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    A Cloud Atlas Atlas

    Written by

    Alex Pasternack

    Founding Editor

    A cloud atlas is a compendium of different types of clouds that was used, beginning in the late 19th century for predicting the weather. Cloud Atlas is also a compendium of things, things that may or may not point to the future of the universe, maybe. Right?

    Or maybe just the future of the movies. To the extent that it pushes the boundaries of what’s possible in movie narratives, CGI and makeup, and the business of movies (it was the first $100 million independent film), the film looks like a new testament to what cinema can do in the computer age. That’s not to say it’s a great film, no, no, but it’s a lot of fun, especially if you’re sitting in the front row. That’s so you can stretch out — it’s three hours long. But there’s never a dull moment. The camera pans across a luscious future junglescape to the classical architecture of English estates to a Blade Runner-ish underworld where a rebellion is stirring and reminding you that this is one meta-plot away from being a sequel to The Matrix. The Wachowski siblings have created a character that looks like Keanu Reeves, and installed the ceaseless sneer of Hugo Weaving, who played Agent Smith in The Matrix, into every fourth or so character here.

    As an emotional field, the film adaptation of Cloud Atlas can feel like a swamp, but can anyone really be surprised that it doesn’t make complete sense? (See a diagram of David Mitchell’s plot here.) It’s a jumping off point for thinking about life and death, the transcendence of humanity above censorship and slavery, and yes, about the movies. Despite all of the ludicrousness and pretentiousness and claims of racism, I wondered what here, exactly, was true true (apart from things like universal love or interconnectedness, which, as Hollywood has already established, are absolutely real things).


    This super-smart hologram phone that gives the book’s chapter on Neo-Seoul its name was meant to look like an egg. But a big electronic orb isn’t the easiest thing for actors to carry around in a film, the Wachowskis decided, so they insisted it be flat in the movie, requiring that it be spun in the film to create its 3D projections. The final product is essentially the combination of a 3D projector and a video phone.

    Now, a Google search for 3d projector video phone comes up dry, but the technology to produce holographic images in space is already here. Sort of. One research lab in Japan is among a handful that are developing 3D projections by firing lasers into a medium made up of ionized atmosphere molecules. Yes, it’s dangerous.

    Other planets

    NASA’s Kepler mission has already found 800 extrasolar planets, and a couple weeks ago announced another one that’s Earth sized. It’s too close to its star to be inside the habitable zone though. It’s only a matter of time before we find a so-called Goldilocks planet, where the conditions are just right. Getting there will be the next challenge: we’ll need spaceships we don’t yet have.


    Pretty ladies designed to cater to the whims and appetites of so-called Pure Blood humans are actually genetically cloned and mass-produced humans trained to be servile until they reach the end of their useful lives. While genetic modification is already creeping into (gracing?) our scientific world, and promising to help repair broken DNA, for instance, we aren’t likely to clone humans anytime soon. The challenge isn’t in creating an artificial embryo, but in creating an artificial womb, and more specifically, the artificial placenta needed to carry nutrients to the fetus. “That would be the biggest technical challenge,” one scientist said. And then there are all the ethical ones. Here’s a video we made about a biologist who has cloned some cats:


    Instant bridge

    The dream of a bridge wherever whenever must be an old one, and its realization is almost here. Or should I say realisation? The French Ministry of Defense says that its SPRAT can create a bridge for any military vehicle, including tanks, to cross rivers and ditches up to 82 feet wide within ten minutes. So, done.

    Video rooms

    The combination of video walls and projection mapping — two increasingly familiar technologies — into a single “experience” is as old as the Holodeck, and while we aren’t there quite yet, we’re not far off. Last year, Microsoft patented such an idea for an immersive gaming room. And a company in the UK called Studio Output demonstrated something like this for a Playstation ad.

    Here’s how they did it, while indirectly pointing at something else that could be coming soon to a living room wall near you: ads.

