Desktop version

Home arrow Political science

  • Increase font
  • Decrease font

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Planetary Futures

There is no memory of the global past. But there is an imagination of a globally shared collective future [... ] It is the future, not the past, which “integrates” the cosmopolitan age (Beck 2002b: 27).

The palindromic narrative structure ensures the novel places a strong emphasis on the anticipatory ties between the past, present and future. Significantly, imperialism’s destructive traits re-emerge in the novel’s subsequent future-oriented chapters under the guise of globalisation. The dystopian futuristic metropolis of Nea So Copros, a twenty-second century vision of Korea, in the fifth chapter ‘An Orison of Somni~451’, denies Adam’s hopeful belief in the eventual emergence of a progressive republic. The metropolis of Nea So Copros operates under the oppressive hold of an ideologically repellent state, which worships at the altar of global capitalism and selfish individualism, celebrating the ascendency of corpoc- racy over ethical sustainability. Existing as an antithetical vision of cosmopolitan democracy, the state ignores and discounts the rights and beliefs of its social members in favour of adherence to market forces. The uncapitalisation of corporate names in the chapter indicates that consumer products have attained such dominance that they have been woven into the fabric of the nation’s language. The chapter’s pre-apocalyptic dystopian future evokes the worst recesses ofpostmodern fears, portraying an overtly capitalist and morally bankrupt environment where heterogeneity is subsumed and marginalised by an omnipotent, homogenising culture.

The narrative concerns an interview between an archivist and a posthuman fabricant named Somni~451, who has developed a sentient mental state. The interview is recorded on an orison (a technological device often found in cyber-punk texts) that will contain the individual subjectivity of Somni in the form of computer memory. Somni’s narrative tells of her initial subjugation in Papa Song’s, a fast-food restaurant where fabricant clones are required to spend twelve years serving customers. The fabri- cants’ servitude and inequality in Papa Song’s is based on unethical laws or ‘Catechisms’; the parallels with Adam’s chapter are manifold. In teaching that abolitionism is a dangerous dogma, Papa Song’s ensures the fabri- cants experience the same brutal oppression as the Moriori tribe, treated as little more than slaves by pureblood humans. Somni’s willing servitude is shaken when an ethical anti-corporate faction, named Union, become aware of Somni’s evolving sentient state and extricate her to their Unanimity Faculty.12 Union reveal that rather than completing their period of servitude at Papa Song’s (and retiring to a utopian Hawaii where servers travel upon a golden ark), fabricants are actually transported to a slaughterhouse to be destroyed and recycled into soap or Papa Song food products. The golden ark itself is revealed as nothing more than a manufactured simulacrum; the very soap the servers imbibe, preventing the servers from questioning their socio-cultural servitude, is thus a form ofself-cannibalisation. To combat this corporate predacity, Union intends to ennoble and elevate six million fabricants to a sentient state to establish ethical forms of posthuman equality; by resisting corpocracy, Somni functions as an emissary to enable the fabricants to mobilise themselves as posthuman revolutionary citizens. As Beck identifies, cultural resistance is often directly responsible for transforming ‘the anti-globalisation movement into the motor of cosmopolitanism’ (2006: 118). The unethical practices of Papa Song are the first step towards Somni developing her own ethical resistance against the worst excesses of neoliberal capitalism.

Following the infiltration of Unanimity by the state (and due to her subsequent questioning of both the legitimacy of the fabricant world and the inequality between servers and purebloods), Somni retreats to a microcommune with other citizens who have retreated from a life of enforced hyper-commodification. Life on the commune, which offers hospitality to both human and posthuman subjects alike, symbolically rejects the unethical practices of technological corporacy, points towards more ethically- sustainable forms of community, and teaches Somni to appreciate the value of equality to future institutional structures (as opposed to the politics of enforced subservience). The Abbess, the leader of the commune, further emphasises that Nea So Copros is ‘poisoning itself to death. Its soil is polluted, its rivers lifeless, its air toxloaded’ (341). The chapter therefore offers a bleak vision of contemporary fears regarding ecological exploitation. As N. Ahmed notes, ecological sustainability is intimately tied to globalising processes as ‘humanity faces an unprecedented opportunity to create a civilisational form that is in harmony with our environment, and ourselves’; because ‘our demand for ecological resources and services is increasingly going beyond what the planet is able to provide’, existing systems are proven to be unsustainable and create a series of global crises (2014: n.pag.).

