Desert Isle Keeper
Connie Willis has received several Hugo and Nebula awards for her skillful writing and she’s got two previous DIK reviews on AAR. Uncharted Territory is different in tone from both Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing Of The Dog but no less intelligent.
Findriddy and Carson are explorers who boldly go to where no man has gone before, namely to the uncharted territory of the planet Boohte. The planet has pink plains, glittering waterfalls and other wonders, such as the Wall, but the romantic atmosphere is greatly subdued by dust, ponypiles and endless penalties. You see, due to regulations governing the preservation of the local flora and fauna and avoidance of Terracentric, imperial disrespect towards the sentient cultures, Finriddy and Carson are accompanied by an indigenous guide, Bult, who keeps fining them for damage to life forms, disrupting water surfaces, leaving footprints in the desert and so on. The other members of their expedition are a helicopter pilot, C.J., and a newcomer, Evelyn.
Evelyn evidences a certain degree of hero-worship and informs Carson and Findriddy that they’ve got lots of admirers back on Earth. It appears their adventures are the subject of a popular pop-up series. (In case you’re wondering, pop-ups are a form of DHV, which I interpreted as something akin to that SOS video message Princess Leia left on R2D2 in the first Star Wars movie.) The episodes are uncannily close to the truth, yet somehow off target. The question is, what are the members’ real relationships like? Evelyn is an expert on the mating customs and courtship rituals of different species. These rituals may take the form of gift giving, male rivalry and intricate signals, and Evelyn is interested in finding out how this works on Boohte. A problem frequently encountered in Uncharted Territory is determining the gender of an unknown living entity. The explorers also need to name the things they encounter without violating any anti-imperial regulations which is a difficult task. Names may be given to honor someone but they may also sometimes mislead.
Of these elements, Willis cleverly creates a fine tangle of relationships where Carson, Findriddy, Evelyn, C.J., Bult and a bird called shuttlewren all somehow fit in. To say more would be to spoil it for you.
One of the cover quotes compares the writing in a previous Willis novel to sculpting. It’s a very acute observation. Uncharted Territory starts out as a gray lump of indeterminate shape, with potential to go to any direction. Gradually the author carves away, giving inklings of what’s on the map, creating a rough sketch of the portrait. But only the final chisel strokes reveal the complete picture, and there’s more than one surprise in store.
Before the final revelations, you need to be able to tolerate ambiguity. The reader is likely to be confused by a number of false assumptions and belated discoveries. I know I was, even though I noticed the intentional vagueness of some references. Well, that should teach me not to jump to conclusions.
I hope you won’t be scared off by the use of the first person point of view. Firstly, it’s necessary because the revelations just wouldn’t work if we were privy to the others’ perspectives. Secondly, the narrator’s observations still manage to show us enough of the other characters’ feelings to understand them. And thirdly, you would miss a fabulous book. It’s a quick read, filled with substance from cover to cover.