The universal constant

I finally finished reading Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. I also finished putting together the audio for a Bone Lab episode featuring our interview with a bioarchaeologist. Together, these things are giving me a less despairing lens with which to view this strange and tragic era. And can’t we all use a little less despair right now.

Last week felt more than ever like the plot of a dystopian novel. In 2015, we have self-driving cars, inexpensive personal genetic sequencingeyeglass computers guiding surgical procedures, and an apple that is engineered to resist bruising. We seem to have the tools to create a utopia. And yet, people around the world lack food and clean drinking water. Entire villages, countries are raped, pillaged, and murdered. In 2015, North Korea executes its citizens for gaining exposure to the outside world, old men can marry and rape young girls without repercussions, and a Hitler-like Donald Trump is a viable presidential candidate in a country that is supposed to represent freedom. In 2015, ISIS, in spite of its technological savviness, tortures and beheads prisoners, commits unspeakable acts of terror and barbarism reminiscent of the Dark Ages or the ancient Middle Kingdom.

What the fuck.

How can this read as anything other than a work of dystopian fiction or an absurdist play? How can we, on a global scale, be doomed to constantly repeat the same kinds of mistakes, enact the same ridiculous tragedies?

In Cloud Atlas, there are six “nested” stories, each from the point of view of a different main character. Each character’s story is a different dystopia from a different time and place, and yet each story is essentially the same–persecution and enslavement by more powerful people who commit barbaric acts of violence and greed, misunderstanding, moments of kindness and cruelty. The fragility and harshness of humanity–the absurd, paradoxical universal constant.

Mitchell has said in a BBC interview:

Literally all of the main characters, except one, are reincarnations of the same soul in different bodies throughout the novel identified by a birthmark…that’s just a symbol really of the universality of human nature. The title itself “Cloud Atlas,” the cloud refers to the ever changing manifestations of the Atlas, which is the fixed human nature which is always thus and ever shall be. So the book’s theme is predacity, the way individuals prey on individuals, groups on groups, nations on nations, tribes on tribes. So I just take this theme and in a sense reincarnate that theme in another context.

Many of the stories are familiar to us: European colonialism; corrupt corporations destroying the environment for the gain of only its top leaders; the enslavement of engineered humanoids for the benefit of the organics, such as in Bladerunner; a post-apocalyptic world in which civilization regresses to warring tribes.

For me, it is this familiarity that is now strangely comforting. When I think about the world today, I often think it’s utter madness, and everyone is terrible and thoughtless, and we are all doomed. And yet, when I think about the millennia that came before, that was all madness, the same sort of madness with different technologies, and people thought the same cynical, despairing things that I think now. At any given time, people think that, and somehow we’ve still managed to make it to 2015 in spite of it.

In the context of human history, global inequality has always existed, hopping from civilization to civilization for a few centuries or millennia at a time. China, Egypt, Rome, Greece, Persia, Mesopotamia, Mesoamerica–these ancient cultures had their eras of wealth, glory, cruelty. They were all dystopian worlds in their own right, with the same internal inequalities, and yet they persisted before they eventually fell.

That is perhaps little comfort for our present individual lives, in a time of powerful technology that can destroy us more easily than it saves us. But the persistence of a paradoxical human nature is somewhat comforting if we look at events through a wider lens. Speaking with the archaeologist was another reminder of that. She studies bones from thousands of years ago, learns about infectious diseases and war injuries and crazy things that happened to individuals and communities and wiped out populations. But also, she and others like her find evidence of human kindness, such as in the way certain people are buried, the relics that were lovingly buried beside them, the way the remains of people who died in a sudden natural disaster are sometimes curled around each other in a last tender embrace.

In the end, catastrophic things have always happened, and yet we are still here,  and the sun still rises. Catastrophic things are happening and will continue to happen, and yet we, as a species if not as individuals, will probably continue to be here for some time, and the sun will continue to rise.

Mitchell writes in Cloud Atlas, “My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?”

I have to find strength and comfort in that, because in the face of despair and oblivion, what other comfort is there?

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