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Book Review: Uncharted Territory by Connie Willis

Title: Uncharted Territory

Author: Connie Willis

Genre: Science Fiction

Publisher: Spectra
Publication date: 1994
Paperback: 160 pages

Finriddy and Carson are two explorers sent to survey the planet Boohte. Back home, breathless fans follow their adventures: in reality, they deal with dust, nit-picking regulations, and uncooperative aliens. Teamed with a young intern whose specialty is mating customs and a native guide of indeterminate gender, the group sets out for a previously unexplored sector of the planet — but they soon find themselves in alien territory of another kind: exploring the paths and precipices of sex. And love.

Stand alone or series: Stand alone

How did I get this book: Bought

Why did I read this book: Because I love all things Connie Willis and after reading and loving To Say Nothing of the Dog, Doomsday Book, Bellwether and Blackout/All Clear I went and bought ALL HER BOOKS and am slowing reading through them.


Uncharted Territory is the first Connie Willis book I am not completely in love with. Hey, there is a first time for everything, right?

I mean, it is an extremely diverting story, sort of like Cowboys and Aliens in Space with the usual Willis’ humour (reminiscent of Bellwether) and narrative shenanigans (when someone is ostensibly talking about one thing then someone is doing something seemly unrelated but not really in the background. Also a narrative TWIST) and there are many things I liked about it.

I liked the tone and some of the funny moments and also the low key romance subplot (you blink once and it is gone). For the most part though, I was just completed puzzled by the points the book attempts to make.

Because beneath all the humour there are two clear issues being addressed here seriously: political correctness and gender roles. But first, a bit more on the book.

In a planet called Boohte, Carson and Findriddy are two explorers surveying the planet and charting its as-yet, uncharted territory. They work closely with a local guide, a sentient alien called Bult. On their new expedition they are joined by a young, eager intern who wants to research local mating habits. He also bring news from Earth of Carson and Findriddy’s celebrity status as countless fans follow their off-world “adventures”.

It is in Carson and Findriddy’s work as charters and in their relationship with Bult that most of the book’s comedy and satire is supposed to exist. There is a close quarter’s examination of how infuriating bureaucracy can be. And the reason for the bureaucracy on this world is born out of the need of this Big Brother (as Carson and Findriddy calls it) Government to avoid any appearance of cultural appropriation and to show their sensitivity when dealing with the sentient beings that inhabit the planet. As such the explorers must be always aware of how to name flora, fauna and geographic points: they need to first establish if the locals have any names for them for example. If not, then they must be careful and not ever use names that might be constructed as imperialist. There are many strict rules they must follow and they are constantly fined by Bult for the most ridiculous (as is perceived in the book) things.

The story is constantly making fun of what can be perceived as an excess of political correctness. My problem with this here and generally speaking when it comes to the term PC and how it is often used in derogatory terms: who gets to decide what is an “excess” of political correctness anyway? Why all of this is even supposed to be funny? To me, there is nothing even remotely funny about actual cultural sensitivity and the dangers of cultural appropriation.

As such, within Uncharted Territory, the fraught cultural relationship between the explorers and Bult is exploited for fun. And yes, Bult might not fall under the stereotypical “noble savage” – which is a good thing. But he does fall on the other side of the coin as he often overcharges the explorers, then ends up spending the money online on what is often described as ridiculous items. So, in a way even though there is an attempt to present Bult as being in charge of his own decisions by exploiting the situation to his own advantage, those decisions are often shown as lesser and comedic. And in the end, to make matters worse, it is revealed that the explorers have been “protecting” the planet from Big Brother’s real plans all along – and they do so secretly and because they are so good. This effectively presents the main white characters as saviours and as protectors of the ignorant, clueless savage.

And then you have the subtext relating to gender roles that is peppered through the novel. At first it is incredibly clever the way those are integrated in the novel. It is not until half way through that I realised that gender of one of the main characters is not the one I assumed it was. That was eye opening and through-provoking in terms of assumptions we often usually make when thinking of gender roles. That said, there are still to my opinion many problematic things about this thread within the novel. There is another female character who is constantly, relentlessly, slut shamed.

There is also the fact that interspersed throughout the novel there is a discussion of mating habits and the roles that males and female often have in the natural world. This is extrapolated into sentient beings’ behaviour without any consideration whatsoever about the essentialist nature of those ideas or any acknowledgement about how nurture and culture have an effect.

The explorers could not determine Bultk’s gender until they start to realise “he” had being behaving like “males” often do when they are after females and as such he is obviously male. One of the jokes in the novel is how he doesn’t realise that the person he is falling for is another male and not a female and someone needs to tell him that so he can go and find a female.

These are taken as facts and it doesn’t cross anybody’s mind (much less is acknowledged by the narrative) other possible explanations: that Bult could be anything other than a male wanting to fall for a female or that he might be a male but that he is falling for another male because he is simply falling for a male and not because he made a mistake about said person’s gender.

