David Mitchell. Not the comedian – the author. Mitchell is responsible for the novels Ghostwritten, Number9Dream and Cloud Atlas – all of which I’ve thoroughly enjoyed. Mitchell is a deft writer, who loves experimenting with structure and perspective. The novels are pieces of literary fiction that effortlessly explore certain science fiction ideas and concepts – although he is not regarded as a science fiction writer.
Ghostwritten is probably my favourite and was Mitchell’s first novel. It takes the reader around the world through a series of subtly interconnected narratives, from a doomsday cult and Sarin gas attack in a Tokyo subway, through stories in Mongolia, St Petersburg, London and finally New York. The final narrative deals with an artificial intelligence that has become sentient called the Zookeeper. The Zookeeper calls a talk radio show called the Night Train to debate with the host the moral question of allowing humanity’s continued and damaging existence on planet Earth. The host, of course, considers the call a prank but indulges the caller, not realising that the Zookeeper is actively making a real decision. The narrative then brings us back to the subway terrorist attack in Tokyo in a fascinating conclusion to the book.
Even more ambitious is the novel Cloud Atlas, in which Mitchell moves through time rather than space. The novel is composed of narratives, the first beginning as a journal by a passenger on a sailing boat, touring the Pacific islands in 1850. This narrative is encapsulated and part of the story that follows, which concerns the letters of a composer living in Belgium in 1931. This in turn hands over to a murder mystery set in California 1975 and so on. The middle sections of the book are the most fascinating – each section moving further and further into the future – one story becoming part of the next. A genetically engineered clone called Somni~451, who works in a restaurant in a near-future dystopian Korea, observes the previous story as a holographically projected ‘orison’. This then connects to a story about primitive humans in post-apocalyptic Hawaii. The brilliance of the story-telling is truly revealed as in the second half of the novel we work our back through the narratives and back through time. It is pretty masterful. What is even more impressive is Mitchell’s control of language. Each narrative has its own style, from the 1850s journal, through the 1930s letters, the futuristic ‘orison’ and the degraded / evolved language of the tribespeople in a post-apocalyptic paradise.
Mitchell’s concern for detail that informs, his structural experimentation and thematic ambition definitely had an effect on me as a reader and a writer. David Mitchell himself has won the John Llewellyn Rhys prize for fiction and has been nominated for the Man Booker Prize twice. I highly recommend him.