After they have been on Boohte for many years, two human explorers still are engaged in charting the world. Their adventures are depicted in a highly romantic fashion in “pop-ups,” portable three-dimensional videos popular on Earth. The explorers’ actual experiences are more mundane but humorous.
Author Connie Willis uses humor to address serious issues such as the rights of native populations and planetary ecology, but she also parodies mindless bureaucratic regulations. The remote Earth government represents “civilization” at its worst, full of regulations and unwilling to protect the natives, though it pretends to do so. Readers never learn the exact context for the survey of Boohte.
Finriddy and Carson, the explorers, are hampered both by the alien they call Bult, who is their native guide, and the Earth bureaucracy and its endless regulations, which Bult exploits. The tumultuous relationships among the characters result in comedic scenes. Finriddy and Carson’s support staff, a woman named C. J., keeps trying to have some place or object named for her, even though that is against regulations. A male visitor from Earth named Evelyn, a specialist in alien sexual behavior, joins the explorers and brings “pop-ups” that depict Finriddy and Carson’s adventures as a soap opera.
In one plot line, Finriddy and Carson must catch an outlaw trying to corrupt the aliens; their mission is to map out the world while protecting the aliens from exploitation. Willis also suggests that natives can exert power over explorers, as the alien Bult does over Finriddy and Carson.