Still from Cloud Atlas (Tykwer, Wachowski & Wachowski, 2012).
Corpocracy and the working class: an interpretation of “An Orison of Sonmi~451″.
***SPOILERS FOR DAVID MITCHELL’S CLOUD ATLAS***
Cloud atlas includes several intertwined short stories from wildly varying genres. My personal favourite is “An Orison of Sonmi~451″, a masterful execution of both the genres of dystopia and cyberpunk.
My thesis here is that there is at least one more interesting way to read “An Orison of Sonmi~451″ than at face value. One of those ways is as a metaphor about our current world, right here and now, instead of a prediction about a dubious and far away future. In this metaphor, fabricants are the working class, purebloods are the middle class and the rest are who we are going to see now. I’m aware that this reading of mine is highly influenced by Chavs, written by Owen Jones, and I want to acknowledge that from the beginning.
Now, let’s gather evidence from the text.
The first act of “An Orison of Sonmi~451″ has Sonmi describing her life as a fabricant waitress. She works at Papa Song’s, where the logo is mentioned to feature golden arches and the mascot and Beloved Logoman is a clown. Already ringing a bell, right? Sonmi describes working conditions of deep precariousness, such as working nineteen hours a day and not being entitled to rests. “For fabricants, “rests” would be an act of time theft”, she says. She also speaks of “repaying her Investment”. If taken at face value, this makes sense as fabricants are manufactured and bought and therefore have to pay off to be profitable. But at the same time, people with menial jobs find that their rights, rests and benefits are being trimmed to the point that legitimate paid leaves and rests are seen as stealing from the company. The sole act of hiring someone and teaching them the job is often seen as an unbearable investment from the company and the worker is coerced to be as inhumanly productive as possible in order to pay off their ownhiring. Like having a job actually makes them in debt with the company. In the case of Sonmi and the rest of fabricants, this debt is literal.
Sonmi makes the Archivist uncomfortable by calling fabricant labor slavery: “To enslave an individual troubles your consciences, Archivist, but to enslave a clone is no more troubling than owning the latest six-wheeler ford, ethically”, she explains when asked why the dehumanizing of fabricants is merely done for the comfort of purebloods. This dehumanization is the same demonization of the working class Owen Jones is so eloquent about. Dear reader, if you are lucky enough to have been born to the upper classes, you will think “slavery” is a bit too heavy of a word. But if you have had to work in retail, restaurants, hotels or customer service in general, you’ve probably used that word to refer to your work conditions. The extreme scheduling flexibility, working unsocial hours, requirement of almost total availability, high levels of stress, unattainable quality standards and ridiculous wages make up for something that, to me, is barely different from slavery. “Corpocracy is built on slavery, whether or not the word is sanctioned”, Sonmi claims. I don’t think that sentence needs any translating to the real world. And that is ignoring the workforce that manufactures cheap goods in developing countries to sell to developed countries. If you don’t agree that the conditions of the Western working class are near slavery, wait until you hear how much a South-Asian factory worker makes.
The Archivist reacts by playing the card of “happiness in slavery”, extensively explored by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World: if menial workers know their place and are happy in it, the upper classes can rest assured. Sonmi answers in the same line as Huxley: “if happiness means the conquest of adversity, or a sense of purpose, or the xercise of one’s will to power, then of all Nea So Copros’s slaves we surely are the most miserable. I endured drudgery but enjoy it no more than yourself.”
Another typical character of the corpocratic world is introduced next: the supervisor. Sonmi describes this type eloquently: “Poor Seer Rhee was corp man, to the bone, but long past the age when seers are promoted to power. […] he clung to the belief that hard work and a blemishless record were enough to achieve status”. The working class is promised a promotion to the middle class through hard work, which in most cases is a lie. Some members of the working class will bite on the bait and work long hours and make sacrifices for the corp, all of which amount to nothing because status is very rarely achieved, most are born into it.
Yoona is notorious for mocking and doubting the Catechism. “Catechism Three teaches that for servers to keep anything denies Papa Song’s love for us and cheats His Investment”. Note the religious overtones in the love for the company and of the company for the worker. Yoona asks questions like: “Why were fabricants born into debt but purebloods not? Who decided Papa Song’s Investment took twelve years to repay? Why not eleven? Six? One?”, which the Archivist brands as “blasphemous hubris”. The working class is born into debt sometimes quite literally. When they don’t, they depend on the corps’ ability or willingness to provide them with jobs, or of the bank’s willingness to provide credit to open their own businesses. Questioning this order of things, even stating that such is the order of things, will make some people call you a stale Marxist or a communist.
