It is not often that an author arrives on the scene who is both consistent and brilliant. Consistency is not too difficult to find John Barnes is a case in point; brilliant is more difficult but not impossible; but consistent and brilliant is rare. Connie Willis is both. Since she appeared on the SF scene over a decade ago she has won both critical and popular acclaim and scooped Hugo and Nebula awards as she went. Short fiction, such as At the Rialto and Last of the Winnebagos, has always been her forte but the novels Lincoln's Dreams and the Hugo-winning Doomsday Book have brought her to greater attention.
Uncharted Territory is a case in point: a collection containing the title novella and two short stories, Firewatch and Even the Queen, both winning awards. I will be surprised if the novella Uncharted Territory is not nominated for something as well.
Uncharted Territory is a snapshot: less a story in the traditional sense and more of a study of five characters in extraordinary circumstances. Fin and Carson are planetary surveyors, C.J., their oversexed base-station co-ordinator, Ev an enthusiastic visitor and Bult, their alien guide. Fin, Carson, C.J. and Ev are the only humans legally on the planet, where the sentient alien indigenous life is protected by a politically correct government back home on Earth. The government - 'Big Brother' to Fin and Carson - is terrified of being seen to be imperialistic or to interfere in any way with the alien people who they see as innocent and uncorrupted. In reality, Bult takes advantage of the situation to fine the surveyors in order to buy consumer goods, making the government position a nonsense. It is also no surprise to realise that, despite the government's overt concern, when it comes down to it, Fin and Carson are better for the planet than any correct official at home. It is not difficult to see why: Willis describes the scenery, the flora and fauna, the peculiarity of the aliens so beautifully. To this she has added political bite and a smattering of lust and come up with a great piece of fiction.
Firewatch is an older, shorter piece, set in the same universe as Willis' later novel Doomsday Book. Here Dunworthy, the professor of history, and Kivrin, the heroine of Doomsday Book are minor characters, in the story of the (unnamed) narrator who is sent for his history practical exam to Wartime London in the Blitz to help serve on the Firewatch which guarded St Paul's Cathedral against the bombs. Desperately unprepared, he is propelled back into a world of paranoia and grey darkness, where he has to fend for himself day by day and try and disguise the fact that he is a stranger to the people he must meet.
Firewatch, again, is not over-plotted but is extremely poignant and thought-provoking. Willis' characterisation is beautiful and her ability to help us envisage the glory of St Paul's is a superb piece of writing.
The third and final story, Even the Queen, is a piece of near-future quirky humour, which uses a daughter's act of unthinking rebellion as a focus to examine the relationships between females of four generations of a family: their communication, the gaps in generation, their attitudes to life. So much imagination is packed into this short story but it is very tightly written and very funny indeed, though I imagine that it will appeal to women more than men.
In total, Uncharted Territory is truly excellent. Willis' prose is deft, clever, moving and often quite beautiful; her characters live; her landscapes entrance; her ideas provoke. For those who have liked her previous work, and for those who have never read any Willis, do not delay in reading this.