Cloud Atlas is a set of six short stories that are interconnected. The stories span several centuries, beginning in the 19th century and ending with a post-apocalyptic future. The stories are told in a nonlinear fashion, with the exception of "Sloosha's Crossin' and Ev'rythin' After," each stopping at a critical point only to be concluded later in the novel.
"The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing" is set in the mid-1800s in the South Pacific. Adam Ewing, a notary public, is returning to California after transacting business in Australia. His ship is delayed on the Chatam Islands for repairs. While there, Ewing meets and befriends Dr. Henry Goose, a physician, who agrees to join the ship on its journey back to California.
While awaiting the ship's repairs, Ewing learns about the enslavement of the peaceful native people, the Moriori, at the hands of the brutal Maori. Ewing also witnesses a Maori master beating a Moriori slave named Autua.
On one of his last days on the island, Ewing goes for a walk and falls into a steep hole and starts hallucinating. Later, he tells Dr. Goose about it, and Dr. Goose diagnoses him with having parasites in the brain and offers to treat him on the trip back to California. The treatments make Ewing very sick, but Dr. Goose assures him that they are working.
A few days into the journey, Ewing discovers that Autua has stowed away in his cabin. Autua begs for his help, and Ewing reluctantly helps the slave get a job on the ship. Autua is grateful and turns out to be an excellent sailor.
At this point, the narrative breaks but continues at the end of the novel with the ship stopping at the island of Raiatea. On the island, Ewing meets missionaries, who consider themselves superior to the natives, regard them as savages and treat them as slaves.
Back on the ship, Ewing becomes sicker under Dr. Goose's care. As Ewing is dying, the ship docks in Hawaii, and Dr. Goose robs him. Dr. Goose confesses that he has been poisoning Ewing with arsenic. Dr. Goose leaves him for dead. The first mate dumps Ewing's body overboard, but he is rescued by Autua, who takes Ewing to a Catholic mission where the sisters nurse him back to health.
While he is recovering, Ewing pledges himself to the abolitionist cause because he was saved by a freed slave.
"Letters from Zedelglem," the second story, is told through a series of letters written by Robert Frobisher, a disinherited young musician. The letters are to Rufus Sixsmith, his friend and former lover. The narrative begins with a penniless Frobisher escaping through his hotel window to avoid paying his bill. Frobisher decides to go to Bruges, Belgium, to become apprenticed to Vyvyan Ayrs, a reclusive and aging composer. Ayrs agrees to hire Forbisher and offers him a room in the house. Forbisher helps Ayrs compose music. This is the first music that Ayrs has composed in decades. Forbisher helps him compose but steals rare books from his library and has an affair with Ayrs' wife, Jocasta.
In his letters to Sixsmith, Frobisher mentions finding and reading "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing," a journal, but is annoyed that half of the text is missing. Frobisher realizes that Dr. Goose is poisoning Ewing. Frobisher also mentions his comet-shaped birthmark, a small detail that ties several of the characters together throughout the book.
In the second portion of the story, Frobisher becomes infatuated with Ayrs' daughter, Eva. He is upset to learn that Ayrs is stealing his ideas and his music. He confronts the composer, who now admits that he knows about the affair with Jocasta and will ruin Frobisher if he leaves his employment without permission.
Frobisher decides to leave, and while packing, he finds the other half of Adam Ewing's printed diary. He leaves without notice, checks into a hotel and composes his greatest work, "Cloud Atlas Sextet." He seeks out Eva, but she spurns his advances. He writes his last letter to Sixsmith before committing suicide.
"Half Lives; The First Luisa Rey Mystery" is set in Buenas Yerbas, Calif., in 1975. Luisa Rey is a young reporter working for Spyglass Magazine. In a chance meeting with Rufus Sixsmith in her building's elevator, Luisa tells Sixsmith about her father's work as a reporter and her job as a reporter as well.
After learning that she is a reporter, Sixsmith, an aging physicist who works for Seaboard Power, a nuclear power plant on Swannekke Island, hints that the Swannekke Plant is unsafe. He is murdered by hit man Bill Smoke shortly after speaking to Luisa, but his death is made to look like a suicide.