The government in Nea So Copros is called Unanimity, and Media is capitalised and treated as a branch of the same, and not as a separate entity. You might think this is laughable until you realise that Unanimity equals the government equals corporations (hence “corpocracy”) and in reality the great media conglomerates are owned by the great corporations and the wealthy. And it’s not like they allow their media conglomerates to say many things that go against them. Mitchell is just taking the next natural step and making it more obvious.
The resistance is called Union. It’s a pretty, romantic name for a group of people who are labeled as terrorists and want to change how the political system works. But a union, like in a trade union or a labour union, is also an organization that seeks to uphold and defend the rights of the working class. It’s a very fit name for the archenemy of the corpocracy and I’m convinced that Mitchell chose this name intentionally.
The Archivist describes his distress and disgust at Yoona’s Atrocity. In a masterful use of foreshadowing from Mitchell’s part, Sonmi answers: “You felt the corpocratic world order had changed, irrevocably. You vowed never to trust any fabricant. You knew that Abolitionism was as dangerous and insidious a dogma as Unionism. You supported the resultant Homeland Laws dictated by the Beloved Chairman, wholeheartedly”. Please note how the political leader of this country is called “the Beloved Chairman”, a quite cringe-worthy oxymoron. It’s not like it’s a new thing to use hate and classism as a means of political control. If you hate and fear the different, especially the people who are under you in the social ladder, you will behave properly in hopes of ascending that social ladder. What they’re not telling you is that those above you that want to look like they reward you for being in your best behaviour are not willing to lend you a spot up there. You’re stuck in your own social stratum and that’s the end of it.
Papa Song’s reaction to Yoona’s attempt to escape would be hilarious if it weren’t spot-on: “Papa Song told us a gas called evil xists in the world; purebloods called terrorists breathe in this evil, and this gas makes them hate all that is free, orderly, good and corpocratic; a group of terrorists called Union had caused yesterday’s atrocity by infecting one of our own sisters […] with evil”. The sum of manicheism with oversimplification of political matters is what makes this speech so close to political discourse intended for the masses, of which the working class is considered the lowest common denominator.
Hate against the working class usually tries to hang on to the belief that the working class is inherently uneducated and/or stupid. Therefore it’s suitable that Sonmi’s fellow fabricants are stupid, ignorant and of reduced vocabulary, and Sonmi’s ascension equals her gaining of intelligence, and her curiosity makes her wonder what’s beyond her own social stratum.
Eventually, Sonmi witnesses Seer Rhee’s suicide and is taken away by some mysterious men under coercion. Sonmi is impressed by the great outside, which she had never seen before. This works both literally and figuratively, as she’s exiting the sphere that her social class confined her to.
Sonmi is then assigned as an experimental specimen to Book-Sook Kim, a rich and spoiled PhD student. Wing~027 makes his apparition confirming the kind of man Book-Sook Kim is: “Xec postgrads are the worst. They have their asses wiped for them. From kindergarten to euthanasium.” So the noble institution that is the university is not free from the burdens of social class. Sonmi later says: “Boom-Sook Kim’s concerns were not his Ph.D. but drinking, gambling, and his crossbow.” It’s revealed that his plan all along was to have someone else write his thesis for him, and nobody was going to do anything about it because his father was a powerful man.
In contrast, Book-Sook Kim’s neighbour, Gil-Su Noon, is mentioned to be a downstrata student on a scholarship aid. He’s constantly disturbed by other noisy and disperse postgraduates and he’s barely mentioned again. We can safely assume his humble origins mean he didn’t get very far in the world of research.
In the other hand, Wing~027 is a disasterman. Law enforcement, firefighters and civilian protection workers are part of another strata that has been systematically discredited and driven to precariousness in the last decades. This is shown by his status as a fabricant, but he also mentions that his “basic orientation provides a more thoro education than most pureblood universities”. Wing~027′s last gift is the tools to learn to read, and his last piece of advice is to hide her literacy from purebloods, as knowledge in a fabricant scares them to death. This reinforces the already mentioned idea that hate towards the working class is fueled by the notion that they are all stupid and/or illiterate. Wing~027 is killed in an experiment due to his postgrad’s irresponsible negligence (”mistaking a minus for a plus on the label of a bottle of petro-alkali”). The postgrads find it hilarious, as a fabricant’s life is no more than a commodity.