The concluding half of Somni’s futuristic narrative envisions the logical end-point of this interrelation between ecological destruction and rampant neoliberalism, as both humans and posthumans are reduced to mere commodities whose identities are subsumed by technological domination. The opposing forces of the grassroots rebellion and the techno-capitalist Nea So Copros offer a direct analogy of the contemporary global struggle between ethical environmentalism and corporate predacity. In positioning Somni as integral to the dismantlement of Nea So Copros, Mitchell imbues posthuman ethical agency with a cosmopolitan responsibility, namely a form of ecological cosmopolitanism that suggests a harmonious environmental symbiosis founded on the equality of all life, be it human or posthuman. Despite her fabricant identity, Somni possesses the comet-shaped birthmark of the previous narrators in the novel, marking her as their posthuman descendant and vitally connecting her to the global multitude of the novel. In moving beyond the traditional segregation between human and posthuman (so common to works of science-fiction), Somni’s chapters gesture towards future planetary citizenship and a rejection of corporate control or national forms of belonging. By indicating the ethical similarities between natural and artificially created life, the chapter assumes a strong stance towards new and emerging forms of cultural diversity.

Once settled within the safe haven of her micro-commune, Somni pens a written treatise named ‘Declarations’; the treatise serves as an ethical manifesto that calls into question institutional structures and systems that facilitate cultural and posthuman oppression. More importantly, the treatise reveals that literary texts possess an emancipatory function in promoting cross-cultural dialogues and nurturing the diffusion of cosmopolitan ethics. And yet, the second half of the narrative reveals a double twist: Somni admits her confessional interview consists of nothing more than scripted events. The anti-corporate faction of Union itself is merely designed to keep an eye on revolutionary activity and ensure purebloods mistrust fabricants, while covertly functioning as a convenient enemy for the hierarchical state in order to sustain its social order. Somni, however, acquiesces with Union because she perceives a deeper purpose, namely the publication of her Declarations, which may lead to some future un-fabricated revolution (free of postmodern parody or simulated reality). The memorial artefact of Somni’s orison, containing her Declarations, serves as a rejection of her complicity with the state’s cultural policies and sparks an unforeseen revolution that brings into question the very nature of technocapitalist ideology. The narrative thus subverts the popular contention that history is written by the victors as Somni’s Declarations destabilise the unethical practices of the state. Through Somni’s ethical treatise, Mitchell envisions an answer to Skrbis and Woodward’s query of whether ‘non-human entities possess, and even convey, the seeds of cosmopolitan bonds’, subverting the practice of cosmopolitan ethics from a posthuman perspective (2013: 9).

The treatise, with its promotion of post-materialist ethics, offers ‘a rival model for life outside corpocratic ideology’ and falls in line with calls for more ethically-sustainable environmental futures (349). Crucially, however, Mitchell avoids positioning the micro-commune as a ‘bucolic Utopia [... ] the colonists bicker and grieve as people will. But they do it in a community. Nea So Copros has no communities; it only has the state’ (347). As an ‘other’, Somni is not oppositional and threatening, but rather (like Autua before her) becomes an ethical model for both human and posthuman futures, blending the natural with the technological, and indicating that ethical agency once again offers the means to escape humanity’s entropic cyclicality. Despite Somni’s involvement in the development of grassroots structures which exert a subversive influence on dominant power systems, egalitarian or democratic forms of governance fail to emerge in her chapter. Nevertheless, Somni’s rebellion and written treatise operate against the global force of corporate commodification, indicate an escape route away from the rampant force of cultural commodification and demonstrate how ethical agency at the individual level has the power to destabilise global systems. By imagining new configurations by which society may overcome cultural disconnection and forms of oppression, Mitchell develops a novel form of posthuman cosmopolitanism that is beyond the scope of this study.

