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Report to the Men’s Club and Other Stories, Carol Emshwiller, Small Beer Press, 2002, 270 pp.
The Mount, Carol Emshwiller, Small Beer Press, 2002, 238 pp.
In the last few years, Carol Emshwiller has received some much-deserved notice for her work. Small Beer Press published two handsome volumes of her work in 2002, a novel called The Mount and a collection of her short stories called Report to the Men's Club and Other Stories. In 2003, The Mount won the Philip K. Dick Award for best original paperback novel of the year, and one of the stories from Report to the Men's Club, "Creature," won the Nebula Award for best short story. Since then, Emshwiller has gotten more award nominations, Small Beer Press has a reissue of an older Emshwiller novel in the works, and another collection of Emshwiller's short stories is due from Tachyon Press.
Interestingly, “Creature” was one of a recent cluster of stories published by Emshwiller in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and those stories were how I became interested in Emshwiller’s work. I remember reading a story by Emshwiller in Dangerous Visions called "Sex and/or Mr. Morrison," but then there was a long time where there didn't seem to be many of her stories around. For fans of Emshwiller, Report to the Men’s Club is a glorious feast, all we could ask for and more. The stories here represent an incredible range and diversity, with a deft touch running through each work.
The Nebula Award-winning “Creature” is a story about loneliness, war, and the prospect of friendship against all odds. A man named Ben who lost his family moves to a cottage in a remote and mountainous area. The story begins when a creature shows up on his doorstep: "This creature looks more scared than I am" (85). The creature barely fits inside the cottage and there are clearly people looking for it. As the back cover puts it, "What if the orphan you were raising was a top-secret weapon, looked like Godzilla, and loved singing nursery rhymes?" Ben becomes friends with Rosie (as the creature calls herself) as he nurses Rosie back to health. There's a war going on somewhere, and Rosie is a valuable asset, so they don't have much time together. It's a haunting story, filled with a melancholy that somehow leaves the reader on a hopeful note.
This collection has two similar stories. "Mrs. Jones" is the tale of two sisters, Janice and Cora, who live on an old farmstead. One day Cora finds a small, strange winged creature in the orchard. The resulting encounter explores erotic possibilities that weren't touched on in "Creature." Another similar story is "Foster Mother." This seemed to me like the cruellest of the three stories, as it's told from the point of view of a lonely woman who is raising a strange creature for the military. She knows that one day it will be taken away from her, but she can't help herself: "What does a weapon need to know? I don't suppose much. Certainly not the names of flowers" (79).
The longest story in the collection is "Venus Rising," which reminded me strongly of James Tiptree, Jr. or the work of recent fabulists like Yves Meynard (this story in particular reminded me of “The Scalemen” in TesseractsQ). "Venus Rising" is told in alternating first-person accounts, Venus and Zeusa. Venus, or Zoe as Zeusa calls her, lives on water-covered planet of tropical temperatures and sandy beaches. She and her people have a distinct and laid-back culture, and they don't quite know what to make of this man who fell from the sky. For one thing, he's killed a few of them before they could even figure out what was happening. And he's also busy trying to spread his seed as far as possible. What will Zoe and her people do about this man? It seems like tragedy is the only possible outcome.
My personal favourite in this collection, and one of the stories I remember most vividly from F&SF, is “Grandma”. “Grandma” is the story I use to try to hook others on Emshwiller’s work; it’s a self-contained episode, and emblematic of Emshwiller’s writing in all the best ways. The story shows her loving use of character, and the way she gets outside the typical pop culture clichés by telling the story from unusual perspectives. A former superhero is getting old and her granddaughter looks after her. Here is the classic opening paragraph:
Grandma used to be a woman of action. She wore tights. She had big boobs, but a teeny-weeny bra. Her waist used to be twenty-four inches. Before she got so hunched over she could do way more than a hundred of everything, pushups, sit-ups, chinning.... She had naturally curly hair. Now it’s dry and fine and she’s a little bald. She wears a babushka all the time and never takes her teeth out when I’m around or lets me see where she keeps them, though of course I know. She won’t say how old she is. She says the books about her are all wrong, but, she says, that’s her own fault. For a long while she lied about her age and other things, too. (1)
All that needs to be said is already here! Of course, it’s Emshwiller’s genius that she comes up with a story worthy of this opening. And it’s also the perfect way to open the collection.
Report to the Men's Club has a total of nineteen stories. Some are short and evocative mood pieces. Others experiment with structure. The stories all play with narrative and voice in ways that make us examine the characters in them closely, much more closely than might happen in a story by any other writer.