In the absence of Book-Sook Kim, Sonmi learns to read, teaches herself the syllabus of primary and secondary schools, reads the authorised books of the regime and then plunges into pre-skirmish classics. Kim’s taste for hunting is discussed. His friends mock him for hunting animals that were genomed to be less vicious so tourists can kill them easily. Kim is offended by this, and claims he only hunts fabricant animals that are more vicious than the real ones. Kim’s love for hunting mirrors his ruthlessness and objectification of other beings he deems inferior to himself. Incidentally, safaris and hunting are considered something refined and suitable for rich and powerful people in real life. Accordingly, it’s an expensive and exclusive activity nowadays.
Kim decides to prove his worth by trying to shoot a melon on Sonmi’s head with a crossbow, the most obvious sign of his disregard for someone or something else’s life so far. He gets caught by Boardman Mephi, an authority in the university and the government, and Sonmi is discovered as having ascended to sapience. “Billions of research dollars had been spent in corp labs, unsuccessfully, to achieve what, simply, I was, what I am: a stable, ascended fabricant”. If you get carried away by the story, you’re happy for Sonmi: she’s valuable and will be protected by the dissidents. Also, this is the way classic dystopias go: the protagonist finds out the crap the regime has been hiding with the help of the resistance and then fails horribly at starting a revolution (see1984, We or Brave New World). But if you are a quick-witted reader (and I wasn’t), you will realise that something is rotten in the state of Denmark: if purebloods make fabricants, why is it so damn difficult to make them intelligent? Wouldn’t it be as easy as making them via sexual reproduction, the way it’s always been done? In fact, it’s the amnesiads in Soap that make them dim and servile. If they stopped eating it, supposedly they would become normal people. If you look at the tenor of the allegory, it’s much clearer. Why would an educated poor person be such an exceptional thing, if it weren’t because the rich bar the poor from accessing education and equal oportunities? If they want an educated worker, why don’t they just make access to education easier? Because they don’t want to, the same way Unanimity doesn’t want ascended fabricants, which basically means fabricants stop existing and there are no more slaves to sustain the cheap services industry that sustains corpocracy.
But let’s play their game from a while now and pretend we buy their story. Sonmi is granted a Soul and the right to study at university. Souls have already been mentioned before but now become more important. They’re not defined in a lot of detail but they’re small chips implanted in fingertips. Apparently, money is saved in them, so they’re a symbol of acquisitive power. And they’re called Souls. As if it weren’t obvious enough until now, having a Soul equals being a consumer equals being human. The rest are slaves, or commodities.
Sonmi is humiliated in her first lecture by her pureblood classmates. Mephi reasons that knowledge, beyond “genomics or inherent xcellence or even dollars” was the ultimate barrier fabricants had to overcome in order to challenge purebloods. Once more, ignorance is wielded as the natural reason some people are rich and some others are poor. Mephi tells Sonmi: “Try this for deviancy: fabricants are mirrors held up to purebloods’ consciences; what purebloods see reflected there sickens them. So they blame you for holding up the mirror.” What mirror? It’s already been said: privilege. The fact that other human beings are enslaved so they can keep their standards of living. “It must be hell to have an intelligent mind trapped in a body genomed for service”, says one of the boys. Try rephrasing that as “it must be hell to have an intelligent mind trapped in a body that must work a menial job for a living”. The fabricants’ genetic burden serves as a metaphor for the class one is born into: one of them is as inescapable as the other.
Hae-Joo Im is sent to keep Sonmi company and help her see the outside world. After mocking Sonmi for playing Go against her sony in her spare time, he suggests that they do what truly free people do to relax: “go downtown and spend some dollars”. Sonmi witnesses some consumerist decadence, such as the moon having an ad projected to it. The sponsor that night was SeedCorp, presumably a company that enforces biological patents (see The windup girl or real-life evil megacorp Monsanto). Purebloods are eager to consume, but in case they aren’t, Hae-Joo Im explains that consumers have to spend a fixed quota of dollars each month, depending on their strata, and that hoarding is an anti-corpocratic crime. Nothing new, but it’s always nice to be reminded of what makes the corpocratic world go around.