Luisa, pretending to be Sixsmith's next of kin, gets his personal belongings, including several old letters from Robert Frobisher, written almost half a century earlier. While reading the letters, Luisa is surprised when Frobisher's descriptions feel like memories and that the comet-shaped birthmark he mentions matches her own.
Luisa suspects that Seaboard is covering up its safety issues at the Swannekke Plant and killing any potential whistleblowers, so she continues to investigate. She convinces scientist Isaac Sachs to give her a copy of Sixsmith's report, which he does. Bill Smoke kills Sachs and attempts to kill Luisa by pushing her car off a bridge. The story breaks here and continues with Luisa surviving the crash but losing the report.
Joe Napier, Seaboard's head of security, finds out that Luisa is still alive and warns her to stop pursuing the story. Luisa's father saved his life years before, and Napier feels an obligation to protect her. Luisa disregards his warnings and locates another copy of Sixsmith's report. She is caught by Bill Smoke and saved by Napier, who gives his life to save Luisa. Luisa writes a story exposing the hazards at the Swanekke power plant and the executives who covered it up. Arrests are made and plans for future plants are scrapped.
At the end of the story, Luisa gets a recording of Frobisher's only work, Cloud Atlas Sextet, and when she listens to the music, she realizes that she knows it, even though she has never heard it before. She receives a letter from Rufus Sixsmith's niece with eight more letters from Frobisher.
"The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish" is set in present day Britain. Timothy Cavendish is the owner and publisher of a small, unsuccessful vanity press. At an awards ceremony, one of his authors, Dermot Hoggins, murders a book critic by throwing the man off a balcony. Hoggins is imprisoned, but sales for his book Knuckle Sandwich soar, giving Cavendish and his company fame. Hoggins' brothers threaten Cavendish for profits from the book, which have already been spent. Cavendish tries to raise money from several sources, and as a last resort, he asks his brother, Denholme, for it.
Denholme refuses to lend Cavendish the money, but he tells his brother of a place where he can hide from Hoggins' brother for a while. Cavendish leaves, grabbing an unsolicited manuscript he received entitled Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery, Part I. After a long and exhausting journey, Cavendish arrives at a remote hotel and checks in. The hotel turns out to be a nursing home that won't allow Cavendish to leave or have any contact with the outside world. After an unsuccessful attempt to escape, Cavendish has a stroke, and it takes several weeks for him to recover.
In the second part of the story, Cavendish finally manages to sneak a call to his brother's house, only to find that Denholme has also had a stroke, and he has died. His sister-in-law is not coherent enough to understand that Cavendish needs help. Cavendish befriends the residents of the nursing home, and they hatch a plot to escape.
Cavendish finds a way to reach his secretary, who tells him that Hoggins and his brother were caught trashing Cavendish's office on surveillance cameras. She threatens the Hogginses with putting the footage on the Internet. Since the Hogginses are already on probation, they agree to back off. Knuckle Sandwich is optioned for a movie, and while a lot of the money goes to the Hogginses, Cavendish is able to retire comfortably.
Cavendish reads Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery, Part I, and while he does not like the first part of the novel, he enjoys the rest of it. He thinks portions where Luisa thinks she is reincarnated can be changed. After all, he has a comet-shaped birthmark as well. The novel inspires him to write his own story as a screenplay.
"An Orison of Sonmi~451" is set in Nea So Copros, a futuristic version of Korea, which is now a despotic regime that grew from corporate culture. This story is told in an interview format between Sonmi~451 and an archivist, who is recording her story.
Sonmi~451 is a genetically engineered clone, one of many clones produced to do menial or dangerous labor. Sonmi~451 was created to work in a fast-food restaurant called Papa Song's. Clones are treated like slaves by the "purebloods" or naturally born people. Naturally born people inhibit clone perception through the use of chemicals in their food
Sonmi~451, who has a comet-shaped birthmark, realizes that she is becoming more aware of things around her and is taken from Papa Song's by a government official, Boardman Mephi, to assist a grad student, Boon-Sook Kim, with his project on clones that can achieve consciousness and remain stable. Kim treats Sonmi~451 like a slave and never does any research because he was plagiarizing his work. Sonmi~451 uses all her free time to study, and in a short period of time, she becomes educated, which is illegal and thought to be impossible for a clone.