The Mount is a tale of alien invasion but this old, old story has never been told like this before. The invasion itself has happened, and the aliens have been here for a while. Humans are a subservient class, and subject to intense ideological conditioning to make them happy with their lot. Part of the fun of the book, and the accompanying deep unease, comes from how inventive Emshwiller can be in her descriptions of these alien methods.
The main narrator of the book is a young human named, variously, Smiley, Charley, or Heron's child. He's a classic case of the unreliable narrator, as he is young and impressionable and enmeshed profoundly in the alien training. The title of the book refers to the main role of humans in this brave new world: the Hoots have big brains, loud voices (hence the name given to them by humans), and incredibly strong hands, but underdeveloped legs. They have trained humans to carry them around. It sounds faintly amusing, but it's told so insistently that it's more horrifying than other, more played-out ideas of what aliens might want on our planet (we also learn that the Hoots have crashed here and have no way of leaving).
Charley is a Seattle, one of two main breeds of humans. Tennessees are bred to be skinny and quick, while Seattles are the workhorse breed, strong and sturdy. Charley has been picked to be the mount reserved for His Excellent Excellency, the young Hoot also known as The-Future-Ruler-of-Us-All or Little Master. Because of his place of relative privilege, Charley can see the injustice done to his fellow humans and simply shrug it off. As the book starts, the chapters from his point of view are almost too painful to read. It's nearly a feeling of claustrophobia. He really can't think outside of the ways dictated to him by the Hoots.
Thankfully, the story soon takes Charley out of his comfortable environment. A group of Wilds (humans who have escaped) attacks the Hoot town and Charley rescues His Excellent Excellency from the carnage. They spend some time alone in the wilderness, helping each other survive, although survival is mainly on Charley's shoulders. The Wilds eventually find them, and the other humans immediately want to kill the young Hoot. Charley is not some action movie character who can arbitrarily switch long-held convictions, and he defends Little Master. The only reason he doesn't get swarmed and killed himself is that his father, one of the largest and most intimidating Seattles, is the leader of the Wilds. His father, Heron, doesn't understand his son, but he does let Charley make his own decisions.
Two relationships dominate the rest of the book: between Charley and his father, and between Charley and the Hoot he is supposed to carry. Heron and Charley don't have an easy time, especially since Charley loved his mother, and to Heron she was nothing more than a breeding assignation. The way that Charley and the young Hoot come to understand each other is the more unique side of the novel. Charley is still deep in his Seattle training, but he starts to slowly see disturbing patterns of behaviour in His Excellent Excellency that he never noticed before. Since the Hoot depends on him now for survival, the situation has changed and Charley is not expendable like he would be back in civilization.
After reading some of Emshwiller's short stories, with their intense focus on a character's point of view, I was curious to see how this approach would play out in a longer narrative. The Mount has a handful of chapters from the point of view of characters other than Charley, but the spotlight is mostly on this young boy. I think that if Charley didn't change all that much over the course of the story, the first-person narration would have been unbearable.
As I mentioned, Charley doesn't change very fast, but at least he does change. And Emshwiller has structured the story so that our conditioned reflex to cheer for the slaughter of the aliens comes under some scrutiny. It's insane for Charley to hang onto his subservience so stubbornly. But the actions of some of the Wilds are also clearly insane. The relationship between Charley and Little Master has the possibility to change the situation, but how? The sides seem so entrenched.
I like how the book develops the ideas of resistance, tolerance, and what it means to be human. I run across so many science fiction stories that treat the last part so seriously that it was refreshing to read this in The Mount:
Then my father asked, what did it mean to be a human being? I wasn't sure that was a proper question but I went along with it and said I didn't know. He didn't tell me. How am I supposed to know if nobody tells me? It's just like six times six and dinosaurs. You don't go out and discover those kinds of things for yourself. (165-166)
Charley goes on to say that it would be more practical for him to learn how to fight. I like how Charley is so stubborn but somehow ends up doing the right thing anyway. He learns what it means to be human almost by accident.
I also liked how insistently Charley critiqued the miniature social order set up by the Wilds. It's not surprising that he would dislike the idea of democracy, coming from a background of such top-down social control. But he also points out more than once that his father seems to have more than one vote in this apparent democracy. Sure, his dad is often right, but it's not much of a democratic system if there's a charismatic leader firmly in charge. Loss of freedom due to an outside threat is also an old story, just like alien invasion, but Emshwiller gives it a fresh face by way of insightful characterization.
The Mount is a short novel, at just over 200 pages, but it's unique and it makes a vivid impression. The writing is very smooth, and focused on bringing the characters to life. Emshwiller has created quite the accomplished novel.
Last modified: March 31, 2005
Copyright © 2005 by James Schellenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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