Even big time SF authors can't resist doing fanfic. And why not? Our favorite writers are fans just like us. John Scalzi, author of Old Man's War and internet darling, probably read Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper as a kid. This tale of humans debating the intelligence of a cute, fuzzy alien species has charmed readers since 1962, was a Hugo Best Novel nominee, and was in many of our student bookbags along with the Heinlein juveniles and John Christopher's Tripod books.
Scalzi began this reboot as a personal project but was so delighted with the result he approached Mr. Piper's estate to publish Fuzzy Nation (Tor Books) and share it with other fans. This is a retelling, not a sequel.
Although it does not take place in the universes of neither Old Man's War nor Android's Dream, it has all the Scalzian hallmarks— good or ill— of a Scalzi novel; because it was written by John Scalzi. He can stretch and do something very different as we've seen in The God Engines, but this ain't it. This is a great deal like his first novel, Agent to the Stars, also a first contact story— but of course much more polished.
There are spoilers ahead. Even if you've never read Little Fuzzy, you don't really expect wild plot twists and deep thoughts from this light and entertaining novel, do you?
The setting resembles the original novel with some changes in nomenclature and science (no contragravity this time— good.). The primordial untouched planet Zarathustra XXIII is being heavily touched by human interests in the form of the greedy if unoriginally named ZaraCorp. These fat cats have an exclusive Explore and Exploit charter from Earth's Colonial Authority. They're allowed to strip this world of resources because there are no indigenous sapients, just lots of dumb reptilioids. The main exports of Zarathustra XXIII appear to be luxury goods such as exotic hardwoods and the coveted sunstones. ZaraCorp is also mining mountain-loads of anthracite coal. Really, Scalzi? Coal!? I figure it's either fuel for the spaceships of steampunk oligarchs or to fulfill the Evil Planet Raper clause of ZaraCorp's charter. At least one known species has a disturbing amount of manual dexterity, but who cares? Zararaptors (the name-making guys went all out here) eat hapless surveyors. Besides, lizards just aren't cute. Kill 'em all and let Darwin sort 'em out. The important thing is that there are no real people like us, so everything is up for grabs nice and legal-like.
Fuzzy Nation's protagonist Jack Holloway shares the same name as his 1962 incarnation, but that's about it. This time around he's younger, has a good dog named Carl, but lacks the Mark Twain mustache and moral restraint. He's also a lawyer; well,a disbarred lawyer, the kind of lawyer that makes other lawyers want to boil their hands in bleach after shaking his hand. Okay, I'll stop using the word "lawyer" for a few paragraphs now. Holloway is on contract with ZaraCorp as a surveyor to aid in the ecological rape and pillage. The novel opens as he and Carl have made a literally explosive discovery, a huge deposit of coveted thermoluminescent sunstones. This is the muthaeffer of all motherlodes. Despite his already tenuous relationship with ZaraCorp, this confident rugged individualist (read: selfish jerk) stands to become obscenely wealthy. Upon returning to his cozy jungle cabin lucky Jack makes another planet-shaking discovery. Inside trashing his bachelor pad, is an heretofore uncatalogued mammalian biped. It's about a cubit tall, vaguely feline in appearance, and covered in silky golden hair. This "little fuzzy" is friendly and quickly demonstrates self-awareness and problem-solving skills. Sure, the li'l fella's cute as the dickens but can't possibly be intelligent enough to ruin Jack and ZaraCorp's dreams of avarice.
In preadolescence, I devoured the original novel, Piper's sequel Fuzzy Sapiens, and Fuzzy Bones by William Tuning. In 1982, Ardath Mayhar wrote Golden Dreams: A Fuzzy Odyssey, a great retelling of the saga from the viewpoint of the Fuzzies. Scalzi fans will note that he did something similar in Zoe's Tale. These enjoyable, simple adventures appeal to the instinctual attraction we all have of adorable critters with Sharp Objects. They also confirmed my own feelings against racism and colonial imperialism without heavy-handed moralizing. Piper's main message is that sincere fair play is a good way to live. We should look out for the little guys, especially if they have Sharp Objects. John Scalzi has not strayed far from this basic truth.
