The Truce at Bakura, Chapter 17

z: Hello, gentlebeings, and welcome to Chapter 17 of The Truce at Bakura, wherein brb shuddering forever, or at least until the further shuddering next week. Oh, and The Villain Exposition Scene.

will: I’m resuming the warning regarding parasites–if they creep you out, come back in a few chapters.

z: In personal news, the program for this summer’s small ensemble showcase is finally determined, and we’ve started arranging rehearsals, and I realized that for one of the pieces I’m organizing, there is not one person in the nine person crew who is not at least in one more piece, and all of the people in the roster who are playing in more than three pieces are also playing in this one. Which translates to a) All the Rehearsal Conflicts, b) I’m probably never getting all of us playing together until the dress rehearsal.

And given this group, that is completely fine, believe it or not.

will: Shades of Noises Off or Pratchett’s Maskerade come to mind.

z: Gaeri is being examined for nervous system effects by an Imperial medic, who concludes that the Ssi-ruuk weapon (which also left a burn on her throat) was some kind of “nervous-system ionization.” But while she now seems fine, he’s been asked to keep her under observation for a while. Observation. Riiiight. He leaves, with her locked in the examination room.

will: This has all the shades of papering over. I don’t know if I expected Gaeri to be in jail or on the run, but somehow, being politely detained (and it does seem to have the hallmarks of politeness) doesn’t fit what we saw. Either she should be getting rounded up as a traitor a la the Prime Minister–her uncle–or else she should have been innocent, wrong place wrong time. This halfway thing…isn’t.

z: She thinks how the last thing the remembers was Luke facing the aliens; then apparently Artoo had dragged her out, and she lay outside until emergency teams came, which was after Luke was taken.

will: That too. Serious backfill. Oh, and at one point, she thinks about how she’s locked in without a bathroom, and suddenly wishes that hadn’t occurred to her–which doesn’t fit the tone at all.

z: Initially she’s depressed–Luke’s taken, humankind doomed–but then she decides that she’d rather die on Bakura than become a Ssi-ruuk prisoner, and her depression, we are told, hardens into resolve.

This may just be me being too touchy about it, but I… don’t particularly like that last bit. Depression doesn’t work like that. Or rather, depression is not the right word there. Dejection, maybe, despair that she overcomes, maybe, but not depression. And I think that this is actually one more of those “it was a different time” things. Which, considering that this was only the 1990s… we have come a long way in some aspects.

will: Agreed about the language, and also, I find the whole “well, I’m committed now, so no more doubts or being upset” thing weak writing. The next part, though, makes it work, though, because as soon as she thinks about the whole thing for more than a second, she gets “dejected” again, because she’s a prisoner and there’s nothing she can do.

I feel like the “depression into resolve” line is, possibly unintentionally, a great demonstration of just how helpless she is.

z: Two naval troopers come in and take her to Nereus’ office; when she realizes which way they are heading she has to suppress an urge to bolt, which, who can blame her.

will: Not least because “there were Nereus’s subtle attentions,” which…we haven’t even gotten to the expected shuddering parts yet, have we.

z: We learn that this is in fact the first time she’s been in this office, having always avoided it previously; hence for the first time she notices various crystals lying around with teeth (or complete tri-D skull images integrated with real teeth) in them. Nereus collects teeth from predators. Nice. Or something. “On that wall,” he says, “Intelligent aliens.” In a nice touch, Gaeriel thinks of Chewie and is sickened anew, and of course, the obviously telegraphed, um, holographed stroke immediately follows: Nereus tosses her a small crystal with two human incisors inside, saying “And the most dangerous predator.”

The Noghri would like a word with you, dude. “Who?” Exactly.

will: Yeah–this scene would work a lot better if we weren’t in a universe with a variety of sentient aliens. The image is all “Hunting the Most Dangerous Game,” but that turns on “humans can think, and so,” which doesn’t fly here.

