Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Mount - Carol Emshwiller

I read Carol Emshwiller's The Secret City last year as part of a reading challenge. It's an interesting little novel and one of the better ones I've read in 2013. After reading it I wondered what Emshwiller could do in the short format, as her style seems more suited to that. I was planning on reading a collection by her this year but somehow ended up with a copy of her novel The Mount instead. It was published in 2002 and won the Philip K. Dick Award that year, beating, among others, China MiƩville's impressive Bas-Lag novel The Scar. The Mount is quite a different story than the one told in The Secret City but both are fascinating reads.

The Mount is the story of Charley, a boy nearing adolescence who is bred and brought up as a mount for a race of aliens. The Hoots, as they are referred to are intellectually superior to humans but, although endowed with formidably strong hands, are incapable of walking any significant distance. Instead they rely on their mounts to get around, which they control with their hands. Humans are ideal for the task. Smart enough to be trained, just the right size, endowed with strong legs and capable of understanding the threat posed by the hands of their riders around their necks. Charley doesn't need to be threatened though. He wants to be a good mount. Until, that is, wild humans raid his settlement and he comes into contact with his father and a different way of life.

Emshwiller does a number of very interesting things in this novel. She has stated that she was originally inspired by a class she'd taken in the psychology of pray animals versus predators. The Mount turns these rolls around with the prey eventually enslaving the predator. There are lots of little signs of the origins of the Hoot as prey. Most notably their tendency to seek out small enclosed spaces to hide for shelter. I'm not entirely sure how much sense this makes biologically speaking but in the story it makes Hoots and their response to danger quite unique. Their control often seems tenuous at best, although Charley doesn't seem to think so, and is mostly based on the image of benevolence and superiority. When it comes to physical violence they are only dangerous in very specific situations.

We see almost the entire story through Charley's eyes and over the course of the novel his view of the world changes drastically. In the early stages of the novel he just wants to be a good mount and has a close relationship with his master. He wants to please and he wants his master to take good care of him. In fact the devotion he shows to his master gave me the creeps in the opening chapters of the novel. It would have been easy to have him radically change his mind when he is exposed to freedom for the first time but Emshwiller takes her characters down a different path. His conditioning doesn't break easily and his relationship with his master remains strong. Charley is torn between wanting to make his own choices and being protected by his master. Eventually the slave/master relationship shifts into something harder to define.

Many readers will be so used to their freedom that they'll find it hard to imagine how Charley might not be all that interested. The wild humans he is first exposed to are to be pitied in his opinion. Their lives are misery, devoid of even the smallest of comforts. Charley wonders why they would want to live this way when they can have the Hoots take care of them. It's a naive view from a young boy who hasn't seen the full extent of the treatment humans get from the Hoots. It clashes so violently with the freedom western society takes for granted that many readers will have a hard time swallowing it. I thought it was a brilliant bit of writing however. Emshwiller shows us Charley's level of maturity and challenges the reader to think of oppression and the psychology of the oppressed in one move.

Like The Secret City the story is told in fairly straightforward language but it makes the reader work to get the full picture nevertheless. Charley's views are often childish but portrayed in such a way that the reader can get more meaning out of it than Charley does himself. His Hoot master, although in a similar state of development himself, is usually a few steps ahead of him but puts things into an alien framework. Another important character in the novel, Charley's father, has problems expressing himself in clear language. His body language and the way he vents his frustration are an important part of how he communicates with Charley and the reader. All these very limited views combined can be interpreted in a number of ways, making the book deceptively challenging. It's one of those books that rewards the reader for looking beyond the superficial and diving into the characters.

The Mount is clearly a science fiction novel but the focus is very much on psychology. The alien invasion is not the center of the story, there are no epic space battles or explorations of strange alien cultures. Readers looking for that type of science fiction will be disappointed. The novel is something of an allegory for slavery or oppression and can be interpreted or applied to many different situations. Some reviewers have suggested it comments on the way we treat animals ourselves for instance and, although I don't think that was Emshwiller's intent, it fits well enough. It's a very effective text really, I'm impressed with how much Emshwiller has packed into such a short novel. It is challenging the reader's convictions about freedom and oppression and invites them to pick the characters brains to understand their motivations. I'm pretty sure I haven't gotten all out of this novel yet after one reading. I'm going to have to revisit it in a few years.

Book Details
Title: The Mount
Author: Carol Emshwiller
Publisher: Small Beer Press
Pages: 232
Year: 2002
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 1-931520-03-8
First published: 2002

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