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TPG reviews: The Mount, by Carol Emshwiller

April 9, 2013

Despite a strong start, The Mount is hobbled by poor world-building and a truly abysmal ending.

Charley is an athlete. He wants to be painted crossing the finish line, in his racing silks, with a medal around his neck. But Charley isn’t a runner. He is a human mount, the property of one of the alien invaders called Hoots. Charley hasn’t seen his mother in years, and his father is hiding out in the mountains with the other Free Humans. The Hoots own the world, but the humans want it back. Charley knows how to be a good mount-now he’s going to have to learn how to be a human being. This remarkable novel, winner of the 2002 Philip K. Dick Award, should be read by every fan of speculative fiction, teenagers and adults alike.

(Note: by necessity, this review will contain some spoilers)

I thought I was going to like this one.  I really did.  The book starts off beautifully, throwing the reader straight into a world where humans are little more than mounts and work animals for a race of alien rulers.  The rulers, who are called “hoots” by the humans, have powerful senses and strong arms, but have near-useless legs; consequently, the hoots are largely dependent on their human “mounts” for mobility.

The opening chapter is told from the perspective of one of the hoots, who views his human as a beloved pet and, on the whole, treats him accordingly.  At the same time, there is an undercurrent of fear and manipulation pervading the entire sequence and readers will likely be left feeling distinctly uneasy, thus paving the way for the story that follows.

From the second chapter onwards the story is told almost exclusively from the perspective of Charley, the titular mount of the book.  Charley is a pure-bred “Seattle” who, in his own words, has been “bred for size and strength”.  Charley is incredibly proud of his heritage and is even prouder when he is selected as the personal mount of the hoots’ future ruler, who he immediately begins to refer to as his Little Master.  When a band of rebels attacks the settlement, Charley rescues Little Master and the two of them are taken to a village of free humans.  Finding themselves in unfamiliar surroundings, they both begin to reconsider their long-held views.

The interactions between Charley and Little Master were easily the highlight of the novel.  They start out as being little more than a master and pet, but over time they evolve past this and into genuine friendship.  Their progress was truly heart-warming to follow and it was easy to root for them in this regard.

As a character, Charley is fascinating; as the principle narrator, however, he is also frequently infuriating.  Brought up as a prized mount for all his life, he aspires to be little else and constantly yearns to go back to his days as a mere possession.  Being a largely uneducated eleven-year-old, his speech and narration is understandably simplistic; the problem is that this just doesn’t make for a good story.  Much of Charlie’s narration is taken up by him voicing his own wishes and prejudices, to the point where it becomes difficult to follow what little plot there is.

I am honestly mystified as to why Charlie was given so much of this novel’s time.  There are actually three narrators over the course of the story and Emshwiller does a good job of making them all sound distinct, but Charlie is the only one who gets more than a single chapter.  Little Master never narrates at all – a strange omission, seeing as he becomes far more insightful than Charlie by the end of the book.

As the novel progressed, several questions began to form in my mind.  What happened to horses?  Why don’t the hoots use motor vehicles of any sort?  How did they get by on their home planet?  How did they invade in the first place when they seem so technologically inept?  The last question is answered, poorly, in a single paragraph around two thirds of the way into the book.  Most other questions are answered never at all, and it is for this reason that The Mount utterly fails as a science fiction novel.  Little Master eventually learns to walk independently; why, then, has no hoot ever managed this feat before?  And why do no other hoots follow his example?  If you’re expecting anything close to an explanation, then you’ll be disappointed.

Compounding matters is the terrible ending, which reads as though the author simply grew bored with the entire enterprise.  Late into the novel, it is suddenly revealed that the hoots’ technology is failing and that they will soon be left unable to continue their dominance.  Um…what?  If they had the know-how to get to Earth in the first place, then why are they now unable to maintain any of their equipment?  This is quite possibly the least believable alien invasion I have ever read, which is saying something.

For what it’s worth, the hoots themselves are actually pretty interesting.  They come across as truly alien both physically and mentally, and Emstwiller has clearly invested a lot of time in fleshing them out in her head.  Unfortunately, this is not nearly enough to save the book from its numerous faults.

The bottom line is that The Mount fails to live up to its premise.  Charlie is a wonderful character, but as the book’s main narrator he hamstrings the story just as often as he adds to it.  The setting is largely unbelievable and the ending is a horrible let-down.  How this won an award, not to mention a Nebula nomination, I will never know.

2/5

(PS: this book’s central concept actually shares several similarities with an earlier short story, The Silk and the Song.  Check it out here if you’re interested)

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4 Comments
  1. It feels to me that you misunderstood the notion behind the novel, or maybe I have. It seems absolutely ridiculous to myself to question why the Hoots suddenly fail and why Charlie is the main narrator. To me the novel is not so much an exploration of a story, a simple thing most could do, but an attempt to describe a perspective of human nature. A complicated and possibly unanswerable notion. In an engaging and insightful way, especially considering the period it was written in. Personally I highly disagree with your assessment, please let me know why you think it so?
    Also I know this post to be old as such but I have only engaged with this novel recently.
    I hope to construct a useful debate around this topic.

    • It is not realism in the sense why and how the alien rule? For which multiple simple explorations could be entertained, advanced race, less advanced race, disease, weapons technology, resources, need, hate, culture so on it easy to event a reason to dominate humanity, why is there so many shit sci-fi films. It is not so easy to create an exploration of human nature in the setting of alien domination. Please let me know what you think.

    • Hi Alisdair. I’d just like to apologise for not replying to your message much sooner; I’ve not been away from WordPress for quite some time, and haven’t been keeping as close an eye this blog as I should have been.

      Honestly, I’d say “a perspective of human nature” is a very accurate description of the novel. The best parts of this book – from what I remember of it, at least – revolved around Charlie’s unique view of the world. He’s not particularly bright, never fully gets over the Hoots’ brainwashing and struggles to adapt to freedom; on the other hand, he learns just enough independence to set Little Master down the right track, paving the way for a better future.

      Where this book fell down for me was in its worldbuilding. To this day, I cannot think of a way to explain how the Hoot invasion could have succeeded. They never come across as being particularly advanced in terms of technology, and their physical weaknesses only make this worse. While it’s true that their “Ho”s could take down a crowd, I can’t see that working long against an organised military; indeed, when said military finally turns up, the Hoots quickly crumble.

      All in all, I’m thinking I was indeed a bit harsh when I wrote this review, since as a character study the book works well. I stand by opinion that the worldbuilding was poor, though.

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