacular. There were times when I found the meta a little too grating for my tastes (but then again, some meta works for me and some meta don’t). I was reminded of my favorite short story Lull, by Kelly Link, who does a similar thing of a story within a story within a story, but she does it far better, in my opinion. I found the splitting of the stories in Cloud Atlas jarring–at times, I wondered if my ebook had loaded wrong. It wasn’t until I realized the characters were reading the previous story that the breaks were intentional (and this was one of the ways the meta failed). Also, I didn’t really empathize with the characters all that much. Adam Ewing was a bigot, Robert Frobisher was a leech, Luisa Rey was an idiot, and Timothy Cavendish was a jerk–though, to my complete surprise, I enjoyed his story the most. His was the only character who truly stood out, and though he was a jerk, his comeuppance, and his subsequent turnabout, was quite satisfying. The Somni and Sloosha stories…well…I think what I’ll do is wait a few years and try to read Cloud Atlas again without the movie cover on it, so I can form my own opinion.

So this gets 2-1/2 comet birthmarks out of 5. I’m pretty sure I’m not going to see the movie, but it feels like I’ve already have.

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The End of the Free Duotrope Era

Last Saturday, I returned from another zombie outing with my son to learn that Duotrope will be doing what they’ve been warning us would happen: as of January 1, 2013, Duotrope will be a paid site. Writers up and down the nets have been having their say about it, so what the heck, I’ll do so too.

I use Duotrope. Perhaps not as much as when I was a new writer, but what drew me to Duotrope was the saved search function. I could plug in genre, style, wordcount, for any written piece I wanted to submit and get a customized list of markets. Just recently I got the hang of the feature where you can run a search and exclude markets you’ve already submitted to. I found that pretty neat. I also made use of the submission tracker, which served more as a backup for me since I also keep track of my submissions through Outlook, which I have written about in an earlier post (I have since upgraded to Outlook 2007 and added a few more custom fields, like keeping track of previous markets I’ve submitted to). I mainly used Duotrope’s tracker so I could add my submission statistics to the response time reports.

But all that’s going away…or rather, as of 1/1/2013, we’ll now have to start paying for saved searches, submission tracking, the control panel, the deadline calendar, response statistics, etc. A lot of people are decrying that, saying Duotrope is charging too much per year, that limiting the response tracker will skew statistics, etc and so forth.

Me? I’m more like meh.

Since I’ve been focusing more on my novel, I haven’t been on the site all that much. I also know the market field much better now, so that I have a running list in my head of places I could send my subs to. The only time when I go on Duotrope is when I’ve exhausted those places or to see if a market is temporarily closed. I get my new market news and editor info off Twitter and other sources, I use the deadline calendar sparingly, and I don’t use the response statistics at all. And I’ll go back to using Outlook as a submission tracker. It’s probably better this way–I won’t be recording the same information in two different places.

This is not to say I won’t miss Duotrope. I think it’s a fantastic service. Personally, I think it’s ridiculous to spend $50/year on the site. If it was $20 or even $30/year, I would subscribe with no hesitation. But I’ve reached the point in my writing career where I can survive without Duotrope.

What I feel bad for are new writers. They will be the ones who would benefit from Duotrope the most, and there’s a good chance they won’t be able to afford it. Used to be, I’d suggest Duotrope as the only go-to source for market information. In 2013, I don’t think I’ll be able to do that. I can’t justify telling them to spend $50 a year on the service. 6 months, maybe, but not a full year.  Then again, Duotrope isn’t the only one giving market info. Ralan.com is still free, comes with a free monthly newsletter and can be found on Facebook. And there are tons of info on Twitter. For response times, The Black Hole at Critters.org is, surprisingly, still around, so I can report reponse times there.

Edit: Since I wrote this, a new website has opened up that looks to be serious competition for Duotrope. The Submission Grinder includes many features that Duotrope has:–a strong search engine, the ability to do submission tracking– and some features Duotrope doesn’t have, like graphs. I’ve been very impressed with the site; it’s still pretty new, so try it out.

I’ve seen some people suggest a tiered payment option where they pay for certain features like only saved searches, and I agree. The way Duotrope has things now, there’s hardly anything left free to entice new writers to pay up, and there’s nothing to keep those who are familiar with the service from staying.

With that said, though, I’m not writing off Duotrope entirely. Ferrett Steinmetz goes into more detail about this with his post “A Failure of Duotrope,  A Failure of Their Audience: Thoughts by Someone Who’s Been There”:

The lesson in this is, “If you use a service that you like, and they’re asking you to pay for it, pay them.”  Doesn’t have to be much.  Like I said, if all you can afford is $5, then pay them $5.  If you’re flat broke and would pay them if you could, well, I’ll count those intentions as good.  But the world does not run on free labor, and at some point labors of love fail to pay for the labors of the stomach.

In the future, to avoid this sort of thing, give when you can.  Stop assuming that “free” means “a buffet for you” and start thinking, “How can I reward these people for their work?”  Maybe you pay it back by volunteering at their site, or telling about it to all your rich friends, or whatever.  But stop dining and dashing, and start helping the world be a better place by rewarding those who do good things.

This is very, very true. Duotrope was indeed a site I liked so much, I contributed to it. Several times. It wasn’t much, but I felt that it was a worthwhile service. And there’s a very good chance that I would do the same thing again down the road–pay $5 to gather some good searches, and then let the subscription lapse for several months. Duotrope did say that information will be kept on file (though I don’t know how intermittent usage work with response time statistics–probably not so well, I’m guessing).

So if you want to pay for Duotrope, go ahead and do so. Granted, the way they dropped this news reminded me of the Netflix fiasco earlier this year, but it’s still a good site. And if you wish to get an annual subscription, by all means, do so. And if you don’t, try some of the other free sites above. Keep track of your subs in a spreadsheet.

Heck, we’re writers. We’re supposed to be creative about such things.