Before Ewoks, before furries, there were Fuzzies. H. Beam Piper's novels are not just classic "first contact" novels, but classic space operas, classic "evil exploitative corporation" novels, classic planetary adventures.
They're also, fifty years later, somewhat dated. But when John Scalzi announced that he'd rewritten Little Fuzzy, just because he wanted to, and then gotten approval from the Piper estate to publish it (so it's all official and legit and totally not fan fiction at all), I decided to reread the originals and then compare with his "reboot."
Little Fuzzy, by H. Beam Piper
Cosmos Books, 1962, 252 pages
Although people mostly remember these books because of the cute aliens, there was also quite a lot of classic speculative element in this book. Fundamentally, the plot revolves around the definition of sapience, and while there is some adventure and a little bit of shooting, the climax takes place in a courtroom.
Jack Holloway is a prospector on the planet Zarathustra, which is authorized for exploitation by the Chartered Zarathustra Company. There is a catch: if a planet turns out to harbor intelligent life, the CZC will immediately lose its charter and all exploitation must stop. Since Zarathustra is rich in minerals, and also in an exceedingly rare type of gem called sunstones, obviously the company would be very unhappy were intelligent life to be discovered.
One day, Holloway comes home from a day of sunstone prospecting and finds a small, fuzzy humanoid, about the size of a cat, has invaded his home. Holloway, grizzled old frontiersman that he is, is not immune to Teh Cute, so he feeds it, pets it, and soon has a family of Fuzzies taking up residence in his home. The critters have evaded detection for the two decades or so that humans have been on Zarathustra because they lived in high mountainous jungles, and are only coming down to where people live now because of human ecological disturbance, which has been attracting their primary food source.
Initially Jack thinks the Fuzzies are just very smart animals, but it soon becomes evident that they're a lot smarter than that. Of course when the Chartered Zarathustra Company finds out about Holloway's discovery, they are not happy, and would very much like the Fuzzies to go away, or failing that, to be judged non-sapient. What follows involves a certain amount of corporate skullduggery, but mostly it's a legal battle in a courtroom, with the Fuzzies' sapience being on trial.
It's a fun, quick read. It is a little dated — there is "magical" advanced technology in the form of infallible lie detectors which goose the story through what would otherwise be some tricky dilemmas, no women do anything important, and even Jack Holloway doesn't see a problem with treating an intelligent, self-aware race of "people" as adorable pets to be "adopted" by worthy human families. But it's still a classic suitable for all ages and suitable to be read in any age.
Fuzzy Sapiens, by H. Beam Piper
Cosmos Books, 1964, 240 pages
The second book in Piper's trilogy picks up literally weeks after the end of the first one. Now that Fuzzy Sapiens has been officially recognized as a sapient race, humans are obligated to protect their well-being on Zarathustra, with Jack Holloway being their official guardian, backed up by the Colonial Marines.
Slightly less well-written than the first book (the evil corporate executive from the first book who was willing to commit genocide against the entire race does a Heel Face Turn because the Fuzzies are just so darn cute), Fuzzy Sapiens combines a sci-fi mystery with a crime caper. The mystery is the Fuzzies' infant mortality rate, which is so high that their race is heading for extinction. The friends of the Fuzzies explore one solution after another in their quest to save them.
Meanwhile, Fuzzies are becoming enormously popular as "adoptees." Which leads to a black market in Fuzzies and the specter of Fuzzies being slave-traded as pets for rich off-worlders. The crime caper results from some criminals figuring out how else they can exploit Fuzzies.
Piper never does raise issues of paternalism or disruption of native cultures — the Fuzzies are just cute critters who talk and make charming companions. There is never any discussion at all about whether it's appropriate for humans to treat Fuzzies as, essentially, pets. Fuzzies are adorable and playful and don't commit crimes of violence and, while declared sapient, are about as smart as ten-year-old children and act like it. So their human guardians are scrupulous about their well-being but think nothing of carrying them around like children, giving them food and tools and shelter (and thus pretty much destroying their native culture), and using baby-talk when speaking to them. There were several points where I thought Piper might actually examine some of the moral quandaries — yes, you're saving an aboriginal people from nature red in tooth and claw, but you're also turning the entire species into wards of humanity, which doesn't have a great track record when it comes to taking care of "primitives."
H. Beam Piper wrote a fun sci-fi romp that's a product of its time, and these two books are well worth reading, and should be read together.
Fuzzy Nation, by John Scalzi
Tor, 2011, 303 pages
In his Author's Note, John Scalzi says:
Fuzzy Nation is a reimagining of the story and events in Little Fuzzy, the 1962 Hugo-nominated novel by H. Beam Piper. Specifically, Fuzzy Nation appropriates the general story arc of Little Fuzzy, as well as character names and plot elements, and weds them to entirely new elements, characters, and events. Think of it as a "reboot" of the Fuzzy universe, not unlike the recent J.J. Abrams "reboot" of the Star Trek film series (but hopefully with better science).
"Reimagining." "Appropriates." "Reboot." Come on, John. You can say it. Fan fiction.
John Scalzi got approval from the Piper estate to publish this "reimagining" of Piper's original Fuzzy novel, though technically he didn't have to since it's now in the public domain. (Copyright laws are strange — I am not sure how a 1962 sci-fi novel fell out of copyright while Gone With the Wind is still protected, but there you go.)
No bones about it, this is a fanfic rewrite of Little Fuzzy. Same plot, same characters in broad strokes, same basic events. If you have read either book, then nothing in the other book will surprise you. And yet they are different experiences, different in the retelling, and both worth reading in their own right.
Scalzi's "reboot" updates the Piper version somewhat — wow, female characters! And the Fuzzies are treated in a less patronizing fashion, and actually behave like technologically primitive but fully sapient creatures, not adorable furry children. Jack Holloway, in this version, is not a crusty old prospector but a smarmy ex-lawyer. As his friends, enemies, and ex-girlfriend repeatedly tell him, the most likable thing about him is his dog.
Fuzzy Nation is more clever-clever, both in dialog and in plotting, than Piper's version. Sometimes this is a good thing, as the courtroom smackdown is even more satisfying in Scalzi's version, and a lot of the dialog is funny. But it's a writing schtick I wish Scalzi would not overuse so much — I am starting to notice a certain sameness to all his smarmy, clever, male protagonists.
One speech in Fuzzy Nation made this possibly my favorite Scalzi novel to date, though. It also demonstrates the difference between the old golden age pulp sci-fi of H. Beam Piper and science fiction influenced by years of TV/movie sci-fi that John Scalzi writes. You know he was imagining this on the big screen:
"Jack Holloway told me he would get the son of a bitch who killed my child and the mate of my child," Papa continued. "Jack Holloway did get that son of a bitch. Jack Holloway got you. You are the man who killed my child. Get off my planet, you son of a bitch."
Have you read any of the Fuzzy novels?
If you read both: which ones did you you like better?
Verdict: H. Beam Piper's Fuzzy novels and John Scalzi's rewrite are complementary works. I suppose some might strongly prefer one over the other, but I found them to be equally good, each entertaining in a slightly different way, and worth reading without worrying that one will "spoil" the other. It's not exactly hard SF, but it's got a smattering of science in an optimistic, slightly retro universe. Not deep, but definitely fun reads.
Also by John Scalzi: My reviews of The Android's Dream, The God Engines, and Agent to the Stars.
My complete list of book reviews.