‘Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After’, the only uninterrupted chapter in Cloud Atlas, details the post-apocalyptic future of ‘An Orison of Somni~451’. The narrative follows the life of Zachry, a goat herder, as he reminisces about the nuclear catastrophe that destabilised civilisation, and how his ancestors relocated to Big I on Ha-Why, a bleak vision of post-apocalyptic Hawaii. Humanity’s regression to a primitive state ensures Zachry’s tribe do not possess the means to escape from their island environment - their isolated locality becomes their own microcosmic world and global catastrophe resets human progress to a default position. Nevertheless, Zachry’s island is not an Eden of new beginnings; Zachry’s peaceful tribe, the Valleymen, is engaged in territorial warfare with the Kona, a violent tribe of cannibalistic warriors. The Valleymen attempt to echo the ethical environmentalism implemented by Somni’s micro-commune, becoming self-sufficient and promoting sustainable practices, evident in their trade dealings with the Prescients, a technologically-advanced tribe that traverses the post-Fall globe searching for inhabitable territory. Zachry’s tribe play host to a member of the Prescients, Meronym, who spends a year on Big I in order to learn new customs and cultural practices, engaging in a form of post-apocalyptic cosmopolitanism that differentiates the novel from traditional dystopian literature. Meronym acts as a cultural ethnographer, charting the history of the tribe, while also educating the Valleymen on healthcare as well as wider global events including the reasons behind the Fall: ‘human hunger birthed the Civ’lize, but human hunger killed it too’ (286). Meronym is not the typical coloniser espousing a faux-cosmopolitan outlook, but actively engages with Zachry’s community to ensure human progress, positioning her as the ethical counterpoint to humanity’s predisposition towards cyclical entropy.13 Further, Meronym singularly voices Mitchell’s more cosmopolitan hopes for the future through a strong belief in forgiveness and cultural acceptance: ‘[s]ome savages what I knowed got a beautsome Civ’lized heart beatin’ in their ribs. Maybe some Kona [... ] who knows one day? One day’ (319). Zachry’s decision to be hospitable to Meronym, abandoning his early fear that she was operating as a foreign spy, symbolises a rejection of humanity’s cyclical predatory past and indicates a potential movement towards human progress and cultural openness, foregrounding cosmopolitan interconnection over postmodern dissolution.

Nonetheless, the chapter indicates that Somni’s proposed desire for a harmonious form of planetary citizenship has not come to fruition. Zachry’s narrative exhibits the cyclical re-emergence of tribes and nations, reminiscent of Adam Ewing’s nineteenth-century journal. That being said, Somni’s Declarations were evidently successfully implemented at some stage in history; the Valleymen consider her to be their only benevolent and compassionate deity. A belief in the interconnection of transmigatory souls has also survived the apocalypse - Meronym shares Somni’s comet-shaped birthmark (along with the protagonists of the previous five chapters). Ironically, Meronym herself is unaware of this connection, despite possessing Somni’s orison, believing that ‘when you die you die an’ there ain’t no comin’ back’; it is Zachry who recognises the potential interconnectivity of the soul, believing Meronym to be the reincarnation of Somni: ‘[s]ouls cross the skies o’ time [... ] like clouds crossin’ skies o’ the world’ (318). The adherence to Somni’s cosmopolitan ideals within Zachry’s society are offset by the conceptual figure of Old Georgie - the abstract embodiment of human predacity and counterpart to cosmopolitan dispositions throughout the novel. Old Georgie reflects the ‘hunger in the hearts o’ humans, yay, a hunger for more’, and metaphorically claims an individual’s soul if they ‘b’haved savage-like an’ selfy an’ spurned the civ’lize’ (286, 255). The oppositional tendencies of Old Georgie are practised by the rival tribe, the cannibalistic Kona, who begin a systematic military invasion of Ha-Why (their expansionist policy mirrors the brutal extermination of the Moriori in Adam’s chapter). The Kona’s subsequent destruction of the solitary clock, the Valleymen’s last connection with pre-Fall civilisation, symbolises the brutal annihilation of a community’s history, customs and practices, extinguishing both cultural identity and collective memory.

