Review: The Mount

The Mount
by Carol Emshwiller

Charley loves to run. His rider urges him on in the races, and Charley is good at what he does. He’s treated well. He gets treats. He has the best stall.

Charley is a human. His rider is an alien, a hoot, whose race conquered the earth long ago. Ever since, they’ve used humans as mounts, since they are unable to move on their own. They ride on a human’s shoulders, guiding the human where to go. Kindness is best, and they treat their mounts with the greatest respect and love, giving everything a human might want. Charley loves his hoot, the Future-Ruler-Of-Us-All, and wants nothing more than to win more medals and ribbons in the races.

And then Charley’s father ruins everything. He frees Charley, kidnapping him and bringing him to live with the Wilds, free humans who live in the hoot-free mountains. And Charley hates it. Can he get free to rejoin his beloved host? Should he?

This book is arresting. The prose is quiet. If it were made into a movie, the soundtrack would be sparse, and the end credits would simply be the sound of wind and a single person running on a forest path. It’s written entirely in the present tense and the first person. I’ve read books written in the present tense before. Usually it’s a little unsettling and hard to get into. Not here. Here, the present tense is perfectly written to convey exactly what the author wants to convey. This is possibly the purest first-person narrative I’ve ever read. Most first-person narrative ends up being a limited third person perspective with a few thought bubbles. Not here. This novel submerges us into Charley’s head, to the point where the reader might even start siding with him and deciding freedom is crap compared to being a mount.

The writing style is great. The plot is fantastic. The themes are immense. It asks questions. How much is freedom worth? Isn’t it better to have what you need instead of risking death just so you can say you’re free? Charley asks hard questions, and the book does deliver some fantastic answers. Rather than vilifying the alien invaders, Emshwiller is able to portray them as real characters. Do they deserve to be overthrown? This is another good question the book asks and does answer in a satisfying manner.

The nearest narrative to this I can think of is Lois Lowry’s The Giver. The Mount is definitely science fiction, but of a “quieter” kind. There are no great space battles. There’s no huge use of technology. It simply takes a great concept — what if we were used as mounts to a race superior intellectually but not physically? — and it explores the options. It explores what it means to be human. It explores prejudice.

I highly recommend this book. I would go so far to recommend it for reading in a junior high setting, except for two very brief sexual passages near the end of the book as Charley deals with attraction to the opposite sex.

A note: As I search Amazon, I see they don’t have a copy of my edition available, and instead have one with a rather… well, the cover isn’t attractive to my eyes. I find this curious, as mine is a newer edition with a much better cover. I found it for $1 at a Half Price Books, and it is well worth the price — look for it at used book stores. The book has positive reviews from Ursula K. LeGuin, won the Philip K. Dick award, and got a lot of other accolades. I am a little surprised it’s not more widely available after all that!

Anyway, go find this book or borrow my copy. It’s well worth it.

4 thoughts on “Review: The Mount

  1. Excellent review. I will likely purchase this book to read myself! Could you provide a small excerpt that shows us a good example of the unassuming prose of the book, and the eerie use of present tense?

  2. A short excerpt from the opening pages:

    We’re not against you, we’re for. In fact we’re built for you and you for us — we, so our weak little legs will dangle on your chest and our tail down the back. Exactly as you so often transport your own young when they are weak and small. It’s a joy. Just like a mother-walk.

    You’ll be free. You’ll have a pillow. You’ll have a water faucet and a bookcase. We’ll pat you if you do things fast enough and don’t play hard to catch. We’ll rub your legs and soak your feet. Sams and Sues, and you Sams had better behave yourselves.

    You still call us aliens in spite of the fact that we’ve been on your world for generations. And why call aliens exactly those who’ve brought health and happiness to you? And look how well we fit, you and us. As if born for each other even though we come from different worlds.

    We mate the stocky with the stocky, the thin with the thin, the pygmy with the pygmy. You’ve done a fairly good job with that yourselves before we came. As to skin, we like a color a little on the reddish side. Freckles are third best.

    Your type is called a Seattle. I hope to find other Seattles to mate with you, and soon.

    Your young will stay with their mothers until weaning. We’ll stroke them all over to make them love us. Four months is the crucial time for imprinting you predators. And your young do love us. You all do. We’re the ones with the treats. Leather straps will help keep you in line and help us keep our seat. There will sometimes be prickers on our toes. How and if these are used, and when, depends, of course, on you.

    You are the recipient of our kindness, our wealth and knowledge, our intelligence, our good growth of greens. Without us you’d not exist. Remember that. Though it’s true a few of you still survive in the mountains. We care nothing for mountains. What can you grow in the mountains that’s not better grown in the valleys? Or build?

    There is no need for you, or any of you, to learn how to count. And why read? We like you well-muscled. Reading is not conducive to muscles. We prefer that you hook yourself to the go-round instead.

    My offspring will be pleased with you. They already know good lines: Slope of shoulders, rise of chest, slim waist, more so in your females. And, and most important, sturdy legs. Legs are what we’re taught to notice first. Hands last. Compared to ours, your hands are so small and weak. Then there’s the look in the eye. You should have a kind eye. Many things depend on such knowledge, or else there would be more danger than there already always is.

    Our young adore you. They even adore your straps and buckles. They keep your pictures above where they curl up. They hang your worn-out shoes over their doorways. They save apples for you that they feed you piece-by-piece — and strawberries and chocolate.

    As we go along on your shoulders, head to head (so sweetly!), cheek to cheek, our sun hats cover you also, and our rain hats. Some of us whisper our most secret secrets into your ear as we go.

    You can find an extended preview here:

  3. Wow. Chilling, but… I don’t know. Definitely on my “to-read” list. You get the impression that maybe their culture pursued the psychological sciences with the deftness that Mankind pursues the physical sciences.

  4. The author began writing this book after she took a class in the psychology of prey animals, so I’m sure at least some of this is intentional. (The book reveals this in the “About the Author” section in the back.)

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