Apocalypse, maybe: "In spite of its title, Cloud Atlas is Mitchell's tightest, most focused book, as well as his funniest: the Russian doll structure allows him to return to the same themes - which are, broadly speaking, the struggle between savagery and civilisation, between biology and ethics. 'It's a book about predacity and predation,' he says, 'individuals preying on groups, groups preying on individuals.'
"It is also strikingly political, much more so than anything else he has written: Mitchell's vision of the future is like Naomi Klein's No Logo taken to its ultimate conclusion: a consumer society in the process of consuming itself. The narrator of this section, Somni 451, is a clone genomed to smile and stand for 19 hours on end in an underground fast-food restaurant, genuflecting to the dollar, worshipping the company logo, a sort of Ronald McDonald hologram that performs endless somersaults in the air. At night the fabricants have 'nitemares of angry diners, food tube blockages, lost collars and shameful destarrings'. Language itself is branded: instead of shoes, films, petrol, traffic jams, Somni 451 sees nikes, disneys, exxon and fordjams. For the pure-blood consumers who live overground, spending is compulsory - 'Hoarding is an anti-corpocratic crime.' Perhaps the most terrifying thing is that Mitchell exaggerates the present only slightly. "
Fantastic voyage: "What went through Mitchell's mind when plotting the book? 'I didn't think about it at all,' he says. 'When I'm writing, I know what I want to have next - this scene, that snatch of dialogue, this passage. The theme of predation, the tendency of a society to eat itself, and the Russian-doll structure, evolved organically as I was writing. My books start with four or five stem cells - a mention of the Moriori tribe in Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond, and the revelation that humanity can regress just as easily as it can go forward. And I'd been reading Eric Fenby's autobiography, My Life With Delius, which was such an intriguing relationship. Another starting-point was Italo Calvino's book, If On a Winter's Night a Traveller, which is full of interrupted stories. I wondered how it would be if you went and actually finished off all those interrupted stories...'
"But why not (the cry goes up from readers and rivals alike) write a straight single narrative rather than these serpentining, Gordian knots of plot? He shrugs. The Irish sunlight, pouring through the glass door of his shed behind him, lights up his large ears like twin porch-lights. "It's a structural challenge," he says shortly.
"But why give yourself these challenges? You don't have to...
" 'I do,' says Mitchell firmly. 'It's a kind of escapology, inside which is originality. The tighter the straitjacket, the more ingenious the act of escapology has to be.' "