Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi
I remember when I first picked up H. Beam Piper’s novel Little Fuzzy, back when I was a teenager. It’s not a long book, and it’s not a complicated book, but it’s a memorable tale of first contact and its repercussions. I read all the other Fuzzy books that were written and always wished that there had been more. Now, my wish is granted. John Scalzi enters the world of the Fuzzies with his respectful –and amazing—reboot of the series, Fuzzy Nation.
Jack Holloway is an independent contractor mining sunstones on Zara XXIII, content to live alone with just his dog. The discovery of a huge sunstone vein seems on the verge of cementing his fortunes, but fate intervenes in the form of an adorable little invader in his home: a catlike biped with golden fur and a startling intelligence. Jack thinks that this “fuzzy”, as he calls it, might be sentient. But if they are, the company that holds the contract to exploit the planet will have to vacate and give up all their claims.
With the discovery of the fuzzies, Jack’s life is turned upside down. Threatened by ZaraCorp’s lawyers, menaced by their hired thugs, Jack will have to fall back on his former training as a lawyer to outwit the company. If ZaraCorp has its way, the fuzzies will be declared to be animals and their planet will be stripped to the bones. Jack is determined to help his new little friend, no matter the cost.
Being a fan of the original novels, I approached this retelling with a little trepidation. I know that Scalzi is an excellent writer, but would his vision of the fuzzies and their world work for me, either by itself or as compared to the original? I’m happy to say that it does both, and wonderfully.
While the bones of the original novel remain in this new novel, there are some significant changes. Jack Holloway was conceived by Piper as an older man, well past his prime. Scalzi paints Jack as a man in his mid-thirties, and he gives him the background to allow him to actively participate in the fight to prove the fuzzies’s sentience. This brings a lot more tension to the final scenes in the courtroom, as it allows the main character to be right in the middle of the action. I enjoyed watching him whip out legal arguments and wield them like weapons.
There’s also a change in the history of the fuzzies themselves. Without giving anything away, Piper’s novels glossed over something that could be seen as a plot loophole invalidating much of what happens in the first book. Later authors picked up on this and ran with it. Scalzi’s change neatly deals with that little problem. I will admit, however, that after decades of having one story in the back of my head, the change was jarring upon first encountering it. I soon accepted it, though, and as most readers won’t have read the original novels, I doubt it will be an issue to the majority of readers.
The author weaves in a lot of worldbuilding and little significant details, and he does so with such care that you probably won’t notice what he’s doing. Several things that seem like “throwaway” details become quite important later on, and it’s a testament to the author’s writing skill that readers likely won’t see what’s coming until it happens. There’s not an ounce of fat on this story—everything is relevant, and you’ll be amazed at how well it all comes together.
I particularly liked the courtroom scenes where the fuzzies’s sentience is being decided. This isn’t a dry procedure with hours of bland bits of evidence being presented. Events in this novel happen quickly, and thus the trial involves bombshell after bombshell without feeling like it’s forced. This is just damn good plotting at work, and I devoured this sequence with the kind of glee that you get when seeing someone getting a just comeuppance.
I can’t say enough good things about Fuzzy Nation. Not just a wonderful reboot of a classic series, it stands on its own as a tightly-plotted and deeply engrossing first contact novel. I recommend picking this one up in hardback, because it’s one you’re going to want to keep in your collection. I hope that Mr. Scalzi intends to continue with this series, and if he does, I’ll be first in line to buy a copy.
This review appeared on Owlcat Mountain on May 5, 2011.