Alex Shearer, the author of the amazing adventure fantasy THE CLOUD HUNTERS, explains his inspiration for the novel.
Often, answering the question as to where a story came from is a matter of being wise after the event. At the time you don’t necessarily have any idea, and even in retrospect it isn’t always clear.
So I could be mistaken, but I’m fairly sure that the idea for The Cloud Hunters had its beginnings in a holiday I took a while ago to the Maldives – a cluster of about twelve hundred small islands in the Indian Ocean. The average height of the islands is about 1.5 metres above sea level, and the capital island is Male. About two hundred of the islands are inhabited. Many of the others are tiny – some little more than rocks in the sea.
To reach them, you first fly to Male airport, situated on its own island, adjacent to Male itself, and from there make your way to your holiday destination on a small 30-seater turbo-prop sea plane, which flies you over a spectacle of atolls and coral reefs and lagoons that seem to be from another world. The islands lie in the sea beneath you as if they were suspended in the very sky through which you are flying. The sky and the sea are the same shade of turquoise. On a calm, wave-less day, the ocean and the air seem to blend into one element. The Maldivian islands could be floating in space.
So that was part one of the idea – the notion of a world of floating islands. Part two came when we arrived at our destination – an island little bigger than a couple of football pitches, with a few palm trees upon it, myriad vivid and exotic fish swimming around it, and, most significantly, next to no water. Any rainfall was collected, but this was nowhere near enough. The rest of the drinking water had to be imported in bottles, or fresh water was created from desalinated sea water.
But what if there had been no sea? What if there really was a world of islands, suspended in space? Where would their water come from? Well, as rainfall from the clouds, naturally. But what if there were no clouds that day, or the next day, or for weeks to come? Then you’d need to go and hunt for them, track them down, condense and compress their vapour and turn them into usable water. And so the idea of Cloud Hunters was born.
The next question was what would these Cloud Hunters be like? Well, nomadic – as they would constantly be travelling. And they would be outside of ordinary society too, for perpetual travellers always are. They would be independent and resourceful, for they would only have themselves to rely on. And, as far as more conventional people went, they would be regarded with some suspicion, hostility even, as they came by to trade their water in exchange for money and goods.
As we flew home from the island we had stayed on, some weeks later, and I saw again the small islands in the startlingly blue sea, I imagined a boat – not a plane – sailing through the sky, silent and steady, driven by sails and solar panels, and chasing a mountain of distant clouds. The hunters on board were tanned a deep brown; they wore bracelets and tattoos; they had ritual scars on their faces to mark them out as different from those with more secure, less dangerous lives. In short, they were outcasts – misunderstood; needed but not appreciated; suspected, even feared a little – the way that those who provide what is most essential to life are often the least valued.
And I thought that if any travel company offered a cloud hunting holiday, I’d go on it tomorrow. But no one does. So I did the next best thing.