Uncharted Territory Analysis
by Connie Willis

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Uncharted Territory Analysis

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

Uncharted Territory is a highly original and amusing combination of the Western and science fiction. Willis evokes the Western through the desertlike setting of Boohte and the explorers’ use of alien creatures that resemble ponies. Finriddy and Carson have an amiable male-bonding relationship that evokes the friendship of cowboys on the trail. C. J. fulfills the role of the female cook/housekeeper by staying at the base and pestering the “boys.” Evelyn, their visitor, fills the role of greenhorn, trying hard to be like the explorers but failing. Bult is the native guide who has his (or her) own agenda but who does care for the explorers. The government pretends to protect and care for the natives, but the explorers are the ones who truly love and appreciate the land.

The novel is science fiction because the stock characters and plot all take place on an alien planet, in the future. Willis draws on science fiction to create an alien life-form whose sexual identity is unclear. The novel contains technical innovations, such as “gates” that allow people to travel from planet to planet with ease and “pop-ups,” three-dimensional videos that are easily portable. The thrill of charting new territory is moved from the West to space, in which there are planets still unknown to humanity.

Like science-fiction writers such as H. G. Wells in The War of the Worlds (1898), Willis uses science fiction to criticize the way that humans exploit resources and people. Finriddy and Carson are well aware that as soon as they discover a valuable resource, the planet will be opened to commercial exploitation and the natives will lose control of their world.

Although Willis draws on the form of Western to create her science-fiction novel, she also makes some significant revisions to the formula. For example, Finriddy turns out to be a woman, a fact that is kept from the reader for the first third of the book. Carson chose Finriddy for the expedition because a rule requires exploration teams to have a woman; Willis thus portrays futuristic sex quotas. There is another twist involving mistaken sexual identity: Bult’s sexual identity is not revealed until the end of the novel. Bult falls in love with Carson because Bult thinks (wrongly) that Carson is female. These variations on and additions to the familiar form of the Western are amusing and entertaining.

An interest in issues of gender and sex characterizes many of Willis’ short stories, and Uncharted Territory is no exception. As Carson explains, nothing can destroy an expedition faster than sex, and there is lots of sexual tension in the novel. The pop-ups that Evelyn brings depict Finriddy romantically attached to Carson, and by the end of the novel, this representation becomes reality. Bult is attracted to Carson, and Evelyn is attracted to both Finriddy and C. J.

A lively sense of the absurd also characterizes Willis’ writing, and Uncharted Territory is quite humorous. Willis exposes the folly of bureaucratic regulations made by people ignorant of the conditions they attempt to regulate. The regulations that Finriddy and Carson must follow include not stepping on the ground, for fear that they might damage plant life, and not using mechanized carts because they could kick up dust. Willis suggests that although some regulations might be well intentioned, they invariably are misapplied. For example, Bult can buy supplies with money he earns by fining the explorers for such things as an inappropriate tone of voice. He cannot purchase weapons, but he is allowed to buy an umbrella that could function as a weapon.

Through Evelyn’s extended descriptions of the courtship behaviors of alien species, Willis makes fun of human sexual behavior. She even makes fun of writers, because it turns out that the tremendously popular pop-ups are being written by C. J., the woman at the base. The science-fiction version of the explorations is far more glamorous and romanticized than reality, to the point of being ridiculous. The novel’s title even comes from Evelyn’s description of the charting of territory as a courtship ritual. Reducing human exploration and expeditions to a courtship ritual makes fun of the traditional respect given to such missions.

Creating a humorous tone requires superb writing skills and a light sardonic touch. In Uncharted Territory, Willis shows those skills and succeeds in combining two genres, making fun of both at the same time.