On the other hand, we’re dealing with a world where even the nominal good guys are basically human chauvinists by lack of exposure, and the bad guys are explicitly racist and speciesist. So–call it mostly just predictable and underwhelming.

z: Gaeri tries to follow along, saying that she hopes he’ll get a set of Ssi-ruuk teeth soon, but Nereus has other things in mind, saying that “the Rebel princess” must be punished for escaping and that his dental specialist is not gentle.

The more reason I have to think of how much more civilized Darth Vader was…

will: Yeah, but this is all too one dimensional. I think we’re supposed to see Nereus as a classic sneering man in power who goes to pieces once he’s without support, but we got so much of people saying he was a coward that now this all feels either fake, or unsupported.

z: Gaeri calls him a fiend–inwardly–, suppresses a cough, and tosses the crystal back at him as he asks about the weapon she was shot with. She describes it and then, thinking about Eppie, asks for a public funeral for Ord Belden, saying Bakura needs–no more public gatherings, according to Nereus, who’s staring at her as if waiting for something. Presumably discomfited, she wants to distract him, so she flat-out asks what the Empire did to Eppie Belden.

I… don’t think “playing along” means what she thinks it means, but anyway. It’s not that I disagree with that question being sprung that way, it’s just that I don’t think it’s congruent with her own thoughts from all of two paragraphs ago.

will: Again, I think it might be accurate to how someone with as little perspective as she’s been shown to have would act, but again, I think we’re not supposed to be reading it that way.

z: …I think I just realized something. So many times, we read authors writing about how their characters have a life of their own; they do and say things in the story that surprise the author, they “take over,” and the author has to work the narrative to go along with them. I think part of our trouble with this book is the complete lack of that. Characters feel wooden because they never act naturally, never take the initiative; it’s always whatever Tyers comes up with. (Yes, yes. I’m speaking in metaphorical shorthand and not using the words “consciously/unconsciously.” On the other hand, having experienced the “created thing has its own life” feeling in other spheres of creative endeavor, I know what they mean, and it does feel exactly like that.) Anyway, occasionally what they do is congruent with what they’d do if they did have the will, like Eppie’s rebellion and Luke’s showing her how to heal herself and Leia’s taking a hand in her own rescue. But then they spit out a line like that because Now Is The Time for Villainous Exposition, and, welp.

will: Good catch. Yes, these characters feel too much like vehicles for delivering plot, not actually characters in their own rights.

z: Moving on; he plays coy, saying that he needs to check his records to see if the Empire did anything to her.

will: I wonder if it’s coy (or meant to be) or else that he really doesn’t remember. Based on later I’ll go with coy. But the other would have been more impressive.

z: He reaches for his console and draws her attention to his desk, which seems to be carved from a single slab of ivory. …yeah, it’s another tooth, intact, from a sea-going creature as Gaeri correctly guesses. Now extinct, apparently, because Nereus doesn’t have a mustache to twirl. I eyeroll. He gets to the record and says that Eppie was going to be executed, but Ord agreed to “permanent incapacitation” to keep her companionship. Before Gaeri can even get a good outrage of Ord-how-could-you going, though, he adds that Eppie herself also submitted to protect him. Then he describes what was done, which turns out to be, to no-one’s surprise, a parasite.

will: Specifically to scar her brain, giving her long-term memory suppression

z: And immediately Nereus tells Gaeri to go ahead and cough, because her forehead is turning pink. Gaeri tries to stammer that she doesn’t need to, and for once I like how Nereus cuts to the chase: He asks her how much of the meal she shared with Luke. He sneers at her weak attempt of subterfuge when ordering the food, saying that he had it inoculated at the kitchens.

will: And pointing out that this marks her as a Rebel collaborator as much as asking about Eppie.

z: He describes the parasite, which…

…do I have to…?

will: It’s SF trichinosis.

z: Thank you, Will, that was very chivalrous, but unfortunately–because of a worse scene to come in the following chapters, alas–I think I do need to give a bit more detail.

will: I tried.

