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Uncharted Territory is a tasty little truffle of a story in which Connie Willis manages to lampoon everything she can get her hands on in a scant 150 pages. Nothing is spared, from SFnal clichés like Star Trek's Prime Directive, to gender roles and identity, to the culture of celebrity worship, and even good old fashioned white guilt. Willis simultaneously spoofs both the fear of exploiting indigenous cultures that has fed such guilt down the years, and the romanticizing of those cultures as noble savages one short skip from sainthood. How she pulled that last one off without causing the laws of the universe to declare a technical foul and manifest a quantum fluctuation in her office is something I'd hesistate to speculate on, but probably has much to do with her awesome, innate Connie Willisness.

This funny little yarn is set on the distant world of Boohte, where Carson and Findriddy, "the famous planetary surveyors," are mapping the wilderness with the aid of their native guide Bult. It's hard for them to make much headway, as their progress is impeded by regulations against tainting the land and its people that are so ridiculously strict, Bult is forever fining them for such infractions as leaving footprints in the dirt and speaking impolitely. (And then he spends his fine money on frivolous human-made products that presumably represent just the sort of cultural corruption the rules are supposed to prevent.) But with ample bickering, they manage.

They are soon joined by Evelyn Parker, a "socioexozoologist" who specializes in alien sexual behaviors. Evelyn is also a man, his name pronouned with a long "e" in the British fashion. This is just part of the fun Willis has subverting sexual roles and identities as a subtext throughout the story. She handles it so well that you're halfway through the story before realizing which gender Findriddy actually is.

The story involves this unlikely foursome embarking on an expedition into — all together now — uncharted territory. Naturally, they are immediately diverted from their intended course, and forced to deal with interpersonal rivalries, unscrupulous "gatecrashers" who've arrived on the planet unofficially to hawk stuff to the locals, bad weather, and their own conflicted feelings for one another. Evelyn only knows of Carson and Fin's exploits through ludicrous video dramas that aren't unlike the dime novels of the 19th century. As the tale progresses, we understand the title's double meaning: that the uncharted territory our heroes are navigating is as much internal as external, and that they're coming to grips with themselves — both in what they've chosen to reveal to one another and what to hold back — for the first time. This is lightweight fare for Willis (which means it's still more substantial than what most writers produce), but an essential and most delicious part of the menu all the same.