Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Giving the (re)Boot to Fuzzy Nation

Curmudgeon that I am, I'm not the target audience for "reboots" of pre-existing media, which is good, since my assessment of them, with few exceptions, veers between vainglorious hubris and Philistine brand-building, with enough unoriginality to cover both ends of my critical appraisal. In days of yore, when someone felt that someone else had an idea worth swiping, that's what they did -- swiped it and then reworked it into something they felt was better, or at least different enough to justify its existence. This is the process that got us Flash Gordon, after all, and, later, Star Wars. But that was back before our culture started to view creative works primarily as a source of marketable "intellectual property" rather than simply as works of art. Call me an old fogey, because I miss those days.

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.

41 comments:

  1. What a shame. I would hope, though, that you not let this book keep you from reading Scalzi's own original SF books: Old Man's War and its sequels are Heinleinesque in the best sense of the word. Like you I'm not sure why Scalzi thought that a straight-up rewrite of Little Fuzzy was a good idea--if the original book was good enough to merit a rewrite, then it was clearly good enough to stand on its own.

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  2. Piper is my favorite sci-fi author. I've read two very bad fuzzy novels by other authors and after reading sections of Scalzi's rewrite and reviews I have little desire to put him on my lengthy reading list. Life is too short and there are to many good books and good authors to bother with Scalzi. Rather than Heinleinesque I'd rather read Heinlein, or Pournelle, or Drake, or Bujold, etc... It seems absurd to bother with Saclzi's version when Piper's books are available and cheap (Little Fuzzy is free on e-readers).

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  3. Just so we're not getting mixed up off the bat--he wrote the novel as a private project for himself, which later was shopped to the Piper estate (they approved of it). From what I've read, he doesn't consider it a "rewrite", but his personal take (and tone) on the universe Piper created.

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  4. It seems likely to me that the sole purpose of this project is trademark protection. Even if copyright on a work is lost, the previous owner may retain associated trademarks so long as they continue to use them. It's easier to make a case that you're exercising a trademark by publishing a work that's under copyright than one that's in the public domain, so Penguin's trademark claims are strengthened by releasing this new, freshly copyrighted version.

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  5. To clarify my previous comment, anyone can establish trademark by creating new works based on material in the public domain (Marvel Comics' "Thor", for instance) but the case would be strengthened if you had been exercising the trademark when the work was still under copyright.

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  6. I'm sorry but not surprised by what you found.

    What is so sad about it is Old Man's War is the first book I've read in a long time to jazz me as much as Heinlein, Piper, and company did in the 70s and 80s. In fact, I consider it a peer of Starship Troopers and The Forever War. I already re-read it (and more than FW). From what you've posted I suspect OMW's John Perry is closer to Piper's Jack Holloway than the new Jack Holloway is.

    Which leads me to wonder. If Jay is right I wonder how long ago Scalzi wrote this quite a while ago as a learning exercise.

    I would still recommend Old Man's War. The society where retirees form the backbone of the armed forces (and the novel explains why quite nicely) is well realized. Much like Heinlein and Halderman the futuristic weapons are very "today" in the sense of fitting current sci-fi and speculation. Finally, the character of John Perry who joins with a sense of fatalism only to find he's good at being a soldier along with a reason to survive the conflicts he's in, is one to enjoy.

    I also enjoyed a modern sci-fi writer who doesn't assume technological advancement requires atheism. In fact, the most advanced race in the book is the most religious which provides a crucial plot point in the novel.

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  7. From what I've read, he doesn't consider it a "rewrite", but his personal take (and tone) on the universe Piper created.

    Yes, this is true from what little I have gleaned online, but the whole thing still doesn't sit well with me. I'd much rather he just he wrote a book that's wholly his own and dealt with similar themes without making the direct connection to Piper. Aside from two characters and a couple of other names, there's almost no real connection between Fuzzy Nation and Little Fuzzy, so why bother?

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  8. It seems likely to me that the sole purpose of this project is trademark protection.

    It's possible, although it's worth noting that Fuzzy Nation is copyrighted in Scalzi's name, not that of Penguin Books.

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  9. I would still recommend Old Man's War.

    Lots of people have recommended it to me over the years, but I never got round to reading it. I must admit to being gun-shy about Scalzi now, though.

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  10. "Aside from two characters and a couple of other names, there's almost no real connection between Fuzzy Nation and Little Fuzzy, so why bother?"

    I'm sure Scalzi was paid a handsome sum to tamper with peoples' childhoods. Seems a solid enough reason. Now, perhaps, a few kids might even be turned onto Piper. Win-win.

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  11. Now, perhaps, a few kids might even be turned onto Piper. Win-win.

    To be fair, Scalzi says in his introduction that he hopes that will happen and that he wrote this book out of love for Piper. I don't for a minute doubt him at his word, even if I question his wisdom in permitting this book to be published.

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  12. Actually as someone who makes a living with art, I disagree that it's better to have my ideas swiped and repurposed ala what Brooks did with Tolkien. People with little stake in the matter can flip all the peanuts from the gallery they like, I'd much rather be paid for a spinoff of my writing, as would just any writer I know.

    Lovecraft is my shining of example of how reimagining and doing spinoffs of old lit can be a wondrous event. I concede that a lot of Lovecraft-inspired mythos fiction is garbage, but without the tireless efforts of Joshi and a legion of authors from Derleth and Bloch to King and Pugmire expanding and reimagining the Mythos, the Gentleman from Providence would yet be in the dustbin where he'd resided for decades before Derleth & Joshi and others rescued him by raising his non existent profile.

