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Bunker: Bodyguard (Mar./Apr. 2011)

(3 posts)
  • Started 7 years ago by geoffhart1962
  • Latest reply from jsndavis02

  1. geoffhart1962

    Javid is a still-human (though highly bioengineered) 400-year-old man in a world where many (most?) humans have merged with the post-human Conflux, who “contemplate their silicon bellybuttons” while the real world passes them by. He has spent at least the past 100 years of his life laboring hard to save an alien race from extinction; the only contribution from the Conflux is the various advanced technologies that give Javid and his colleagues a hope of saving many of the aliens. A sun about 14 light years from their planet will soon go nova, and along with a steadily dwindling group of humans, Javid is working to the limits of his endurance to help them build space elevators and transport ships to save as many of the aliens as possible. Unlike many of his colleagues, he still clings to aspects of conventional humanity, including the need for sleep, even though such a weakness could be engineered out of him.

    The alien race (never named) are interesting in many ways. They are reptilian and female, and unlike Niven’s Kzinti and Puppeteers, it is the males who are nonsentient, almost vestigial apart from their reproductive role. As in Cherryh’s often-brilliant “Foreigner” series, humans are not quite trusted, and Javid is assigned a series of bodyguards to protect him from those who don’t trust human motives; like Cherryh’s atevi, the aliens are much taller and stronger than humans. This comparison is in no way intended to slight Bunker; this story is clearly in dialogue with Cherryh’s work, not merely derivative or a pastiche, and “Bodyguard” suggests that he’s a worthy competitor.

    [Spoilers] Javid’s current bodyguard is “Ensel”, as close as Javid can come to a phonetic representation of her name. As in “Foreigner” and its sequels, this story is about the growth of understanding and cooperation between two very different species, and there are very nice touches in how this is handled. When Javid speaks to the aliens through his high-tech translator, he must carefully structure the syntax of his message to ensure that the translator can map it correctly to the alien syntax—a far cry from the near-magical translator of Finch’s translator, and to my mind, a more realistic extrapolation. In the alien culture and the language that is shaped by it, the concept of “joining” is crucial; all actions and the verbs that stem from them involve some form of joining so that eating, for instance, is joining food with one’s body. (Excretion, presumably, is joining one’s wastes with the ecosystem. *G*) So essential is the concept of joining to their thought patterns, Javid tells us that their language lacks a negation form for this verb. That seems unlikely, so I suspect this is a deliberate choice by Bunker to reveal a misunderstanding on Javid’s part. It’s hard to imagine a language that lacks a word or particle for negation, and if such a word exists, it can be joined to any other word, irrespective of the formal rules of grammar, to indicate negation.

    Bunker notes, with insight, that the emotions of such aliens cannot be mapped precisely to those of humans. Yet affection and respect and the need to belong to seem likely to be universal. Indeed, Ensel understands Javid’s sense of loss when his lover, Alice, leaves to return to Earth and probably to join the Conflux and forever abandon her humanity and him. Ensel shows Javid how well she understands his feelings of loss by making it clear to him that he is not “un-joined”—a profoundly touching example of deep understanding and empathy for an alien species that nominally lacks a concept for being alone. When a huge rocket blasts off, carrying supplies to orbit, both are awed (as I still am every time I see the Space Shuttle launch), and as the echoes of the motors die away, they find themselves holding hands.

    In a kind of inverse Stockholm syndrome, Javid comes to love Ensel and her people. Unlike in “Foreigner”, the love does not become sexual, but it is no less real. When the supernova happens decades before it was predicted to occur, the story turns tragic, for the human efforts to save the aliens are doomed to failure; as in Jack McDevitt’s recent novel “The Devil’s Eye”, the situation becomes a desperate attempt to see how many can be saved, with clear knowledge that all efforts will prove inadequate. As tensions mount, there is a failed attempt to assassinate Javid using grenades, and when the first one only knocks him and Ensel down, he throws himself on top of her to save her from a second grenade, which fortunately fails to detonate. She is outraged by this, since it is her sworn responsibility to die for him, but he explains that for him, “there are worse things than death”—such as being un-joined. She understands him well enough by now to accept this.

    Under the growing pressure, Javid begins to break down. His human colleagues notice this, and relieve him of his position before he cracks, planning to send him home to Earth to rest and recuperate, but he cannot bear to accept this solution; so much has he become a part of this alien world that he will not let himself be forcibly un-joined from it and the people he has come to love. In the end, understanding this, Ensel draws the sword she has carried thus far as a purely ceremonial weapon (a sidearm being more practical), and it seems clear that she will kill him—and then, undoubtedly, herself—as a mercy to ensure that he can never be un-joined from the culture and the people he has worked so hard to save.

    “Bodyguard” is a melancholic, yet deeply touching and even optimistic story of how radically alien cultures can come to truly understand, appreciate, and even love each other. In that way, it powerfully echoes my own feelings during travel in other countries when I experienced an occasional moment of satori, that flash of insight when I suddently understood something profound about “the Other”. Lovely work.

    Posted 7 years ago #
  2. schatzfam

    Agreed. Very strong story. This reminded me of Martin's "A Song for Lya" in some ways. I loved the contrast between Javid not being able (not wanting) to join the Conflux and instead ending up joining the race he worked so hard to save.


    Posted 7 years ago #
  3. jsndavis02

    The story was a bit intriguing to me but it was nice after all. The plot was great and it made me think deeply.

    Posted 7 years ago #

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