Mount, The by Emshwiller, Carol, 2002

Mount, The by Emshwiller, Carol - Book cover from Amazon.co.uk

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Carol Emshwiller is a pretty new author for me. I think I have read some of her short fiction in the past, but its only within the last five years or so that she has been publishing novel length work. That is a little bit odd, considering that she is a contemporary of Harlan Ellison and Samuel Delaney, and has been consistently publishing short genre fiction since the early 1960's. As a matter of fact, she was a proponent and a major figure in the New Wave movement, and I think she may even have had a piece published in one of Ellison's Dangerous Visions anthologies, which really helped get that movement accepted in the United States. The Mount is not Emshwiller's most recent work, and was published in 2005. I found The Mount to be very similar to Mike Connor's 1991 novelette Guide Dog, so I'm going to discuss both of them here. Emshwiller's piece gets a strong four out of five stars.

Emshwiller's The Mount is advertised as a "meditation on slavery," in one of the blurbs on the reverse book cover. That sums it up well, but misses quite a bit. In the early 21st century an enormous space ship loaded with aliens called Hoots crash landed on Earth. The Hoots were very small, and probably evolved in a lower gravity environment, as they had large heads and enormously strong hands and arms but extremely weak lower extremities. Shortly after the crash landing a war started which we lost. Most of our numbers were wiped out by a stew of virus from the Hoot's weapon stores. Those that remained were forced into a benevolent kind of servitude performing many of the labor intensive duties that the Hoots could not do themselves such as cleaning, manufacturing and agriculture. But the Hoots also took enough human captives to sustain a breeding program and started two lines of humans which were bred as mounts for the Hoots. Thus came the Seattles, the heavy work mounts which were used for sport and for work, and the Tennessees, which were bred with a smaller stature and were almost exclusively for work in tight places. Humans were given no choice in the fate of the race, but individual mounts were generally loved by their Hoot masters and cared for just like we cared for horses before the Hoots came. Humans born outside the breeding programs were called "nothings," and were generally treated as such. If you have ever been to horse country, where I am from, it is easy to see the fetishistic love that some people hold for the equestrian lifestyle mimicked by the Hoots. Most humans were kept ignorant and illiterate, and judging by the absence of major cities, it feels like many generations have passed since the Hoots landed. However a resistance existed, and since they had planes and guns, its obvious that the resistance was not new.

The book is about a particular mount, a Seattle, named Smiley by his Hoot master, but Charley by his parents. He was born as a result of a forced studding and was given as a gift to a Hoot called Little Master who after maturing would assume leadership of the Hoots. Early in the tale the village that Charley lived in was attacked by the resistance, and Little Master and Charley, who was horribly wounded and scarred in the battle, were taken captive. Charley learns soon after that the leader of the resistance was his birth father, named Heron by his parents and Beauty by the Hoots who bred him. Heron allowed Little Master to live and made Charley responsible for him. Charley, thoroughly indoctrinated by the Hoots in his role as a beast of burden, resists Heron's attempts to show him the desirability of living without the Hoot mantle. But Charley, was only 9 years old at the time of the attack. He misses his life of luxury in the Hoot villages and longed to prove to the Hoots that he was the best and most beautiful Seattle there was. His indoctrination had been so complete and effective that the only thing he wanted to do was continue to live his life in accordance with the rules set down by him by his lords, even though that meant that he could not choose his fate, could not do as he wishes, could not even participate in the selection of his own mates, and was forbidden to love anyone but his Hoot master. So he dedicated himself to making sure that Little Master lived while resisting Heron's attempts to break through to him. Heron, unfortunately, was an "incorrigible" mount, and was not only severely punished by the Hoots before escaping years before, but was used as a weapon by the Hoots to put down insurrection by other humans. Heron was woefully uneducated and somewhat brain damaged, and could hardly speak. He was however wiser than words can tell.

As the story slowly unfolds Heron began to realize that the Hoots were not going anywhere, and the best solution to human bondage was to forcibly implement a system that taught Hoots and Humans to live in harmony. He realized that allowing Little Master to live was an fortuituous decision. Little Master himself was quite immature on the day of the attack, and after he was taken captive and lived with the resistance for a time, and began to become confused about where exactly his loyalty lay. Charley was going through the same confusion, so the two youngsters helped each other survive and became friends. They decided in the end that the love that they felt for each other necessitated some major compromise. The story is amazingly told and the social development of Charley pretty closely parallels his sexual development from a boy to a man. In the end Charley also learns to love his father.

Guide Dog deals with the same issues, but in a very different context. In Guide Dog a colony of humans who landed on another planet a few generations prior had tried to develop a joint society with the planet's natives, a race of giant beetles. It has not been easy, and a system of selling children into indentured servitude has developed to help keep families afloat. The main character was sold into indenture, and was sent to an Academy to learn to be a "guide dog." Guide dogs helped beetles who has lost the powers of sight and radar to get around. He exceled at Academy and after graduating was given a "very important" job. He was assigned to Henry, perhaps the beetle race's most important artist ever.

The beetles were hive creatures and transmitted pleasure and happiness to each other by near-tangible waves of emotion. The beetles could direct the waves to humans, and could make us experience orgasmic ecstasy anytime they were pleased. In fact, the emotion was so powerful for us that we had to side-step the waves and only "taste" a bit, or we would go into a deep and immediate withdrawal depression right away. Henry and the dog got along very well, and in fact Henry came to love the dog. But the dog was challenged by one of his ex-classmates who accused him of being a junkie for the emotion and a slave to the beetles. The classmate had ulterior motives and eventually realized by assuming the dog's position in Henry's life, but before the dog realizes that his position was at risk, he internalized the ex-classmate's taungs and questioned his own existence and went into a deep depression. Before he could reconcile his slavery with the economic realities of the society he acted out, and was removed and replaced. In the end he attempted a reconciliation with Henry that led to Henry's accidental death. He was tried and convicted of murder, and sentenced to death himself.

The two stories are both wonderful. Ive kept Guide Dog in my mind for fifteen or so years now, and I don't think that this Emshwiller piece is going to fade from my memory anytime soon. Conner deals with conflict in a adversarial way and allows it to lead to the death of both parties, although dog may be saved in the end of Conner's story. Emshwiller takes a more collaborative approach to resolving the conflict and involves both sides in coming to a solution to a situation that if not stopped may lead to genocide. The difference at the core of these stories, at the heart of the slavery issue is the difference between a world view created by indoctrination, or outside influence, and intoxication, or an inward pressure. That is not to say that dog was not pushed by society to accept his role, but it was his fear over losing control, and more a fear of what others thought of him that drove him to make mistakes that led to his doom. Charley never was given any of those chances as a youth, and was quite confident that he was the best Seattle, but gradually embraced his father's hopes and dreams for him as he aged and instead of striking out, embraced them and his heritage at the same time.

There are some literary differences too. Conner has a strongly male voice and writes very clearly and concisely. I find Emshwiller's prose to be exactly the opposite. I think that she has the sensibilities of a poet and brings that kind of voice to her prose. Emshwiller never really hides the ball, but some of her language is confusing. Not that the work overall suffers for that, but I think it may drive some readers a little nutty. Overall though, if I were doing a comparative review, I'd give the clear edge to Emshwiller. Her book is beautiful and really deserves the Nebula Award that it won. Connor's novelette won a Nebula too, and deservedly so, but still, Emshwiller takes the prize here. Kind of odd considering that she is now 82 years old or so and is still going strong.

Copyright 2007, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)

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