After Kim and his friends put Sonmi~451's life in danger by shooting at her with a crossbow, Boardman Mephi relocates her to her own apartment and admits that he knows she is aware and educated. She is also befriended by another student, Hae-Joo Im, who helps her to understand pureblood society.
While watching an old movie entitled The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish with Hae-Joo, the movie is interrupted when Sonmi~451 learns that the rebel underground, led by Boardman Mephi, has been discovered, and she and Hae-Joo (also a rebel) must leave immediately or be arrested.
In the second part of the story, Sonmi~451 and Hae-Joo travel through the country where she sees clones mistreated and one being killed and callously discarded. She also learns the horrifying truth that the clones are not given their promised freedom once they have served their time at work but are killed and recycled into more clones and food, including what other clones eat and what is being served at Papa Song's. Outraged, Sonmi~451 writes an abolitionist paper called "Declarations" that tells the truth about their society and calls for rebellion.
After finishing her "Declarations" and turning it over to Hae-Joo, she is arrested and made to tell her story to the archivist. She tells him that she knows everything that happened to her was a government plot to create an artificial enemy figure to further push the oppression of clones by purebloods. Nevertheless, she believes her manifesto will serve as an inspiration to others. Her last wish before being executed by the government is to finish watching the movie The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish.
"Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After" is the sixth and central story in the novel. It is told by Zachry, now an old man. He recounts a story from his youth. Zachry lives in a primitive and post-apocalyptic civilization on the Big Island of Hawaii. It is revealed that this society evolved after "The Fall," when civilization collapsed and left everything but a few pockets of survivors in ruin.
Zachry and other Valleysmen worship a goddess named Sonmi and live peacefully with each other, but they fear the Kona, a warlike tribe that lives on the other side of the island. As a child, Zachry inadvertently led some Kona warriors to his family home. They killed his father and captured his brother, Adam. Zachry never saw Adam again.
The Big Island is often visited by a group of technologically advanced, dark-skinned people called the Prescients, who arrive by ship to trade. On one visit, the Prescients request that one of their people, a woman called Meronym, be allowed to stay for six months to learn the ways of the Valleysmen.
Much to Zachry's ire, his family is chosen to host Meronym. While she is nothing but gracious to Zachry's family and the rest of the villagers, he does not trust her and believes her people have a hidden agenda. Zachry searches through Meronym's bags and finds an egg shaped device that shows a hologram of a girl speaking in a foreign language. Zachry is drawn to the girl's image.
After Meronym saves the life of Zachry's sister, she tells of her plans to visit the top of Mauna Kea Volcano, a site that the Valleysmen believe is cursed and haunted. Knowing he owes his sister's life to Meronym, Zachry volunteers to take her to what turns out to be the remains of the Mauna Kea Observatories. Meronym goes into all the buildings and records everything she sees. She tells Zachry that the goddess Sonmi was really just a person and shows him the egg shaped device, the orison, which plays Sonmi~451's interview with the archivist.
Shortly after returning from the observatories, the Kona raid several villages and kill most of the older men, the women and the children, and take the younger men as slaves. Zachry is captured but is saved by Meronym, and the two search for Zachry's family.
Meronym contacts her people, and they reveal that their colony has been ravaged by disease, and they have been scouting another location to live, hence Meronym's stay on the Big Island. Zachry promises to take her to meet her people so she can go to a safer island but refuses to go with her as he must find his family. While hiding from Kona warriors, Zachry notices a comet-shaped birthmark on Meronym's collarbone. While taking Meronym to the rendezvous point, Zachry is badly hurt, so Meronym takes him with her anyway. He never sees his family again.
The story ends with Zachry's son remembering that his father told many unbelievable stories, and in his old age, he even believed that Meronym was Sonmi reincarnated, based on the comet birthmark. The son does believe his father left the Big Island in the way he said, because after Zachry died, his children found the orison. While they don't understand her, they like to watch the image of the girl that appears.