Renowned planetary explorers Findriddy and Carson have a simple mission: to investigate and map out the alien planet they’re currently surveying. But their task is fraught with several complications. Their alien guide, Bult, is hellbent on extorting every last possible penny from Earth by fining Fin and Carson for everything from “destroying indigenous flora” (stepping on the grass) to “disturbing the land surface” (leaving footprints). Earth is also watching Fin and Carson with an eagle eye, theoretically to prevent them from destroying the indigenous environment and customs, but actually to evaluate what natural resources might be worth exploiting. Then a visiting scientist, Evelyn Parker, arrives to tag along on Fin and Carson’s cartographical expeditions, complicating the already volatile relationship between them. Evelyn’s speciality is the mating customs of various species, both human and alien; and it’s no coincidence that as the expedition continues, all parties find themselves exploring the uncharted territory within their own hearts as well.
I’m such a huge Connie Willis fan, so I was very glad to finally read this short novel. It’s one of her comedic offerings (think Bellwether, not Doomsday Book), and I loved her satire on political correctness and the “noble savage” myth. (Not that she paints the aliens as villains, either; they’re just regular people, no better or worse than the visiting Earthers.) There’s also a lot of playfulness surrounding gender: Evelyn turns out to be a man, and Fin’s gender isn’t revealed until quite a ways into the story. Of course, this all foreshadows the eventual emergence of the romantic plot, and I really enjoyed the resolution of that as well. It’s a bit predictable but also quite funny. Overall, I’d say this book is a pleasant diversion, although it lacks the thoughtfulness and depth of Willis’ longer novels. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for newcomers to this author, but her fans should definitely enjoy it!