z: Okay. Larva, hatch in stomach, migrate to lungs, stay there growing mouth parts, eat their way toward the heart, pupate, and thankfully the description is cut off there because Gaeri is going pale and I guess so am I. But she’s at the lung stage, and “extremely curable” for the next hour or so. She hopes for a moment that she got it instead of Luke, but Nereus tells her that there were three eggs, and gives the “you should be proud of your friend if he manages to infect the Ssi-ruuk” speech.

will: Leaving everything else aside, I’m amazed he figures that a Trichoid can infect a Ssi-ruuk, which after all is a lizard. Do they even have the same sort of systems?

z: Anyway, so apparently the larva in the lungs is susceptible to oxygen, so a medic comes with a facemask and gives Gaeri some (which she only accepts after making Nereus take some breaths of it, which, heh), and ewewewewewshespitssomethingewewew and thankfully doesn’t look into the mask so we’re spared a description and moving right along.

will: This part does work for me, on a biological level. If the Trichoids are looking for oxygen, the lungs aren’t always the best source–oxygen-rich blood would be, in the heart. Thus. (It doesn’t quite fit with the later feeling that they’re after blood qua blood, but.)

z: It does, and it’s very visceral, and ew.

But then we can’t be free of cliches. She thinks of Luke, and thinks that even if Nereus had saved humanity, at what cost, and “Now that [Luke] was doomed, she regretted every harsh word,” and okay she’s really a child isn’t she.

will: Like I said. She’s a child, she’s written like one a lot, and that would be great if we didn’t get the sense we were supposed to think she’s more than that.

z: Nereus goes back to attempting to toy with her, now, isn’t it inconvenient that she knows what happened to Eppie? Gaeriel has the right answer to that one, though, saying that if more people know of that, it’s going to increase the effectiveness of ruling by fear. Nereus likes this bit of political savvy, and says that he might pardon her and even give her a place on his private staff and we’re riiiiight back to ewewew. She asks for water, then to observe the battle from the war room. Nereus already has a display system set up there, so no need. He also brings out a bottle of namana nectar to celebrate the “Imperial victory.” Gaeriel thinks she doesn’t want any, and her throat is burning, which, duh, and scene.

will: Just when you thought we were done with creepiness…OK, no, we knew this was coming.

z: …viewpoint shifts to Dev. They are in an Imperial shuttle, Skywalker still unconscious for all he can say, flying up through an active battle zone. Dev’s very unhappy, thinking that once they get Luke in the entechment chair it’ll all be over.

will: The Ssi-ruuk coordinate their attack to distract from the shuttle, too, and send battle droids to guide it in.

z: Abruptly Firwirrung comes back from the front (where all three Ssi-ruuk had been sitting “around” the chairs, a nice touch) and asks Dev if he’s all right, since he doesn’t look happy. Dev hurries to say that oh-I’m-concerned-about-your-wound, he had no right to do that to you. Firwirrung calls it a wound of honor, and says that in particular Dev doesn’t seem pleased with the prisoner. Which is entirely correct, of course; Dev isn’t happy that they have Luke prisoner. Dev thinks that if they figure out his full state of mind they’d separate him from Skywalker and renew him. After too long a pause, he just blurts out “He hurt you, master,” and Firwirrung all but performs an interpretative dance indicating that he is not fooled. After the Ssi-ruu leaves, Dev tries to reach Luke mentally, asking if he is aware, and how Dev can help him, but gets no response. He reasons that since entechment works only on conscious people, Luke will have at least a few seconds of time, and thinks at Luke that Luke will have to act quickly and that the Ssi-ruuk will not create any openings. He thinks of how he used to want entechment for himself and shudders.

will: I still have occasional problems with Dev’s sort of easy shift from abused to vengeful, but this, his remembering how he felt, works a bit better for me.

z: They arrive at the ship, Dev getting tenser as he realizes that he doesn’t want to “lick Ssi-ruuk footclaws again,” but at least that the end is near, one way or another. They land in an hangar and medics take Firwirrung. One medic comes back and asks if Luke is unconscious, and when Dev answers that it’s a minor head injury, says that they need Dev to stay with Luke since their knowledge of human anatomy is limited.