Needless to say, this was a huge disappointment. I am genuinely curious to hear your opinions on the book. Comments welcome (as usual).

Rating: OH I don’t know!

Reading Next: I don’t know either! I need to read something good soon y’all.

Buy the Book:

(click on the links to purchase)

Ebook available for kindle US, nook

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  • Allison (Allure of Books)
    November 28, 2012 at 6:07 am

    Well, I haven’t read this one…but my first experience with Willis was Lincoln’s Dreams and I did NOT like it at all. It basically turned me off her for ages until I was finally broken down by all the fabulous reviews of Doomsday Book, which I recently read and loved. It definitely seems to me like she has some misses in her arsenal, despite how fabulous SOME of her books are.

  • Howard Sherman
    November 28, 2012 at 6:10 am

    The synopsis immediately reminded me of Robert Aspirin’s Phule series and with Mr. Aspirin’s sad departure from the earth, Uncharted Territory may be the next best thing for anybody wanting a similar round of science fiction fun.

  • Gember88
    November 28, 2012 at 6:35 am

    Have you finished reading the Frontier Magic series by Patricia C. Wrede? The only series which I was dissappointed that it didn’t continue after the 3rd book 😉 Frankly, I think sequels should be limited to two but I’ll make an exception for this one!

  • Fangs for the Fantasy
    November 28, 2012 at 6:37 am

    By the sound of it, they’re complaining about a PC bureaucracy that I would probably agree with. If the locals have called a flower or mountain or city something… then yeah, renaming it is dubious

    I have a feeling the book would try to tell me “PC is bad” but the message I’d hear would be “these protagonists are awful people”

    Throw in the gender and sexuality fails and it’s sad really, because the concept is nifty

  • Ana
    November 28, 2012 at 6:44 am

    @ Allison: I keep hearing different things about Lincoln’s Dreams and that’s why I haven’t tried it yet.

    @ Fangs for the Fantasy: the many sequences where the explorers learnt the locals had named things ended being long scenes with them trying to replicate the (unpronouceable)words. It was supposed to be funny, I guess – all I could think of was oh yes , why don’t we make fun of other people’s languages.

    I don’t know. It missed the mark for me.

  • Karen
    November 28, 2012 at 7:18 am

    Bummer, the other Connie Willis books you’ve read are way up on my list of favorite things ever. Ah well, I won’t be delving into her early work, doesn’t sound worth it.

  • hapax
    November 28, 2012 at 7:20 am

    I had the exact same reaction you did.

    I loved, loved, loved the concept (especially playing with gender assumptions), thought the execution was brilliant until about half-way, when the accumulated weight of mental reservations slammed through and I couldn’t even finish the book.

    You’ve read the Vorkosigan books, right? (If not, stop everything and GO READ THEM ALL RIGHT NOW). The new “Ivan book” is pretty fun, if frothy. And I am anxiously awaiting your review of Rachel Aaron’s SPIRIT’S END — I just finished it and I have Thoughts.

  • Ana
    November 28, 2012 at 7:25 am

    Hapax, SO glad to hear you had a similar reaction. I don’t feel so lonely anymore.

    and no, haven’t read the Vorkosigan books although Thea keeps pushing me to!

  • Paige
    November 28, 2012 at 9:32 am

    Sometimes CW, much as I love her, is very much shaped by the mainstream views of the time, and this is very much that book. It was written and came out right around the time that James Finn Garner was hawking the Politically Correct Bedtime Stories, and then PC Fairy Tales, and…heh. Early ’90s thinking on gender wasn’t anything to write home about, either.

    And hey, weren’t you two doing a double-header review of the latest Toby Daye books? I swear I saw you announce it for this month (but can’t remember where), and I was really looking forward to it.

  • Ana
    November 28, 2012 at 9:36 am

    Paige – this is really interesting thank you for the context – I had no idea.

    And yes, I was supposed to be reading the two latest Toby Daye books but I am so behind with everything. I really want to read them before the end of the year though. Maybe that’s what I will be reading next !

  • Paige
    November 28, 2012 at 10:39 am

    Yeah, that was THE trend. I think that Uncharted Territory actually looks pretty enlightened by comparison. *sigh*

    I’ll be patient and wait for you to get a chance at the Toby books!

  • Lisa (starmetal oak)
    November 28, 2012 at 11:58 am

    I saw in your TBR on Goodreads you have Archangel by Sharon Shinn. Now there’s a great SFR (although the SF appears more heavily in the subsequent books). You know, in case you needed a recommendation…:)

  • Renay
    November 28, 2012 at 12:33 pm

    I would like the cover a lot more if the alien was ALSO wearing a cowboy hat.

  • Charlotte
    December 2, 2012 at 7:01 am

    Nope–I’ve never never never been tempted to re-read this one, though I consider myself a fan of hers!

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