    New Language

    Between Castaway and Big, Tom Hanks has had plenty of preparation for his role as a hunter-forager living on a desolate island and speaking in a pigdin future English. By this point in the novel, most human knowledge has been destroyed or forgotten, and literacy is rare, making language a bizarre amalgamation of slang, familiar mutations and what sounds like nonsense. I’m not surprised that some people watching Cloud Atlas had no clue what Tom Hanks was saying, and I wouldn’t be surprised if post-apocalyptic language were completely indecipherable to us. (The film’s use of language in its narration from olden times depends heavily on manuscripts and letters written by elites, which are the best clues we have to how people used to actually talk.)

    The fact is we have little idea how language will evolve in the future, and without reading and writing – or technology for extending human memory – it might lose much of its vocabulary. And, as Anthony Kroch, chair of the linguistics department at the University of Pennsylvania, tells TechNewsDaily, the mispronunciations of childhood could get ingrained in adult language: “member” for “remember,” for instance, or “Treme” might replace “extreme”; “tend” might overtake “pretend.” I hope though that “very true” will not become “true true.”

    Hover plane

    The hovering planes of Neo-Seoul are basically fancy, quieter, more terrifying Harrier jets.

    Eternal Return

    The sextet-ish thousands-year saga is an argument for connectedness across space and time, even if it doesn’t explicitly dip into reincarnation (but maybe, it’s hard to tell what it doesn’t dip into). The idea of recurrence however isn’t as scientifically far-fetched as you might think.

    In mathematics, Poincaré’s recurrence theorem states that certain systems will, after a sufficiently long time, return to a state very close to the initial state. But “a sufficiently long time” could be much longer than the predicted lifetime of the observable universe. One example often given is that of the baker’s map: cut a square and compound it enough times and you’ll eventually end up with the original square, with the addition of some noise.

    Since the 1930s, cosmology has also been fascinated with the notion of a series of repeating universes, from big bang to big crunch to big bang again, and even if it’s so far impossible to prove, the case for our universe being one of a set of multiverses is becoming more popular, and, as of this summer, more scientifically tangible. “The work represents an opportunity to test a theory that is truly mind-blowing: that we exist within a vast multiverse, where other universes are constantly popping into existence,” Stephen Feeney, a PhD candidate who co-authored a paper about how to begin searching for other universes.

    Via Dinosaur Comics

    In a 2006 paper, cosmologist Peter Lynds postulated a physical (ie, non philosophical) model of eternal recurrence, as did James Quirk, with a hypothesis based on the transactional interpretation of quantum mechanics. With apologies to “our experiential bias toward linear causality through forward time, which (according to the Transactional Interpretation) is an incomplete understanding of events on the quantum level,” Quirk writes that

    it must be remembered that the predecessor universe itself would experience circular causality, allowing it to spawn the inflation of the new universe repeatedly, in an infinite loop. Rather than picturing the sequence of universes expanding over time, it is more useful to picture the sequence as eternally infinite, since time itself is perceived as a property only of the laws of physics operating in each individual universe. There are an infinite number of universes creating themselves an infinite number of times over – a logical conclusion if one is trying to envision the greatest reality imaginable. If my speculations are anywhere near accurate (which is of course quite debatable), we may have glimpsed the “Omniverse,” an endless interconnected whole that is truly infinite in scope.

    Which could also serve as a kind of abstract apology / explanation for this movie.

    City underwater

    The capital of Korea, as designed by George Hull for the movie, has long ago succumbed to rising ocean levels, its old skyscrapers spiking out of the ocean like mountain tops above the clouds, its giant levees made useless. Who knows if a New New York City will have supertall towers lined in holographic solar skin, Gattaca burger joints, Fifth Element hover skiffs and Blade Runner-like slums. But if that sinking thing doesn’t sound real now, I’m not sure what does.

    GIF by Dan Stuckey. Photo of the Brooklyn Bridge after Sandy by AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews

    Good thing, then, that in our real life future we have long since graduated to satellite, radar and awesome meteorological videos, and no longer need actual cloud atlases.