Carol Emshwiller’s The Mount is one of those small books I pick up at the library, thinking, “I’ll take this to my dentist appointment and toss it off in the waiting room.”
I was wrong. I lingered over it and read it twice before I returned it to the library. The book is written in the sort of spare prose I admire so much and find so rarely. It’s narrator is Charley, an 11-year old human, who serves as the mount for his little alien master, Future-Ruler-of-Us-All. (Yes, it’s one of those spec fic stories, where aliens have taken over earth and enslaved humans.)
Where other stories of this type fail, The Mount convinces utterly with its immersion in the world it creates. Part of that immersion is Emshwiller’s keen eye for subtle details. As her mount protagonist observers, “We prefer pats. Hoots prefer strokes.” (The aliens are known as Hoots for the sound they make.) That one detail stayed with me and left me observing people for weeks to confirm it was true. Of course, humans stroke each other, but the essential communication of care, concern and friendship in human interactions is a pat. On the hand, the arm, the back. And so the Hoots use pats to indicate approval and care for their trusty steads.
Emshwiller’s descriptions of humans as mounts made me watch the treadmill traffic at the gym more closely. Some people were clearly never designed to be mounts–too much bouncing and jostling. Others are clean lines and elegant motion. In The Mount, the hoots classify two distinct types of humans: Tennessee and Seattle. The Tennessees are lither, quicker, more suited to carrying messages, while the Seattles are sturdier, more sedate, suited to carrying hoots on their shoulders over long distances. There is one runner at the gym who will always be a Seattle in my mind. He’s solidly built and he runs long laps around the track at a steady pace, but never sprints. More importantly, he runs as though gliding. As he passes me on each lap (I’ve always been a walker), I marvel that his shoulders are broad and perfectly level. They don’t dip or jerk, and I often imagine a hoot perched on him, enjoying that velvety ride.
The book is both a pleasure to read and an important lesson for writers. The details that make or break a fantasy world or an alternate history are all subtle and deeply imbedded in the story.