This is a book I'd likely never have discovered had it not been for its Nebula nomination, and that could well be the case for many other readers. Having read it I can only say I'm very disappointed a book like this makes the final Nebula ballot while far superior work like China Miéville's The Scar falls by the wayside. (And it won the Philip K. Dick award!) Suffice it to say that whatever it is about this book that is blowing away awards committees is missing me by a mile.
The Mount is an original and sometimes disturbing fable in which the human race has been conquered by aliens called Hoots who use us as horses. While it's certainly a fascinating scenario, it doesn't exactly work as allegory, and as straightforward SF it fails the plausibility test. Whether you're writing traditional space opera adventure or pushing the envelope with bold literary experimentation, good storytelling always follows the same rules. If I can suspend disbelief for your story, the story works. If I can't, it doesn't. It's possible that The Mount might have worked better as a novella or novellette, where the premise of the story could have been suitably shocking in a short form that didn't give readers time to think about all of its flaws. Drawn out to novel length, those flaws were all I could think about.
The protagonist is 11-year-old Charley, who serves as the mount for a little Hoot prince whom he calls Little Master. Charley is comfortable with his life, and wants to excel in shows and races as he gets older. Sure, he'd like to find his mother and everything, but on the whole he doesn't seem to feel a bit of ill will towards these aliens who control him and feed him with stories about how "free" he really is under their dominance.
Then Charley's world is turned upside down when a ragtag band of wild humans invades the town and smashes up the place. Charley escapes with Little Master, and the two of them soon find themselves in the company of the wild humans' leader, who happens to be Charley's father. But Charley hates this man and longs to return to his "real" home and his old way of life. This he eventually does, only to discover that he's no longer sure exactly where he belongs any more. Charley understands that humans — named Sams and Sues by the Hoots — live under oppressive conditions, but he'd still rather live in a comfortable stall with heating and hot and cold running water, than out in some cave in the mountains with the "real" Free Humans.
A brief pause here to catalog everything that's already wrong with this novel after only the first few chapters. Author Molly Gloss, who herself ought to win a Nebula for overheated hyperbole, provides a sycophantic quote on the back cover in which she mentions no fewer than three times that The Mount is "more human, more real, more moving" than any novel SF has ever seen up to this point, basically. I imagine the weather in Molly's alternate universe must be lovely. Human? While Charley is, to a certain degree, sympathetic, I defy any reader to find a character in this novel to whom they can relate. Real? Good grief. This is a novel that asks us to believe that aliens who have not even evolved the ability to walk on their own legs:
have become the dominant intelligent species on their homeworld (about which we learn nothing).
have not managed to develop the technology to become ambulatory on their own (except for little stool-sized wheelchair thingys).
despite the above, have figured out how to discover the existence of another intelligent race somewhere else in the galaxy, build spacecraft to reach us, and mount an invasion against us for the sole purpose of riding around on our shoulders, though they give no evidence of possessing sufficient technology to actually accomplish these things.
succeeded at that invasion, despite the fact they seem to lack anything in the way of an advanced civilization featuring such things as politics, culture, and a military with sophisticated weaponry. (The only weapons the Hoots wield are these electric prods, and when the wild humans led by Charley's father invade the Hoot village — which is nothing but stucco buildings — they demolish the place with almost no effort. And I'm supposed to believe the Hoots vanquished an entire human race defended by highly trained armies, navies, air forces, and marines armed with high-tech smart weapons?)
At this point the novel's defenders are saying, "But you're reading this novel all wrong. You aren't supposed to judge it by standards demanding strict adherence to plot logic, or any standard that any lesser novel would be expected to obey. This book is a brilliant allegorical rumination on the nature of freedom vs. slavery, on oppression and its effects on people and cultures. Thus, it should be granted special critical dispensation. How shallow you are to focus on such mundane technical issues." Again I say that good storytelling is good storytelling period, the rules the same regardless. If I believe your story, it works. If I don't, it doesn't. Be it pulp trash or brilliant allegory.
And does The Mount really work as an allegory? The dictionary defines an allegory as a "prolonged metaphor," where "the principal subject is described by another subject resembling it in its properties and circumstances." This immediately prompts the question of whether or not allegorical stories about, say, cruelty and oppression do a better job of delivering the message (that it's, you know, wrong) than a straightforward story on the same subject, e.g.: Schindler's List. I don't know what your average English Lit professor might tell you, but to me an allegory works when it provides me with a profound new insight into a fact of life I had never thought to consider before. I got no such insights into the concepts of freedom or oppression from The Mount. One gets more of those just by reading news reports on the ongoing strife in the Middle East.
Yes, there is a little merit to The Mount. Emshwiller is an accessible, readable writer. Many scenes, taken in isolation, have impressive (if not powerful, as none of the characters makes that strong an impression) dramatic authority. At the same time, there's nothing so suspenseful about the narrative that I ever felt a "can't put it down" urgency to my reading. Putting this book down came all too easily.
I've never figured out what it is about certain kinds of stories that causes some people to just disconnect their critical faculties, even when said story's flaws are more glaring than in most novels. I know many readers are undemanding, but people who sit on awards committees, you'd think, aren't the same folks who pop by their supermarket's paperback rack and blurt, "Cool, the new Star Trek Voyager book!" I think Carol Emshwiller is a kindred spirit to Neil Gaiman (who is, it must be said, vastly superior in any case): both writers seem capable of spinning tales with a sense of style that convinces readers their stories are more substantial and meaningful than they actually are. Then again, when it comes to "getting" books like The Mount, maybe I'm just plain dumb as a horse.