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Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi

Cover art by Kekai Kotaki

Published by Tor Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Yesterday's science fiction is often like yesterday's news -- painfully dated and of interest primarily to historians. Even the most carefully researched extrapolation can be left behind by scientific and technological advances in the Primary World, particularly when one field undergoes a sudden and unexpected burst of innovation. Computer technology is one of the most obvious current examples, because the development of the integrated circuit and the microprocessor completely revolutionized the way in which computer components were designed and built. Even as late as the 1960's and early 1970's it seemed reasonable that computers would always be huge mainframes attended by a priesthood of technicians who would make sure they were only used for suitably important things. And then Silicon Valley's youth tinkerer community, exemplified by Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, gave us the personal computer and revealed the power of the microprocessor as a disruptive technology, transforming the computer from a distant and sometimes threatening machine used by corporate and government bureaucracies to an information appliance for everyday life, with as many embedded applications in ordinary devices as actual computers on desks.

As a result, trying to read the classics of science fiction that were written a decade or two before the Digital Revolution can be difficult, because it's so clearly not our future. And that's just the information technology. The societal extrapolation, or more correctly the lack thereof, can often be even more off-putting to the average reader coming to them for the first time. Here's this future where we've spread throughout the solar system and even to the stars, but all the character relationships are straight out of a 1950's sitcom. It's so white, so straight, and so male. Of course everybody assumes that women stay at home and don't bother their pretty little heads with anything important while the guys get to actually do all the cool stuff. t's almost enough to make you want to grab the book and pitch it across the room.

In comic books, particularly in the superhero genre, there's been a practice of periodically starting the series over, often termed rebooting it, by which a long-running character's origin is retold in a more contemporary visual idiom and setting. DC comics has even formalized it, setting up a system by which the original Golden Age Batman, Superman, etc. who fought in World War II were actually the inhabitants of an alternate Earth from the superheroes of the same name who belonged to the Silver Age. (However, more recently the system became so unwieldy that they ran an entire storyline to collapse the multiple timelines into a single one).

Recent years have seen a similar effort with several long-running media franchises. The most notable was the Battlestar Galactica series, but some people regard the resumption of Doctor Who to be as much a reboot as a continuation, given that it has involved a marked improvement of production values and some issues with continuity, not to mention a shift in the general tone of the shorelines. Movies have had a long tradition of the remake, in which a new director produces a new version of an older movie, viz the 1975 and 2003 remakes of King Kong, but the recent JJ Abrams Star Trek movie has been treated as much as a reboot of the franchise as a whole, rather than an attempt to remake any specific Original Series story.

Since it's worked so well in comics and other visual media, is it any surprise that someone would decide it's time to perform a similar update on a classic science fiction novel? After all, there are a lot of classic works of sf that the older generation has fond memories of, but find it well-night impossible to introduce to a new generation of readers for the simple reason that, while the storyline remains compelling, the fictional world has become so encrusted in Zeerust that it is difficult for young readers to suspend their disbelief enough to enjoy the story. If the tech and social relationships could be modernized enough that it really feels like the future instead of the 1950's recycled in space -- old enough to be dated, but not yet old enough to gain the sort of charm one sees in steampunk and dieselpunk -- maybe it could be re-introduced to a new generation of readers.

H. Beam Piper was, before his untimely death, a very promising writer who had created a future history at least as complex and compelling as Heinlein's. In fact, it appears that he mapped it out in far greater detail than Heinlein ever attempted, with major trends by decades over several thousand years carefully outlined, a vast history only glimpsed in the stories he actually wrote, a history that was lost when his apartment was cleaned out after his death and the bundle of notes seen as so much trash to be discarded. Although he planned out millennia, a major proportion of the wordage he actually wrote and published told the story of a single world and how humanity met a species about which there was serious question -- were they sapient, or were they merely animals with very sophisticated behavior patterns? The story began in Little Fuzzy and continued in Fuzzy Sapiens, which came out shortly before he died. When the promised third book in the sequence could not be found, his publisher commissioned two sequels by other authors, although both fans and critics noted that neither had quite the same feel as the originals.

Yet now they've become almost completely forgotten, and a quick re-reading shows why. Part of it is of course the future that's supposed to have sprung from the southern-hemisphere survivors of a disastrous nuclear war between the US and USSR in the latter part of the twentieth century, a future that's well-nigh impossible to retcon to a present in which the greatest threat is not total thermonuclear war between nation-states, but the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction by rogue nations or sub-national actors (read terrorist organizations, particularly those that arise from apocalyptic religious sects). But so much of it is the society that seems to be something the characters of Mad Men might have come up with as a science fiction story. A society in which the cocktail hour is an integral part of the lives of persons of quality, in which hats and neckties are de rigger masculine attire for anyone with aspirations above the working class. To believe it as a future, you'd have to believe that society will suddenly turn the clock back about sixty years and weld its hands in place for the next thousand.

While negotiating another writing deal, John Scalzi developed the notion of dong a reboot of Little Fuzzy, rewriting it as Piper might have, had he been a contemporary author extrapolating a future from the society and technologies of the present. The result is Fuzzy Nation, which does follow the basic plot outline of Little Fuzzy pretty closely. We have the prospector Jack Holloway who discovers this cute little creature and befriends it, and who realizes that it isn't just a particularly smart animal, but a sapient being -- and thus runs straight into the opposition of the corporation that effectively owns the planet, since their charter remains valid so long as the planet has no native sapient life. The company sends some thugs to put a stop to the problem, but Holloway outwits them with the revelation that these Fuzzies do indeed have a language, but speak in frequencies above human hearing, so that humans can hear only the lower harmonics which sound like a high-pitched squeak.

