Lately, I have been working my way through the works of science fiction writer H. Beam Piper. Piper was one of the great science fiction writers of the fifties and early sixties, and, tragically, he committed suicide right before his works’ popularity really took off.
Perhaps as a result of the disorder brought about by his untimely demise, the copyrights on many of Piper’s works were never renewed. They now reside in the public domain, where they can be read for free on sites like Project Gutenberg, or the Baen Best Of Gutenberg Science Fiction CD.
Recently, writer John Scalzi looked at one of Piper’s books, Little Fuzzy, and started thinking about how he could "reboot" it in the same way that the recent Star Trek movie rebooted the franchise. And then he wrote that reboot, a novel called Fuzzy Nation. At the time, he did not actually have any expectation of publishing it—he simply wrote it as a writing exercise to get his mind off of a contract negotiation that had not turned out well. After he finished it, he took a look at it, thought it was pretty good, and contacted the H. Beam Piper estate for permission to publish it.
As Scalzi explained on his blog, even though Little Fuzzy is in the public domain, there were enough "fuzzy" legal areas to make publishing it without permission tricky, and since he meant it as a tribute to Piper he felt better about having their permission anyway. Happily, he got the permission, and the book quickly found a publisher. It has recently come out in print and electronic form, and I have read it. I am now going to compare and contrast the original Little Fuzzy, and the reboot Fuzzy Nation.
In an author’s note, Scalzi writes that "Fuzzy Nation is not intended to supplant or improve upon Little Fuzzy, which would be impossible to do." He calls Little Fuzzy a " wonderful book" and hopes that Fuzzy Nation will inspire more people to read that original book. I certainly can’t argue with that, and I’m happy to note that Fuzzy Nation is itself also worth reading.
Written in 1962, Little Fuzzy is the story of Jack Holloway, an aging prospector on the frontier planet of Zarathustra, who happens to encounter a new sapient life form indigenous to that planet. He calls this life form "fuzzies", because they are small, fur-covered humanoids.
This discovery has the effect of upsetting the corporation that holds the charter to exploit that planet. If this species is confirmed to be sapient, they will lose the charter and their entire investment—and since Zarathustra is the only planet in the galaxy where rare sunstone GM’s can be found, the corporation’s executives have a significant stake in seeing that these creatures are not found to be sapient at all.
The matter escalates, until it ends up in a fairly unorthodox courtroom battle, a double headed murder trial with a clever twist: the court uses a device called a "veridicator", a sort of advanced lie detector that reliably displays whether the person speaking actually believes what he is saying.
Little Fuzzy is a fun book to read, especially if you enjoy fifties and sixties science-fiction in general. It is full of the same sort of generally hopeful themes that science fiction of that era had—see the original Star Trek for another example. It also features some of the standard male-female relationship themes of the 1960s, though it does subvert them a bit in that the main female character is a professional, fully competent in her field, and ends up making an extremely important contribution to the protection of the fuzzies.
A number of Piper’s works focused on the relationship between human colonists and native species of planets that humans had colonized. Sometimes Piper’s humans come across as a bit paternalistic—as in the case of his story "Oomphel in the Sky", which revolved around a human quelling a native religious uprising by explaining to the shamans that humans don’t have an afterlife and need the natives’ help to try to create one. But here, the story revolves around fuzzies’ right to self-determine, with the sympathetic humans firmly on the fuzzies’ side.
In the end, Little Fuzzy is a really fun book to read, and since it’s available electronically for free, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t start reading it right now. Go on, be my guest!
And now we come to the reboot. In Fuzzy Nation, Scalzi approaches the same situation—small, furry humanoids discovered on a profitable mining planet—from the point of view of a modern understanding of corporations. Whereas in the original Little Fuzzy, the Miners were all independent claim-stakers, like ’49ers in the gold rush days, in Fuzzy Nation they are all contracted labor who work at the behest of the corporation. And that’s not the only thing Scalzi changed.
Whereas in the original, Jack Holloway was at least middle-aged—a recapitulation of the stereotypical "miner ’49er"—in the reboot he is a much younger disbarred lawyer…and kind of an unlikable asshole. He is a self-centered, manipulative, smart-alec, and is more than once shown to be too clever for his own good. He’s on the outs with his ex-girlfriend because he lied at a corporate hearing, resulting in a black mark in her file. (Naming a hill after her and then having it strip-mined didn’t help, either.) A lot of Scalzi’s characters can be like that—more anti-heroes than heroes.
It’s tempting to cast this as a story of the rebooted Holloway’s redemption, in which he finds something more to care about than just himself. And to an extent, there is an element of that. But far more, it seems that this is just a story of Holloway finding a good cause that he can bend his natural, unredeemed assholishness in service of—he does not seem to be a significantly different person at the end of the story than he was when it began.
As might be expected from having its protagonist be a former lawyer, Fuzzy Nation has plenty of courtroom drama in it as well—though nothing like the original’s veridicator. Undoubtedly that was a far too innocent and optimistic idea for these cynical times—indeed, an important part of the story turns on some characters being able to lie in the courtroom.
There are some other similarities, as well, such as those having to do with discovery of the fuzzies’ method of communication. But there are also some important differences—and going too deeply into those differences would be to give too much away. Suffice it to say that readers of the original will be in for quite a surprise at the climax.
Scalzi puts the story together like a stage magician. There are enough loaded Chekhov’s Guns scattered here and there in the text to form a veritable mantelpiece arsenal—but part of the fun is that these guns are not always obvious until right after they go off. And then the reader is grinning, slapping his forehead, and laughing at what was so obvious in retrospect but he didn’t see it until that very moment. (Or at least, the reader is if he’s me.)
Even if the protagonist is a bit unlikable, and I think Little Fuzzy is the better book overall, Fuzzy Nation is a fun book to read. I’m not sure that I would say it’s worth the $11.99 that Tor wants for the e-book version, but the price will come down if you wait, and there are libraries in the meantime.
Now get out there and do some fuzzy reading!