Carol Emshwiller, |
(Small Beer Press, 2002)
Since Mary Shelley first warned us on the dangers of science without conscience, science fiction has drawn deeply from the well of social satire and political allegory. With her newest novel, The Mount, Carol Emshwiller continues that tradition with a story that has the cautionary powers of a George Orwell and a compassionate tenderness all her own.
On an Earth not too far away from now, an alien race humans refer to as "Hoots" has crash-landed on Earth. Presumably, the Earth's gravity is too strong for the Hoot's legs, for they cannot walk on their own. But the Hoots quickly solve their locomotion problem: why not turn all those big, two-legged primates into beasts-of-burden? Humans become Mounts, the beloved pets of their captors. Naturally, some humans object to this course of events, but Hoots control the world since their plague decimated the human population. And, life with the Hoots really is not too bad; the Mounts live their lives in comfortable paddocks that have hot water and refrigerators. The Hoots give their Mounts strawberries and chocolates and keep them well groomed. A preferable life to that of a Wild: a poor human living on its own without clean clothing or the benefit of a good brushing! No self-respecting Mount would want such a life and so the next generation begins with Hoots on their backs.
That state of affairs is just fine with 12-year-old Charley. Charley is the Mount-in-training to the Hoot's heir-apparent, The-Future-Ruler-Of-Us-All. But to Charley, his Hoot is just Little Master, the friend who rides on Charley's shoulders, the source of Charley's pride and the insurance that Charley will live a life of grand races, award-ribbons, air-conditioning and the knowledge that, of all the racing Seattles, Charley is the best. Charley thinks his life is perfect. But when his father, the leader of the Wilds, rescues Charley from the Hoots, Charley gets a gift he did not want: freedom. Of a sort. For Charley refuses to live without Little Master. As the Wilds struggle to free themselves from Hoot domination, Charley and Little Master learn how fluctuating are the lines between slave and master, friend and enemy, child and adult. What they do with the knowledge they gain holds the fates of all Hoots and humans alike.
In a recent interview with Science Fiction Weekly, Ursula Le Guin called Emshwiller "the most unappreciated great writer we've got." The Mount proves Le Guin right. Emshwiller gifts us with a rare treatise on the nature of humanity with this novel. Her unique interlocking coming-of-age tales explore the psychological complexity of slavery in a multifaceted way not often seen in works dealing with bondage. Charley's and Little Master's clear love for one another unsettles the reader by refusing to allow for an obvious moral high-ground. As always, Emshwiller is locked on to her protagonist's voice; her deceptively simple tone and emotive prose leave the reader aching with empathy for Charley as he scrapes his way back to humanity. Hard science fiction fans will be unhappy with the believability of Emshwiller's new Earth; the science is the novel's only main weakness, as Emshwiller provides only flimsy explanations for how the Hoots conquer Earth and how they maintain their dominance. But fans of political and sociological science fiction will find a reassuring voice in Emshwiller's troubling tale. If Emshwiller is not already on your top bookshelf, The Mount will put her there.