5 thoughts on ““The Mountains His Crown” by Sarah Pinsker”

  1. I will take up a theme from the story Ziv posted last Wednesday with one that combines some fairy-tale motifs with a modern fantasy style to create a story of resistance to power. Here we have a land ruled by a king who behaves in a manner that’s fit for story kings (not to say that no real-world dictator ever created a ruinously vast vanity project — try googling the Romanian "People’s Palace", for one — just that this royal project is fit for a fairy tale in its scope and weirdness.) The opposition to him is familiar from another genre of folk stories: the clever commoner (usually a woman) who talks back to the tyrant and shows him the error of his ways. It’s no wonder, I think, that Disney and suchlike mass marketers of tales don’t favor that genre nearly as much as princess stories; its subversive potential is too obvious to appeal to corporate taste. But Sarah Pinsker’s story, while using these story elements, doesn’t adopt the style to go with them. First, the writing is too detailed for a folk story; second, there is too much emphasis on cooperation between all the farmers (folk stories nearly always focus on a single character); third, the ending is ambiguous as to whether the plan worked. I think, however, that these disparate stylistic elements work together rather well. If I tried thinking of it as a straight fantasy story, the premise would seem too wacky, but thinking in folktale mode works better.

  2. I agree that the scope of the Emperor’s vanity project is ludicrous, in a way that feels out-of-step with otherwise firmly-grounded story, characters, and narrative. It doesn’t *feel* like a folk story going "Once, a foolish emperor decided that the whole land should be a portrait of him". In other words, I disagree with Levana; I think the threat and the absurdity are intended to be taken at face value. Which is a stretch.

    On the other hand, the story is responding to *just that much* level of ludicrousness. That’s what enables the farmers’ response to be clear, forceful, and unambiguous. I really like the ending, and I wouldn’t describe it as ambiguous at all: the point isn’t whether or not the Emperor realizes his error. The point is that the farmers and commonfolk are presenting the Emperor with a very straightforward choice: either accept reality, or else you’re going to push your subjects to rebel and end your reign.

    By making the land a proxy for the Emperor, Pinsker pulls off a very neat trick, making the threats of both change and uprising very clear, even though she doesn’t go into any detail whatsoever. Instead, the vivid imagery of natural decay, or of a hundred bloodstains across the emperor’s body, make the threats (and their inevitability) very clear indeed.

    So… she sacrifices plausibility for an AWESOME image. I can live with that 🙂

    1. Yes, the ending is very good. It’s a short, direct story that depicts the abuse of power and its limits with stark inages.

  3. I have reread this story and like it better the second time. Ziv has a point; this is a fantasy story developing a very grounded portrait of a small community of people and how they react to a completely out-of-context threat. The story starts with a bizarre machine, referred to as a "monster", flying the Emperor’s face, arriving on the farm from apparently nowhere. This apparition sets up everything about the Emperor: he comes from elsewhere, he has overwhelming technological force, he’s very fond of the sight of his own face, and his actions make no sense whatsoever in the context of local life.

    Maybe coming from far away is one of the keys to the Emperor’s behavior: he knows nothing about this place and doesn’t care to learn. After all he is used to saying to people like his agronomists "make it happen" and believing it will happen, somehow. He has a level of power that has led to an incredible degree of egotistical solipsism, where he believes that everything around him is an extension of his will. That’s the meaning of his face on banners: all this is not just mine, it’s me ("l’??tat c’est moi" is more than a mere figure of speech to him). He is about to be harshly confronted with the limits of his power, though, when he tries to shape the land itself as an extension of his whims (he should have been told the story of King Canute rebuking his flattering advisers). What’s more he doesn’t have as perfect control of his own court associates as he thinks, if the hints of dissatisfaction in the surveyor party are any indication.

    Contrast this with Kae, who is something of an outsider in the south, but not from incomprehensibly far away — the mountains are economically linked to the plains and Kae talks about how one affects the other. Kae has been making a real effort to get to know the neighbors too — certainly doesn’t have enough power to even dream of getting by without them. There’s a sharp contrast between the obvious interdependence of the farmers and the Emperor’s "I alone" attitude.

    One thing that isn’t much explored in this story is the role of technology. Kae doesn’t seem to understand much about how those gadgets work, and there’s apparently a great divide between educated people and farmers, which is probably how the Emperor was able to take all technology away — if producing and distributing it was in the hands of only a few people, he could coopt them. But that’s another situation that can’t possibly last long.

    1. Great observations about seeing people at a distance and cooperating with others.

      I want to call out that perhaps it’s not only the surveyors who demonstrate the Emperor’s shaky status with his underlings — consider how *all* the Emperor’s emissaries are sullen, and particularly how they provide no information. That *could* just be a story contrivance to keep suspense up, but it makes a *lot* of sense in context – these are people who are *either* being given oblique, destructive instructions, or else they know part of what’s happening and don’t want to be the ones delivering the message if they don’t absolutely have to.

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