Friday, September 17, 2010

Uncharted Territory by Connie Willis

Connie Willis is one of the most award-winning science fiction authors in the past twenty-five years. And yet her books will never be a part of the literary cannon. That isn't Willis' point. In fact, it is her ability to poke fun at so much of society that makes her books great. They are the antithesis of the cannon and yet everyone should read them.

Uncharted Territory is an odd little novella. At 160 pages it seems tiny compared to most of what appears in bookstores these days. But considering that more than half of Willis' work is short stories this book bridges the gap between her two types of stories.

The story drops you right in the middle of a fantastical science fiction world replete with explorers charting a foreign planet. The language is slightly off making it a bit of a challenge to immerse yourself in the story. The alien is inexplicable and speaks oddly. There is no immediate conflict to drive the plot. All in all, it sounds like many, many short stories.

The appeal of any Willis story is her ability to find the incredible humor and irony in seemingly serious topics. Most of the story explores the ridiculousness of treating native peoples and lands "with respect" (which looks bad when I write it that way). Obviously she takes the idea to the extreme in which the explorers are fined for leaving footprints in the dust which may irreparably harm the native flora and fauna. Trust me its funny.

But in the long-term the story is actually exploring gender-bending. One of the main characters is Evelyn - assumed to be a woman but of course a British male - who studies mating habits of alien species. As it turns out, he should be studying the mating habits immediately surrounding him.

This book has a limited audience appeal and universally relevant commentary. While not my favorite of her books by a long shot, Connie Willis remains a great author.

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