Published: 31st March 2018
Who said fantasy fiction cannot teach you life lessons? Stephen Alter's latest sure will
Author Stephen Alter hopes to encourage students to question authority through his satirical, fantasy novel The Cloudfarers
One often wonders about the workings of minds like J K Rowling, who successfully conjure up alternate universes like Hogwarts within the one we inhabit. These universes, which begin as a figment of their imagination, successfully take over ours. With The Cloudfarers, 61-year-old author Stephen Alter does the same. Just like the other students of the tyrannical Paramount Academy, the Cloudfarers are also beings from another land, but their ability to walk on clouds (aside from other special attributes) set them apart, even from Kip, the protagonist, who they ultimately befriend.
Storytelling has to be convincing, whether it pretends to tell the truth or makes up plausible lies. Even the most outrageous science fiction or fantasy contains empirical facts and we know that academic writing and textbooks are often full of erroneous opinions and observations
Stephen Alter, author
But just how does one create these other worlds, we ask him. “When you create an alternate reality in fiction, it is always based on memory and imagination in roughly equal parts. The Cloudfarers is very much the kind of daydream I had as a child, except in the book, those fantasies are fulfilled,” says Alter, who attended boarding school in the Himalayas and hence, grew up surrounded by clouds and mist.
But Alter remains confident that it will strike a chord with not just those who are in boarding schools, but with any student, past or present, as “it may bring back memories of the loneliness, excitement and independence that all of us felt, at one time or another,” says the author, who is the first cousin of recently deceased actor Tom Alter.
First glimpse: The book cover of Alter's The Cloudfarers
The American author graduated out of Woodstock School in Landour, whose principal was his own father. So, was his alma mater anything like Paramount Academy, just like he hints in the prologue? “I’ll admit, I was teasing,” he states, but asserts that he remains skeptical about the education system of today. “Schools have become factories that manufacture supposedly intelligent and well-behaved products to please their parents and teachers. Of course, that’s a lot of rubbish. Education should allow the young to think for themselves and not limit their potential because of false standards set by adults,” says Alter, who has taught writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA and at the American University, Cairo. He hopes that The Cloudfarers, which is an entertaining and suspenseful story with an element of satire and fantasy, encourages students to question authority.
Alter began writing The Cloudfarers about two years ago but then set it aside for six months to finish another project. Currently, he is trying to finish writing a Biography of the Himalayas, which is a non-fiction book
So, will it take someone like the Cloudfarers to not only point out, but change all that is wrong with the existing system? Irrespective of who brings it, Alter argues that change is something we should embrace even if it comes about because of refugees from another planet. But unfortunately, “we seem to spend so much of our lives being afraid of outsiders when they’re really not that dangerous or threatening and they can teach us a lot of new things,” and with this and through his novel, Alter leaves us to ponder our reality.