The Fuzzies are prime examples of Cootsy-Wootsy Widdle Awiens in Science Fiction. According to the Kawaii Panspermia Theory, these various aliens have evolved in myriad literary worlds to serve as goofy sidekicks; amuse us with their antics and pigdin gibberish; and surprise us with Hidden Depth and Lessons About Ourselves. I know there are earlier examples, but Willis from Heinlein's 1949 Red Planet will always stand out in my nostalgic library of Boy's Own SF Adventures. The Hokas were also a huge favorite of mine and are still good silly fun.. Poul Anderson and Gordon R. Dickson began these delightful fan-service stories back in '57. Written strictly for laughs, this race of teddy bears had difficulty separating fact from fiction and totally geeked over Earth culture, The ultimate role-players, Hokas outdid those aliens in Galaxy Quest or the Gangster Planet on the original Star Trek. In the 1970s, the Athsheans from The Word for the World is Forest by Ursula K. LeGuin taught us all about the evils of Whitemanism. Despite my own political leanings, LeGuin's insufferably preachy novel does not improve with re-reading. The Pequeninos of Orson Scott Card's Enderverse are another fable of contact with a pre-technological sylvan race. I'd skip their tree-planting ceremony if the piggies invited me.
It's hard not to see the Fuzzies as instrumental in the creation of George Lucas' Ewoks even though we all know they are ment to be reverse-Wookies. The Fuzzies are not as technologically advanced as Wicket and his tribe. They do not wear clothes and appear incabable of building bitchin' treefort villages or Stormtrooper helmet xylophones. In Fuzzy Nation they lack even the indigenous tool use seen in the originals.; no "chopperdigger"polearms here. I can see why; Tool-making would render the debate over their sapience moot. Pity though, as an eleven-year-old, my walks in the woods were accompanied by a troop of Fuzzies with teeny-tiny naginatas. Scalzi has a characteristically unsubtle shout-out to Return of the Jedi, "Yub, Yub!" I should probably also mention Avatar's Na'vi— there, I just did. I will not mention Furries other than to say using filters while searching for "little fuzzy" images can be a very good idea.
There are other trivial differences between the fuzzies of Piper and Scalzi. Zarathustran animals have a unisexual reproductive system and mammals are very rare.Why the lack of other mammals; are the fuzzies the remnants of an advanced species that wiped out the other mammals? I can't see any reasons for these changes other than to confound Holloway's ex-girlfriend, a plucky but less than brilliant xenobiologist. Instead of Piper's "extee three" field rations, the fuzzies favorite Terra foods here are smoked turkey and bacon. At no point does Scalzi tape bacon onto a fuzzy; we applaud his restraint. I'd never suggest John Scalzi has done anything untoward to my childhood.Piper's original is still around to be enjoyed or not. The fuzzies are still adorable, provide much slapstick, but remain props for the humans' courtroom wrangling. When we finally get a glimpse of the fuzzy perspective way at the end of novel it's quite moving. The pivotal tragedy involving Kellog has been completely remade into something far more graphic and brutal.
Fuzzy Nation is a smoother more engaging read than the original; a real page-turner despite the entire focus on Jack Holloway. All of the characters are more vivid, some cartoonishly so. Of course it's packed with witty banter with all the best zingers reserved for Jack. Like other Scalzian protagonists, Holloway is a supremely confident, sarcastic world-beater from the Heinlein mold. There's no room for damaged sad-sacks in a Scalzi book. This is no Old Man John Perry; Holloway is even sleazier than Thomas Stein of Agent to the Stars, he'll will lie, cheat, and steal to further his agenda. We know Holloway is unlikeable because the other characters tell him so in nearly every conversation. Even when he commits a seemingly reckless blow against injustices of The Man, you can be certain he stands to profit at the end. Predictably, the only thing Holloway learns at the end is that, yes, the universe does revolve around him. Inna final analysis, this courtroom drama and homage is Scalzi's book, I'm just reading it. He has achieved his goal, to entertain and satisfy his fans, but the reboot Fuzzy Nation is nothing new.
Fuzzy Nation is available from your local independent bookseller now.
The book reviewer Grey_Area is known to Andy Alpaca as Chris Hsiang. He is ready for another reading adventure!