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The ‘Astonishing’ Differences in Cloud Atlas Editions

Parallel universes are common tropes in old-tyme sci-fi, and a common fear for high guys and gals. What if there was another world where a person similar to me is perceivably having the same life, but they have no idea that their experiences are dramatically different. Well, fears confirmed, everyone: David Mitchell, speculative fiction writer to the stars, might’ve accidentally created one inside his own book.

Academic research from Birkbeck, University of London found that U.S. and U.K. editions of Mitchell’s brick-thick book Cloud Atlas were “astonishingly different”, as the paper put it.

Well…close enough. Courtesy of The IT Crowd / Channel 4.

Comprehensively figuring out which way is up in any edition of Cloud Atlas is aleady good enough use of a college degree: the book follows six characters’ travails, each chapter criss-crossing through centuries, location, and genre. It’s a riveting and ambitious novel, one that provokes close, absorbing reading from fans. Which is why these changes are so remarkable. One example from the article points to this text from the U.K. edition:

“Historians still unborn will appreciate your cooperation in the future, Sonmi ~451. We archivists thank you in the present. […] Once we’re finished, the orison will be archived at the Ministry of Testaments. […] Your version of the truth is what matters.”

…and compares it to the U.S. edition:

“On behalf of my ministry, thank you for agreeing to this final interview. Please remember, this isn’t an interrogation, or a trial. Your version of the truth is the only one that matters.”

The professor behind the paper, Martin Paul Eve, remarked that aside from copy-edits and small incidental changes, there were significant delineations from one edition to the next that raises some thorny questions. As he told The Guardian:

“This is not a phenomenon unique to Cloud Atlas, [But] given that this text is widely taught, studied, and read by many groups, there are some important questions to ask around how we are discussing novels and the specificity of the language within them … [It also] shows the dangers of prize panels reading from different editions and the importance of standardisation here. Cloud Atlas won many awards … But were all the members of the judging panels reading the same text? It’s an intriguing question that I haven’t yet probed.”

Mitchell, for his part, is aware of the differences and responded in kind to Eve in an interview. Quelling any conspiracy theories, Mitchell said that edits were made to the UK edition that weren’t passed on to the US because the editor in charge of Cloud Atlas there had left Random House. Mitchell understands the questions the discrepancies raise, even if he doesn’t remember where they are, but posits that readers could be posing a different question:

“I’d ask readers to view the difference between the Cloud Atlases less like a director’s cut versus the original release and more like two very slightly different versions of the same song, recorded with the same musicians, in the same room, at the same session, with differences of only a few notes and a few words, which you can only spot if you concentrate intently. In this context, I don’t think what matters is ‘which is definitive?’ but ‘which works?’

That is the question we pass on to you: What’s your take? Have you had this experience with any other books? Let us know in the comments!

Featured image courtesy of Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times.