Zachry’s chapter represents a cyclical return to oral narratives following the previous chapter’s vision of dystopian techno-capitalism. The primitive nature of storytelling reflects an attempt to celebrate and preserve collective memory, as well as locally relational forms of tribal identity and experience. Appiah contends that ‘evaluating stories together is one of the central human ways of learning to align our responses to the world’, which is ‘in turn, one of the ways we maintain the social fabric’ (2006: 29). Tellingly, it is this uninterrupted chapter positioned at the heart of the novel that employs an oral narrative. Oral narratives emerge as the most communal means of forging connection and continuity within the flow of a seemingly fragmented historical past, utilising the lessons of history as fuel for viable future progress. However, Zachry’s descendants also use Somni’s orison to view the past - the fulcrum around which the passage of time is reversed in the novel, responsible for synthesising the heterogeneous, labyrinthine edifice into a harmonious whole. The orison acts as a technological beacon of hope for a society effectively ruined by globalisation and the will to power. Bearing in mind Somni’s rejection of technological oppression, Eaglestone recognises how Cloud Atlas ‘finds in technology both the forms of endless predation and destruction and the forms by which something, perhaps very little, can be saved’ (2013: 99). The last chronological moments in the novel concern Meronym defending Zachry from the Kona (a clear parallel to Autua’s defence of Adam) and fleeing Ha-Why before the Kona begin their invasion. Despite the prevalence of cosmopolitan dispositions in the chapter, brutal forms of oppression continue to dictate humanity’s future. And yet, Zachry’s oral narrative endures; as the lone survivor of his tribe, his storytelling becomes, like Somni’s orison, the memorial cultural artefact through which to perceive the past. As Berman argues, the only way for a community ‘to create itself anew is to retell both its own stories and those of other places, and to recognize in them their common relationship to their own past and to the lives of others’ (2001: 19). Zachry not only ensures that the lessons of his own culture survive, but the lessons of Somni and thus earlier periods of history (represented by the preceding narratives). By utilising cosmopolitan memory to render the past, present and future into a coherent temporality, the thematic content therefore mirrors the novel’s architecture in marking a movement away from postmodernism’s practice of structural fragmentation.

In framing the events of a supposed nuclear apocalypse, Somni and Zachry’s narratives (one technological, one post-technological) go beyond simply envisioning dystopian nightmares, but rather envision how to sustain new forms of community that pay attention to the ecological vulnerability of the planet, and to the base human nature that governs cultural interaction. Zachry’s narrative is essentially a post-apocalyptic future ofSomni’s dystopian narrative which is nevertheless simultaneously grounded in the utopian hopes of communal togetherness. Dillon claims that Somni’s techno-capitalistic narrative in particular ‘transcends postmodernism by introducing a philosophical dimension that goes beyond the individual level to a more collective one’ (2011b: 18). She goes on to position Cloud Atlas as part of ‘an emerging trend in contemporary British fiction demonstrating utopian “moments of possibility” that network between various geographical spaces and historical times’, projecting emergent ‘cosmopolitan identities to reveal the possibilities and impossibilities of utopian writing in the twenty-first century’ (2011b: 16, 17). In spite of these moments of cosmopolitan connectivity, Cloud Atlas fails to trend definitively towards either utopian or dystopian visions of future society; rather, Mitchell appraises and evaluates forms of inclusive community which are not yet achievable or articulable in the contemporary environment.

Indeed, due to the speed and immediacy of globalised life, Mitchell’s ominous visions of the future reflect legitimate threats facing postmillennial society. His evident fascination with the horrors of technological or societal catastrophe initially suggests that Cloud Atlas should be placed comfortably alongside other contemporary novels interrogating apocalyptic ruination, such as Colson Whitehead’s Zone One (2011) or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006). Whereas The Road documents the progressive destabilisation and withering of civilisation, Cloud Atlas resists planetary finitude to both celebrate and interrogate the cosmopolitan potential of an interconnected global multitude that escapes the cyclical entropy of history. In so doing, the novel does not simply offer yet another literary vision of futuristic, self-defeating planetary destruction as humanity’s natural endgame, but instead offers a sustained critique of outdated global paradigms responsible for the desperate inequalities inherent in contemporary globalised life. As Emily Horton recognises, ‘[cosmopolitanism [... ] affirms the dou- ble-sidedness of modern global living, which involves hope as well as crisis, and indeed, hope generated through crisis’ (2014: 77). The practice of cosmopolitan ethics is not merely promoted as a means of fostering short-term cultural cohesion, but suggested to play a vital role in the long-term survival of our species. By positioning each historically-dispersed narrative at a crucial moment of socio-political crisis or cultural transition, Cloud Atlas suggests a need for greater sensitivity to the lives of future citizens and the globalised concerns of the world they must inherit.

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Related topics