As I read Fuzzy Nation, the biggest difference I notice isn't the more modern information technology clearly based upon present-day tablet computers, or even the inclusion of strong, competent female characters with independent agency. Instead, I am especially struck by the very different tone of this novel. Piper's original tended toward the bright and optimistic side of the Sliding Scale of Idealism and Cynicism. The good guys did the right thing because it was the right thing to do. When Jack Holloway realized that his little furry friend was a self-aware being, he immediately championed the Fuzzies' right to their own world without a second thought for how his own financial interests in the lucrative sunstone business would be affected.

By contrast, Scalzi's novel rests firmly on the idea that not only are people a complicated mixture of good and evil, but that the moral status of their actions and motivations may be ambiguous even in their own minds. People sometimes do the right thing for completely selfish motives, but they also have times when they're not sure how much of the selfish motivation was just a sort of rationalization in reverse, telling themselves they aren't such goody-two-shoes like the prigs they despise.

Thus Jack Holloway is no longer the crusty prospector with the heart of gold, but a bitter and disillusioned man who used to be a lawyer, before he got disbarred. And as he reminds several other characters in the course of the story, he wasn't disbarred for not knowing the law. And he's quite willing to show his knowledge of the law whenever it's to his advantage, citing one case after another as precedent for the course of action he wants to take. But when we do finally learn the actual story of just how he got disbarred, we're left unsure as to whether he acted in genuine righteous wrath at his client's smugness and disrespect to the grief of the families of the dead, or if it were in fact a carefully calculated action to disrupt a trial that was going against them. And when he's trying to obscure the questions of the sapience of the Fuzzies, we're never sure how much of it is his own selfish interest in his share of the huge sunstone deposit he's found, and how much he's trying to protect the Fuzzies from corporate executives who might decide their interests are best served by the Fuzzies suddenly and mysteriously becoming extinct.

Also, the villain who kills a Fuzzy becomes a far darker character. Joe DeLise is a thug and bully of repellant personal appearance and habits, who once beat a man nearly to death for the offense of having sat in his bar stool at the dive known as Warren's Warren. And when Holloway takes him on, not realizing that the camera for the secure video feed broke some time earlier and never was replaced, DeLise proceeds to set up a situation in which he can torture Holloway to death with impunity. Holloway only narrowly evades this fate with the help of the corporate counsel, who was tipped off by his girlfriend, who just happens to be Holloway's ex-girlfriend. And when DeLise kills two of the youngest Fuzzies, it's with deliberate cruelty that fits his overbearing, bullying personality.

The effect is of a grimmer, grittier future that seems to be as much the heir of the cyberpunk movement as of the space opera tradition to which Piper belonged. But when we consider the Zeitgeist of the second decade of the twenty-first century, and compare it to that of the time in which Little Fuzzy was written, we have to wonder whether it was as necessary an update as the technology upgrades and the modern treatment of female and minority characters. In fact, the tone of the original may well read as Pollyannaish to contemporary readers.

At the same time, it's interesting how Scalzi's worldbuilding has benefitted from a half-century of advancement in the biological sciences, particularly in the development of the Fuzzies' reproductive systems. In Piper's original, it's pretty much assumed that they have a diecious sexual reproductive system -- that is, one in which two kinds of gametes (reproductive cells) are produced, large egg cells that contain a full suite of cytoplasmic machinery and smaller sperm cells which are stripped down to the haploid chromosome package and a delivery mechanism to get them to the egg, and the structures to produce eggs and sperm are on different individuals. In Scalzi's fictional universe, the native species of Zara XXIII reproduce without sexual differentiation, not only in the individual but also in the gametes they produce. All gametes are functionally identical, and gametes from the same individual are prevented from fusing by a protein coat that is attracted to the dissimilar protein coats of other individuals' gametes. The effect is somewhat similar to the mating groups found in fungi, except that in effect every Fuzzy is a unique mating group, able to reproduce with any other Fuzzy. Since we see the Fuzzys only through the eyes of the human point-of-view characters, we really don't get a lot of information on how the absence of not only gender, but also sexually differentiated gametes, affect their social structure, but we get a hint in Papa Fuzzy's testimony, in which its grief strikes our human minds as being more like that of a mother than a father.

Although I found Fuzzy Nation well written on the whole and I really wanted to like it (the cover artist's depiction of Papa Fuzzy is an obvious homage to the Michael Whelan cover that first introduced me to Little Fuzzy, for crying out loud), I found my ability to enjoy it hampered by the way in which it and the Piper original didn't want to share space in my skull very comfortably. There were several times I really wished Mr. Scalzi had written an original-universe novel dealing with the same premise instead. I've noticed that TV-series reboots have often been enjoyed best by younger generations who have little or no recollection of the original, and have been panned by the original fans. Maybe a reboot really needs a virgin-field audience. As such, I'm ambivalent as to whether a sequel to Fuzzy Nation would be a good idea, in spite of having fond memories of reading Piper's sequels to the original Little Fuzzy

Review posted January 1, 2013.

Buy Fuzzy Nation from Amazon.com

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