The Mount by Carol Emshwiller
For decades now, hundreds of science fiction and fantasy writers have
written stories about alien civilization and cultures. While this is a
central theme, sadly few books have managed to pull off the trick of trick
getting under the skin of aliens (and not in an Alien Autopsy sort of
way). With the exceptions of such masterpieces as Mary Doria Russell's
The Sparrow, we are left with aliens that are, quite sadly, merely
walking metaphors for humans.
Happily, The Mount is not one of these books (Well, of course it's not; otherwise, why did I bring up the subject?). Emshwiller has produced a work that questions just how alien the aliens could be, and how it might affect us as humans. As the novel opens, we are introduced to our protagonist, Charley, a runner for the aliens. Not a runner as in messenger, a runner as in a Mount. The aliens crashed, they conquered, and now they ride humans as show horses and as transportation.
The aliens, called "Hoots" after their loud cries and being basically shaped like tree-kangaroos, have formed a society on Earth that is basically a twisted version of the Kentucky Derby - their lives rotate around using humans as guards, as physical labor and as showpieces. It's not that the aliens are that much smarter than humans - in fact, the novel is necessarily vague about how they did manage to conquer Earth, since the humans don't remember and the Hoots don't particularly care. They're not especially cruel, much as not every slave-owner in the South was cruel, but they have a huge sense of their own superiority. They regard themselves as the superior species, and they have bred humans to believe the same. Witness young Charley.
Being raised as a Mount is all that Charley has known. He knows he has a pedigree, he lusts after the ribbons and trophies older Mounts have won, and he sees the pictures of the great Mounts in the ornamented burrows the aliens call homes. Emshwiller does a fantastic job in showing what the life of a young Mount is like, both being trained for his future rider, and the relationship that grows between Charley and his rider: the future ruler of Earth.
Here's where the novel really shines. Oh, there's a great plot about Charley being rescued by his father, a former champion rider who is leading a revolution of humans, but that's not the really meaty part of the story. That's the double thread of Charley, as both metaphors for human and animal slave. He is treated as a pampered animal, like any racing horse is, but he is also a sentient being who is kept as a slave. The novel could easily fall apart under the weight of such a double thread but Emshwiller does a fantastic job of balancing the two against each other, using first person narrative to show us how much Charley, though growing into his new-found freedom and companionship with his former rider, is still bound by the attractiveness of being a Mount and the temptation of being a luxuriously pampered showpiece.
It's a brilliant piece of work, and Emshwiller does a great job of showing that there is not only the one alien species of the invading tree-kangaroos in this novel; there is also us. We have become the aliens, thrown down from our civilization and stripped of what was ours. As Charley struggles to learn what it is to be human again, we learn something about ourselves. I'm highly looking forward to Emshwiller's next novel.
The Mount by Carol Emschwiller
Small Beer Press