Three entertaining Connie Willis novellas journey to space school, future Hollywood and a remote planet in ‘Terra Incognita’

May 13, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
May 13, 2019

American author Connie Willis was named a grand master by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America in 2011. She’s best known for a quartet of novels in which historians from the University of Oxford travel through time to conduct their work; all four books won the Hugo award, and three of them also won the Nebula.

Terra Incognita, a 2018 anthology, collects three tales by Willis, presented by date of publication; I’ll be discussing them in reverse order.

The last item, “D.A.,” which appeared in 2007, is the slightest of the works, both in length and substance. The story is narrated by Theodora Baumgarten, a senior at Winfrey High School in Colorado who has her heart set on attending UCLA.

Those plans are disrupted in a major way when, at a mandatory school assembly, an admiral announces Theodora’s appointment to the International Space Academy. Theodora is naturally surprised by the news; as she insists to her best friend, Kimkim, “of course it’s a mixup. I can’t have been chosen. I didn’t even apply to the Academy.”

Unfortunately, the adults around Theodora are too busy celebrating her good fortune to pay attention to her protests that her selection is entirely unwanted. Within seconds of the announcement, she’s being applauded by the school and congratulated by its principal. A few hours later, after being showered in accolades by her parents and their friends, Theodora is on a rocket ship to the school, housed in a space station known as the RAH. (That’s an acronym for Robert A. Heinlein.)

Willis is lampooning both the Harry Potter series and Ender’s Game here. However, I felt the story dragged despite being less than a third the length of the other entries in Terra Incognita. It helps matters not at all that Theodora is constantly whinging. Willis wraps things up in an interesting fashion, but even this I found somewhat annoying, because the story arguably ends just when it’s beginning to become interesting.

“Remake” was published in 1995; like the other two entries here, it’s written in the first person, although the tale contrasts with its cohorts in that the narrator is a man.

Tom is a rich-kid student, evidently at UCLA in 2002 or so. His family seems to be quite wealthy — Tom has a supercomputer in his dorm room — but Tom isn’t much of a student; he hasn’t been to class in more than a semester. He loves movies, particularly those from the 1940s through the 1970s, but he has an even greater affinity for a drug called chooch.

Terra Incognita (2018) by Connie Willis

Tom moonlights for the studios, digitally editing faces and objects in and out of movies when he isn’t helping studio execs procure girlfriends, or “popsy,” as Tom calls it; he hates the work, but it allows him to maintain a copious stash of chooch and alcohol. Tom is extremely dissolute and even more cynical. At a party, after his reference to Jean Harlow sails over the head of a stoned wannabe actress, Tom broodingly dismisses Hollywood as a place “where everybody wants to be in the movies and nobody’s ever bothered to watch one.”

This party turns out to be an important event for Tom, thanks to his acquaintance Heada. (That’s her misinterpretation of the nickname he bestows upon her, an allusion to the notorious Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper.) She glibly shares with him some illicit pharmaceuticals given to her by an actor (“face”) headed overseas, but the capsules he downs turn out to be klieg, a variety that leads to, euphemistically, a memorable epiphany. In a bid to “flash” during a pleasant encounter, Tom woos and soon becomes fixated on Alis, “a freshie. Film hist major.”

Alis is an unusual bird: She wants to dance in movies. Tom naturally scoffs at her ambition; not only has the movie musical been dead since 1965, computer graphics has supplanted virtually all traditional filming. “There aren’t any liveactions being made,” he snaps at her. “Unless you’re in Bogota. Or Beijing. It’s all CGs. ‘No actors need apply.‘”

The movie business in the early 21st century has changed in other ways, too. Performers’ likenesses can be copyrighted and digitized, enabling facsimiles to appear in dozens if not hundreds of movies. Most features viewed in the home are piped in over fiber-optic cables (“fibe-op”) — rather like today, although Willis establishes at least one crucial difference. But pictures can be pulled out of circulation almost instantly when a performer’s copyright is litigated; similarly, they reappear at unpredictable moments whenever a relevant lawsuit is settled.

Of course, despite all the Hollywood studios’ power to mold reality, what they typically do is stick digital copies of famous actors in remakes — for instance, Marilyn Monroe in Pretty Woman or River Phoenix in Back to the Future. (Phoenix was “one of the first actors copyrighted” and serves as a sort of contemporary James Dean in the story.)