I-can’t-believe-I’m-saying-this but have-you-thought-of-autopsying-one-of-your-previous-victims-ever-gah.

will: Why would they? Until Luke it would be like taking apart a battery. Which sure, one could do if one was interested in learning about batteries, but if one basically just needs to know how to put double-As back in one’s remote…

z: Thank you for that lovely image.

(I used​ to work for a battery design company. Will knows this.)

Dev volunteers to carry Luke, since he wants to stay close anyway. In a realistic but strangely humorous touch, his back doesn’t appreciate this. As he carries Luke, he thinks that things are now hopeless, and that he should have strangled Luke when he had the chance; then he repents, thinking that he owes the Jedi a chance for reawakening Dev.

will: Here, I am willing to give Dev consistent characterization: basically all messed up by years of brainwashing.

z: They get to the entechment lab, where Firwirrung is waiting with an assistant and two P’w’ecks. He calls Dev strong and says well-done, and Dev diagnoses this as manipulative praise. He lets Luke slide to the ground, but Firwirrung says that the apparatus will hold him upright and goes to help Dev. As he lifts the Jedi back up, Dev thinks “now’s your chance” at him, but still no response. They strap Luke to the new entechment chair, and there’s still no reaction. Dev is despairing.

Suddenly the door opens and Bluescale comes in, comes up to Dev, and asks if the Jedi human will be unconscious for some time. Dev lies that it will be difficult to wait. Bluescale just says that Dev is in “desperate need,” and does the hypnotic eye trick as two more aliens head that way with weapons drawn, but Firwirrung has another idea: “Dev has served us well. Let us reward him.” The old entechment chair is still there, and they have time, and Firwirrung will lower the catchment arc himself and excuse me while I get some anti-nausea medicine.

Strange way to say Dev couldn’t say anything: “Dev’s tongue swelled like pillow-stuffing.” I mean, it’s getting the message across, but “cleaved to the roof of his mouth” is a perfectly good and even multilingual idiom, so…?

will: I guess it’s a Ssi-ruuvi-influenced idiom. If he’s used to those pillow-filled pits to sleep in…

z: At any rate, he realizes that he hasn’t been fooling any of them, and Bluescale points out why: “Don’t you smell yourself?”

….duh.

will: You say duh, I say wha? Does Dev smell different when not renewed? Even if his renewal was undone by, ahem, use of Force?

z: No, but all through the shuttle ride he was stressing like all get-to and his emotions kept jumping all over the place and the Ssi-ruuk are sensitive to pheromones… if there was ever a time to practice Jedi serenity, that was it, except of course how could Dev have known about that practice.

Dev jumps on the entechment bed, grabs Luke by the throat, and calls out his defiance: “I need nothing. You’ll never–”

The lights in the room just go out, he becomes speechless again, and scene.

For all the usual overdoneness on one side and over-plottedness on the other, there weren’t any extremely objectionable parts of this chapter; and, yes, I realize we’re talking about a chapter where a woman coughs up a sizable parasite from her lung. (Ewewewew.) The cliffhanger is nice, too, as cliffhangers go. Appropriate for what promises to be the boss battle, anyway.

And that’s all from me. Will?

will: Agreed. The problems here are just the result of mediocre writing, not some fundamental problem with characterization. And…huh, I wonder why I never looked into this before now. Tyers had written about four novels before being approached by Bantam Spectra (her publisher) for this. And interestingly, shortly thereafter, she took several years of sabbatical and then got her earlier novels reprinted and somewhat rewritten, and marketed as explicitly Christian fiction.

So she was pretty early in her career. Hmm. Contrast with Zahn, who was already a Hugo winner with what, several series of novels? On the one hand, maybe that means I’m being a bit hard on Tyers. On the other, maybe that means this book was above her skill grade.

So, yeah. Nothing more to add here. Join us next week for told, not shown, and a sudden but inevitable…you know.

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