Wednesday, June 15, 2011
So, when I heard that John Scalzi, a writer about whom I know little -- yes, yes, we've already established that I'm out of touch -- had written a reboot of H. Beam Piper's 1962 Hugo-nominated science fiction classic, Little Fuzzy, I can't say that I was pleased. Piper is one of my favorite SF authors of all time. His Terro-Human future history series, of which Little Fuzzy is a part, exercised a profound influence over Traveller and on me. My own SF RPG, Thousand Suns, is explicitly dedicated to his memory and much of Piper's ideas and terminology can be found in its pages.
There is even a supplement to Thousand Suns, entitled Transmissions from Piper, that collects several of Piper's short stories under one cover, along with game statistics for some of what appears in them. Transmissions from Piper was possible because most of Piper's literary output, including Little Fuzzy, is now in the public domain. If someone wished to do so, they could create a game, movie, or TV show using Piper's material free of charge, much in the same way they could do the same with, say, Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. Similarly, they could produce new books utilizing the settings and characters Piper created.
At first, that's what I'd thought Scalzi had done with his book, Fuzzy Nation, released last month. I thought it was a continuation of the Fuzzy series by a contemporary SF author. We've already had several of those previously, none of them very good in my opinion, but their existence never bothered me because they told new stories in Piper's world rather than attempting to retell the original. Similarly irksome is that Fuzzy Nation is frequently described as an "authorized" reboot, Scalzi having secured the blessing of "the Piper estate." Now, I don't know about you, but when I hear the words "the Piper estate," I assume it refers to some living, breathing human being(s) with a connection to the living, breathing human being who penned these stories, but that's not the case at all. "The Piper estate" is Penguin Books, a corporation that, unless I am mistaken, has allowed Piper's works to fall out of print -- great custodians of the man's legacy they are!
Needless to say, I went into reading Fuzzy Nation with a bad attitude, so I was almost certainly predisposed to dislike it. What I found, though, was not a book I disliked, let alone hated, so much as one whose very existence seemed pointless. Fuzzy Nation takes slightly more than twice as many pages to tell roughly the same story that Piper did and less charmingly. Just take a look at the two covers I've reproduced along with this post. In the original, the protagonist, Jack Holloway is a septuagenarian loner who spends much of his time meditating on his physical decline, while Scalzi transforms Holloway into a by-the-numbers thirtysomething rogue with a messy past, including, conveniently, an ex-girlfriend who works for the corporation whose agents are the novel's antagonists.
I could no doubt make great hay over this change and what it says about us as a culture, but I'd rather make two additional and, I think, more damning comments about Fuzzy Nation compared to its illustrious predecessor. Little Fuzzy is, ultimately, an exploration of the nature of sentience and what it is that separates us, the readers, from mere animals. The question of whether the "fuzzies" that Holloway discovers on the planet Zarathustra are in fact sentient or merely very clever animals is the central conflict of Piper's novel and he handles it with surprising depth and insight. Scalzi's reboot deals with the same question and, while capably handled, it nevertheless lacked a certain something present in the original.
That something, or rather somethings, was the characters. First and foremost, Scalzi's fuzzies (or "fuzzys," as he inexplicably spells their plural) are fewer in number and much less fully realized. They come across more as plot devices than actual characters, whereas Piper was able to flesh them out to such an extent that one can easily tell Ko-Ko from Goldilocks from Cinderella and so on. In a similar vein, nearly all the characters, including Holloway, are portrayed as self-serving jerks, except for the ones who go beyond self-serving and seem just to be evil (i.e. nearly everyone who works for the Zarathustra Corporation). I am certain that Scalzi felt that he needed to portray the characters in this way in order to make them more "believable" and "realistic," but, truth be told, it made them seem more like stereotypes from Central Casting than real people. Part of what makes Piper's original story work so well is that even the antagonists who deny that the fuzzies are sentient have their good points. That makes the conflict of the novel richer and much less easily divisible into "good guys" and "bad guys," even if it's obvious we're supposed to sympathize with the pro-sentience side of the argument.
In the end, Fuzzy Nation doesn't really bring anything to the table that Little Fuzzy didn't except greater length, shallower characters, and profanity. In short, it's a typical product of the 21st century media machine. It's not bad in its own right, but it is a pale shadow of the book it's rebooting. Other than the fact that Scalzi's name (presumably) carries more weight with contemporary SF readers than does Piper's, I can't figure out why this book was ever published. Even more baffling is why Scalzi bothered to write it, as he could just as easily -- and likely to better result -- have written a new novel dealing with similar themes to those of Little Fuzzy.