The biggest difference of all between the real world and the milieu of “Remake” is the existence of the skids, formally dubbed Instransit. A sort of mass-teleportation device, it functions, at least in Los Angeles, as a subway system. This innovation seems like mere window dressing at first, less significant in establishing the future setting than Tom’s slang — he refers to people as hackates, geekates, tourates and druggates.

However, the skids turn out to play a pretty significant role in the story. When Tom discovers Alis dancing in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers — that’s the original 1954 feature, not a remake — he initially thinks that he’s drunk, or suffering from an unexpected drug aftereffect. Tom ends up finding Alis — or someone who looks a heck of a lot like her — in several other movies, however, and Heada agrees that he’s not just hallucinating or imagining the resemblance.

For much of the story, Tom attempts to find what could possibly account for his one-night stand appearing in production numbers in a bunch of 20th-century movies. Nothing quite prepares him for the truth that he stumbles upon, however.

“Remake” is stuffed to the gills with allusions to and dialogue from movies, many of which I was unfamiliar with. While none of the characters are entirely appealing — Tom is too much of a self-centered money-grubbing hedonist, and both Alis and Heada are too distant and one-dimensional — the novella provides an interesting glimpse into Hollywood’s past, present and what once might have been a possible future.

My favorite of the tales was the first, “Uncharted Territory,” which originally premiered in 1994. It’s told by Fin, one half of a survey team on the remote planet Boohte. (Remote applies to distance, not transportation time, as travel is rendered nigh instantaneous thanks to teleportation gates.) She and her fellow surveyor, Carson, bicker like a long-suffering married couple, and indeed, they are long-suffering, although neither married nor a couple. They’re supported by C.J. Tull, a perky pilot who maintains base camp at a spot known as King’s X, and Bult, a surly indigenous insectoid scout who’s supposed to provide the surveying duo guidance but mainly racks up a lengthy series of fines for various offenses, some real and others not.

I opened the door. “Honey, I’m home,” I called. 

“Hello!” C.J. sang out cheerfully from the kitchen, which was a switch. “How was your expedition?” 

She appeared in the doorway, smiling and wiping her hands on a towel. She was all done up, clean face and fixed-up hair and a shirt that was open down to thirty degrees north. “Dinner’s almost ready,” she said brightly, and then stopped and looked around. “Where’s Evelyn?” 

“Out in the stable,” I said, dumping my stuff on a chair, “talking to Carson, the planetary surveyor. Did you know we’re famous?” 

“You’re filthy,” she said. “And you’re late. What on hell took you so long? Dinner’s cold. I had it ready two hours ago.” She jabbed a finger at my stuff. “Get that dirty pack off the furniture. It’s bad enough putting up with dust tantrums without you two dragging in dirt.” 

I sat down and propped my legs up on the table. “And how was your day, sweetheart?” I said. “Get a mud puddle named after you? Jump any loaners?” 

“Very funny. Evelyn happens to be a very nice young man who understands what it’s like to be all alone on a planet for weeks at a time with nobody for hundreds of gloms and who knows what dangers lurking out there —” 

“Like losing that shirt,” I said. 

“You’re not exactly in a position to criticize my clothes,” she said. “When’s the last time you changed yours? What have you been doing, rolling in the mud? And get those boots off the furniture. “They’re disgusting!” She smacked my legs with the dish towel. 

The quartet’s delicate balance has been interrupted by the arrival of a “loaner,” or temporary addition to the survey team, a socioexozoologist named Evelyn Parker. (“My mother was from England,” he explains. “Only they pronounce it with a long ‘e.’”) As Willis delightfully exposes when the expanded party set out to chart a sector that they somehow missed on their earlier expeditions, it turns out that none of the four team members have been entirely honest — either with one another or themselves — about motivations underlying their work.

“Uncharted Territory” is a combination of Western, science fiction, comedy and romance genres, one so lively and enjoyable that I couldn’t help but wonder if it influenced Joss Whedon’s cult one-season TV series “Firefly.” Carson, Fin, Parker and Buhl contend with, among other things, a sort of futuristic claim jumper, a desert storm and some well-concealed wildlife as they make the arduous trek toward the survey area. They also make a few discoveries about the local fauna and one of the planet’s more remarkable features, a long string of chambers carved out of rock that humans call the Wall.

I heartily recommend Terra Incognita to anyone who’s enjoyed reading Willis’s work in the past. “D.A.” did not particularly tickle me, but “Remake” offers a clever take on Hollywood and “Uncharted Territory” is a romp that takes on some real issues about the way people live, work and interact with different people and environments.

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