I hadn’t read any of David Mitchell’s prior books, but I did see the movie of Cloud Atlas and found myself taken in by the story. So when I discovered he’d recently published something new I thought I’d give it a shot. 700 pages later, I’ve finished The Bone Clocks. I really, really enjoyed it. Like Cloud Atlas it moves along in 100 page chunks following a largely consistent set of characters jumping ahead 10 or 15 years per chunk, and each one is told from the point of view of a different character. Some come and some go throughout the story, but there is a clear through line.
There’s an interesting and engaging fantasy/sci-fi element woven throughout the entire book, but you only get to see very small pieces of it for the first 400 pages, leaving you wondering where it’s all going and if you’re ever going to be given full disclosure about “what’s going on.” If you like fantasy and sci-fi, you will indeed be fully rewarded by the end. If you don’t, well, you’re probably not going to enjoy that section too much. Luckily I find myself in the former camp, and found it extremely satisfying.
However, the final section of the story is far too successful in pushing all of my societal-ills buttons: Climate change and fossil-fuel depletion leads to the loss in the Western world of most of the modern staples we take for granted. Basic transportation: only for security forces, which soon become the oppressors rather than the protectors. Adequate electricity, food you don’t grow yourself, relatively basic medicines for the chronically ill (e.g. insulin): all gone, or rapidly on their way out the door. Even basic connection to family members or news of the rest of the world via the Net or even broadcast radio: failing. This decline, predictably, leads during this section to the beginnings of anarchy, and the appearance of strongmen and militias. Those with the weapons start taking what they want from the weak, and there’s also a resurgence of religious persecution by the weak-minded against the non-believers. The whole thing is pervaded by a deepening and fatalistic depression in those old enough to remember when things were better only a few years ago, with the certainty that things are getting worse and aren’t going to be getting better within what remains of their lifetimes. While there is, thankfully, a satisfying if not entirely happy ending to this tome, the intensely believable realism of this final section depressed the hell out of me enough to leave me barely psychologically functional for the better part of the day in which I read it. It feels that plausible, and strikes just too close to home. For that little while, I was in the shoes of Holly, the lead character, and frankly, I hope I don’t live long enough to see it come true.
Bone Clocks, I dub thee A Great Book, but I find myself a fair bit more shaken up in the end than I really would like to be. I attribute this to my own psychological ills, after all, there is a long proud history of post-apocalyptic literature and film, even pre-apocalyptic, I suppose, but few have managed to touch me as deeply by painting such a careful and thorough picture of this kind of all-too-believable outcome. Well Done, and I Hate You, Mr. Mitchell, all at once.