Hae-Joo Im explains his parents were both “random conceptions who sold a second child quota to get Hae-Joo genomed properly”. Another classic character of the corpocratic landscape: parents give up their lives so their child can climb up the social ladder. What does Hae-Joo do with that privilege? “To be a Unanimity man had been his ambition since the disneys of his boyhood. Kicking down doors for money looked like a fine life.” Gee, Mitchell is not bitter at all about this, is he? Hae-Joo has seen his parents give up their dreams and yet he embraces corpocracy with open arms. Just another textbook case. When confronted with this, Hae-Joo feels quite legitimated: “their pension will come out of my salary.”
Sonmi is then approached by a media fashion scout who thinks facescaping as a well-known service fabricant is not brave, nor antistrata but a downright genius fashion statement. If you’ve ever watched these reality shows where the lives of the rich and famous are aired for everyone to see, you’ll probably be familiar with the notion that being fake-poor can be seen as extremely fashionable, or downright genius, while being actually-poor is despicable. This little passage I found subtle and delightful on Mitchell’s part.
After her education, going back to the Papa Song dinery where Sonmi worked made her see the place with quite different eyes.”The spacious dome was so poky. Its glorious reds and yellows, so stark and vulgar. The wholesome air I remembered: now its greasy stench gagged me. […] I realized, Papa Song was just a trick of lites. How had an inane hologram once inspired such an awe in me?” That’s another reason why corpocracy is not a friend of education: a cultured consumer will not fall as easily for the black-and-white, simplistic and manipulative communication style.
The last segment of the first part of “An Orison of Sonmi~451″ explains how Sonmi got to watch The ghastly ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, a movie based on the previous story of Cloud atlas. It also dwells on a classic of every totalitarian and not-so-totalitarian regime: banning access to past history or any evidence that things could be any different than they are now. This trope was codified in 1984 and while present day representative governments have a harder time censoring archives than they would like to, it’s Politics 101 that if you get the media to ignore something that is detrimental to the image of an institution, the mainstream will probably never find out about it. Therefore if you control the media you control the kind of information and ideology fed to the masses and it’s more unlikely that anyone will dissent.
The Archiver takes any chance he has of blurting out one of the mantras of corpocracy: “Corpocracy isn’t just another political system that will come and go– corpocracy is the natural order, in harmony with human nature.” “Sloosha’s crossin’ an’ ev’rythin’ after” has something to say about that. We don’t really know what brought Nea So Copros down, but we do know that Sonmi is worshipped as a goddess and her orison has survived the cataclysm.
In an “unexpected twist of events” Hae-Joo is revealed to be a Union spy. After a narrow escape from the university, Hae-Joo takes Sonmi to a shanty town, a place so despicable that the Archivist says “My ministry would xpel me if I were ever Eyed in tha untermensch slum”, because god forbid the well-off are seen in the company of the dirt-poor, who do nothing but take drugs and be miserable. “ShitCorp goes nowhere near that quarter”, Sonmi points out, and also that “fabricants stolen here end up in brothels, made serviceable after clumsy surgery”. “Migrants with enceph or leadlung, […] hospitals drain their Souls until they’ve got only enough dollars for a euthanasia jab–or a ride to Huamdonggil. These poor bastards made the wrong choice”. Despite what its defendants will say, laissez faire capitalism usually ends up like this. When basic care depends on private companies, people who are not profitable are left without sewage systems, law enforcement or healthcare. Because, surprise! some human basic needs are mostly not profitable per se.
Hae-Joo is quite clear as to why this happens: “Papa Song Corp […] seems humane if compared to the factoried these migrants ran from. Traffickers promise it rains dollars in the Twelve Cities, and migrants yearn to believe it.” Same thing happens with some real-life migratory movements. Why does the upstrata allow this? asks Sonmi. For two reasons: “It motivates the downstrata: ‘Work, spend, work […] or you, too will end your life here.” And because it is profitable: the poor can be freed of the weight of their remaining money before they give up the ghost.
