Floating islands

Writers of fantastic fiction face a unique challenge when they sit down to write. They can imagine anything happening anywhere anytime. Their only limitation is making their story readable. One difference between science fiction and fantasy is science fiction implies its stories are not pure fantasy but something reality could have generated. Robert Reed’s story, “Good Mountain” I believe was intended for the realm of the believable, but it feels somewhat like The Bible, not meant to be the literal truth but nonetheless, a message we should interpret.

Robert Reed is a prolific author whose superpower is imagination. I’m not sure “Good Mountain” gets the admiration it deserves. The reason I’m writing about this story is  “Good Mountain” is included in The Very Best of the Best edited by Gardner Dozois, which I’m reviewing one story at a time. This story struck many 2006 reviewers as among the best in One Million A.D., an original anthology edited by Gardner Dozois. But some of those reviewers have gotten distracted by the giant worms that the characters ride and ignored the story’s other more fantastic elements.

Don’t let my enthusiasm for this story suggest it’s a masterpiece, it’s not, but it’s very good. I keep trying to ascertain what would put it over the top but that’s hard to put into words. The story is a third person account of Jopale, a refuge, who meets two significant characters on his fleeing journey, Brace the worm conductor, and Do-ane, a secretive woman with a large book. None of these figures have any literary depth to them, but they each stand for something like characters in a parable. “Good Mountain” is like an oracle, you can read anything into its message. I read it as a metaphor for climate change and the end of our civilization, but I think it will work with any end-of-the-something scenario.

I want to use the word “recapitulate” to describe “Good Mountain” in the same way I used it to review “The Potter of Bones” by Eleanor Arnason. Reed and Arnason use their stories of alien worlds to recapitulate what goes on in our world. They feel like fables or allegories. In “Good Mountain” the characters call themselves human, but we don’t know if they’re Homo sapiens. They do not know about space travel or Earth. In some ways, this story reminds me of Asimov’s “Nightfall.” Jopale’s planet is a strange one, comprised of floating islands that occasionally coalesce into continents long enough for civilizations to arise, but eventually come apart in cycles of natural catastrophes. Reed creates a beautiful biosystem of islands made of wood, with their roots dangling into the ocean, floating on a planetary sea that always faces its star, with a civilization built without metal. Fire and methane are what these people fear.

Arnason and Reed are plowing the same pasture in the science fiction landscape. They accept the challenge of writing the fantastic by creating whole worlds, but they aren’t the kind of worlds that true believers of the final frontier expect humans to colonize. Reed and Arnason aren’t science fiction writers working to scientifically imagine life on exoplanets. Their worlds are metaphorical. Their worlds aren’t NASA discoverable, but Impressionistic worlds of their imagination. Their stories remind me of N. K. Jemison’s recent work, the kind of science fiction that evolved out of Ursula K. Le Guin’s tales in the 1960s.

I get the feeling Robert Reed has much to say about our reality, but he speaks his mind in the language of science fiction. I’m not sure I can properly translate his communique because of its metaphorical nature. I can’t tell if he’s just telling us about a screwy dream, or if he wishes to be like an Old Testament prophet, preaching “The End is Near.” The story’s final twist would have given Philip K. Dick a Cheshire Cat smile.

“Good Mountain” is about Jopale fleeing fires racing across the continent. He rides a giant worm to a distant port, traveling with others hoping to escape to their collective doom. The escapees bring mockmen, their servant/slaves, who may or may not be human, but which give the story an extra twist that I can’t decipher. Along the way, this worm of fools hears a whispered tale, one that offers an enchanted sliver of hope, causing each to selfishly seek their own salvation at the expense of the others. Throughout this story, the citizens of this exotic land always act on self-interest without guilt, except for Brace, the worm handler. That’s why this story feels like a morality play.

One of the benefits of reading a science fiction anthology is learning about new authors and new types of science fiction. I’ve read a few stories by Robert Reed over the years but never researched into his background. For instance, I did not know about his Greatship series, of which “Good Mountain” somehow fits late in its cycle, so I’m now intrigued to find out more. Also, this story could be meta-fiction about science fiction, another avenue to pursue.

“A favorite science fiction writer of mine is William Faulkner!” Reed told Locus in an interview in 1998. That might be a clue to why I liked this story. It’s not my normal kind of science fiction. Both “Good Mountain” and “The Potter of Bones” are novellas and are my favorite stories of the six I’ve read so far in The Very Best of the Best. I’m just beginning my journey through this vast anthology. Reading and writing about it has become a course in science fiction. You can jump back to the beginning of my journey here and follow the links of the stories I’ve reviewed so far.

Read other reviews of “Good Mountain” at:

James Wallace Harris, March 6, 2019

2 thoughts on ““Good Mountain” by Robert Reed

  1. This is a wonderful review, engaging with the high concept of the story, without trying to nail it down and deconstruct it, rivet by rivet.

    As you know, I dash off a brief note on every story I read, and in this case my note read:

    “A strange journey inside a giant worm (surgically altered to take passengers), in which the narrator attemps to flee impending doom in his homeland. Everything in this world appears to be made of wood, including the very terrain on which the characters live … a mysterious passenger on board the worm reveals that her destination is Good Mountain (“Mountain” is an almost unknown word in this culture, surviving from antiquity), which may be the wreck of a starship, many orders of magnitude larger than anything else in this unusual world.

    Are the inhabitants of this world, including the worm, distant and vastly reduced descendants of the travellers in the starship? Reed manages the unusual feat of teasing obscurity (as in “Coelacanths”), here coupled with surprising readability.”

    My rating of the story translates to “better than just good”.

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    1. Yes, this story is better than just good. It deserves more attention than its gotten. I hope The Very Best of the Best finds a wide readership. I’ve been mentioning in all the groups I’m in. “Good Mountain” would make a beautiful movie too. If only Steven Spielberg was reading this.

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