Sonmi and Hae-Joo meet a union leader and are ordered to get Sonmi out of Nea So Copros. Sonmi is freed of her collar and barcode. The Union member that designed the tool to tamper with the barcode laments: “Sickening thing is, I can’t patent it”. One would think that a member of the resistance against corpocracy would be more of a copyleft supporter. The subtle hints have already started. Later, Sonmi is facescaped and starts her journey with Hae-Joo. The leader’s orders were ridiculously easy to decrypt, and a ridiculous explanation is given, that’s another hint. They are stopped by Unanimity but let go easily. Hae-Joo admits to have never told Sonmi his true identity. They sleep in a genomics factory, where fabricants are made.
Sonmi is suspicious: why did Union risk so much to save just one fabricant? Hae-Joo gives her the standard anti-corpocratic speech: corpocracy is dying, is unsustainable, pollution and disease are rampant while “Xecs merely watch, parroting Catechism Seven: ‘A Soul’s value is the dollars therein’“. Basically what any of us would like to hear.
So, what is Union’s master plan? “Engineering the simultaneous ascension of 6 million fabricants.” Plain old revolution. Sonmi’s role would be as proof that the ascension catalyst works and as an ambassador of Union before the ascended fabricants. This so far follows the blueprint of classical dystopia, unless it’s your second read or have been picking up the subtle hints.
Sonmi and Hae-Joo arrive at a small colony of dissidents. The Archivist is skeptical that people can live without franchises and gallerias. The standard of living sounds just as lousy but at least they are free, I guess. “If consumers found fulfillment at any meaningful level […] corpocracy would be finished. Thus, Media is keen to scorn colonies such as hers […] should the day ever come when the Board decided they were a viable alternative to corpocratic ideology, the ‘tapeworms will be renamed ‘terrorists’”. Once again we found propaganda used against alternatives.
Later, Sonmi and Hae-Joo come across a couple who have gone out to the countryside to dispose of a living doll by throwing her over a suspension bridge because it’s cheaper than doing it the official way. He later jokes that divorces aren’t as easy. This passage doesn’t add anything new, except for the fact that Sonmi later mocks it.
Once in Pusan, Sonmi is taken to Papa Song’s Golden Ark, the vessel that takes Twelvestarred fabricants to Xultation. A big group of Papa Song fabricants are lining up and supposedly being shown to their luxury cabins that would house them on their way to Hawaii. By now you probably know there’s something dodgy going on here. Fabricants are actually slaughtered and recycled to make more fabricants. Thus, the working class is not only inescapable but also cannibalizes its own resources, since the upper classes are hoarding more and more of the available resources.
The Archivist is outraged and refuses to believe that “such… “slaughtership” could possibly be permitted to xist”, the same way the upper classes refuse to believe working conditions and living standards of the working class. The Archivist claims The Beloved Chairman would have never permitted it, Sonmi retorts that ignorance of the other led to fear, to hatred, to violence until the most powerful’s will is law. And the Juche’s will is the extermination of fabricants, the same way the will of the economical elite is the perpetual impoverishment of the working class.
Sonmi starts writing a declaration of rights for fabricants. “Xpert witnesses […] denied Declarations could be the work of a fabricant, ascended or otherwise”, The Archivist points out. Once again, the underclass is uneducated, therefore stupid, therefore doesn’t deserve to be educated. As soon as she finished the Declarations, Sonmi is arrested. “There was no reason for Unanimity to let me run free. My arrest was dramatized for Media.” Sonmi had already figured out that if she had gotten so far, it was because Unanimity let her, and if they let her do it, it was because there was something in it for them. Everything that happened to Sonmi had been carefully staged for posterity. “Did you not detect the hairline cracks in the plot?”, Sonmi asks the Archivist and also the reader: “Wing ~027 was as stable an ascendant as I: was I really so unique? You yourself suggested, would Union truly risk their secret weapon on a dash across Korea? Did Seer Kwon’s murder of the Zizzi Hikaru fabricant on the suspension bridge underline pureblood brutality a little too neatly? Was its timing not a little too pat?” Right under your nose, reader.
So what about Union? “Firstly, it attracts social malcontents like Xi-Li and and keeps them where Unanimity can watch them. Secondly, it provides Nea So Copros with the enemy required by any hierarchical state for social cohesion”. And why did Unanimity bother to stage the whole thing? Propaganda. More hatred and more fear. To be able to pass a new Fabricant Xpiry Act. To discredit Abolitionism. I’m sure you can think of real-life examples of such maneuvres.
I’d like to close with a quote from Malcolm X: “If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”