    A tiny group of readers are even aware of Piper's existence. Scalzi sells well, so that number just shot up. Books aren't sacred artifacts that burst into flames because somebody somewhere does a sequel.

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  13. Books aren't sacred artifacts that burst into flames because somebody somewhere does a sequel.

    I think you're misunderstanding what Fuzzy Nation is. It's not a sequel; I have no problem with sequels as such. It's a reimagining of the original book, a retelling of the same story without adding much to the original except, as I said page count, shallower characterizations, and profanity. And I'll be amazed if it actually leads to a greater appreciation of Piper.

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  14. Sorry, I was using the term sequel loosely. That's why I also said reimagining.

    I'm curious why you would be amazed if it has a positive effect--that seems to be stubborness for the sake of digging in; surely, odds are someone will try out Piper based on Scalzi's intro. Crap mythos fiction (which most purists would label Derleth, Lumley and co)did wonders for HPL. I think it's beside the point, since no one makes us buy any book. To be clear, I too rankle at things that are done with classics, but I draw the line at imagining contemporary riffing somehow diminishes the original. It may be so subjectively in the minds of a few, otherwise objectively, not so much.

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  15. I draw the line at imagining contemporary riffing somehow diminishes the original.

    Sure, nothing can change the goodness of the original, but such riffing can weaken the original's hold over the popular imagination. Just look at Conan. Between the 70s comics, the DeCamp pastiches, and the Arnie movie, I don't think it's possible to change the popular perception of the Cimmerian as just a big, dumb guy in a loincloth who fights monsters and carries naked women away over his shoulder. I'd hate to see a similar thing happen to Piper.

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  16. Actually, I have to agree with you about raising Piper awareness to any significant degree in that Scalzi alone isn't big enough to achieve that. Maybe a James Cameron flick would do it. ;) However, the Piper legacy won't suffer anymore than Austen has been harmed by the horrid mashups with her novels and the zombie apocalypse.

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  17. Yes, but "crap Mythos fiction" doesn't try to overtly rewrite Lovecraft's stories; no one has written a new version of "The Shadow Over Innsmouth." The irritating thing about Fuzzy Nation is that it replaces Little Fuzzy instead of building on it. If Scalzi had written an original story about Fuzzies and then said "Now go read the awesome book by H. Beam Piper that inspired this," then I'd expect a wave of interest in Piper; since he rewrote the book, many of his readers will think "Why bother to read some old version of this book I just read?"

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  18. Ah, the hold over the popular imagination. I'd argue that Piper doesn't have such a thing to any relevant degree, but your point is taken. Plenty of people seem to separate the governantor's portrayal from the original, but I don't feel up to polling the street on that one to verify. I will avow that I don't share your apparent sensibility that art must remain pure and untouched by future generations. Goes against human nature, runs counter to economic reality of us poor slobs doing the writing. Like I said, most of the writers I know would take exception to your assertion (and Pablo's)that theft is better than renting.

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  19. John, it doesn't replace the original. All of the extant copies of the real McCoy didn't crumble to dust or get eaten alive by Scalzi's book, did they? People can still read the original if they desire. I just don't think this is all that dire.

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  20. The perception of the original story will have been changed. As with any movie adaption of a book if the movie is seen first then the reader can never form their own picture if the characters or the place, always so much greater when formed from your own imagination. What upsets people is that Scalzi taints the original so that once you have read it you will never get that piss out of the pool.

    Scalzi's work scars the imagination.

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  21. "The irritating thing about Fuzzy Nation is that it replaces Little Fuzzy instead of building on it. "

    Well, no. One's titled "Little Fuzzy", the other's titled "Fuzzy Nation". If it was an attempt to replace the original, they would have used the original title. As it is, they coexist.

    The fact that Scalzi's is under copyright, and Piper's is not, is by itself enough to make the original more accessible.

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  22. "The perception of the original story will have been changed."

    Oh, well. Too bad none of us are entitled to an enduring public perception of our work.

    "Scalzi's work scars the imagination."

    Depends upon how soft one's brain is, I expect.

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  23. No matter what the actual quality of Scalzi's work (and I've not read any of his stuff, nor have I read Piper's original work, so I don't really have a dog in that particular hunt)...

    ... but isn't it particularly sad that the craze for remakes and reboots that has pretty much stifled all originality in Hollywood, has made its way into the literary domain.

    I mean, pastiche, parody, or even retelling the story from a different viewpoint, they're one thing. But a reboot that essentially tells the same story? That's pretty sad.

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  24. Sadly you can never supress a first impression. I'm not sure about this soft versus hard brain argument. Brains that are atrophied and hard as walnuts are unfortunately dead and dried. Living brains are soft, succulent and thoroughly delicious, but open to impressions.

    It is just sad that the first impression of Piper's excellent story will be, for some, an excreable rewrite by Scalzi.

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  25. The solution to colonization of the imagination by visual images (over verbal ones) is to see multiple images of the same subject. I first encountered Gandalf the Gray in the Rankin-Bass production of The Hobbit, then read the book--but at this point I don't think my head-Gandalf strongly resembles any of the existing images (McKellan's included). In the case of these two Fuzzy novels we don't even have to worry about the tyranny of the visual: it's two competing sets of words. You just have to get in the same mindset that one adopts to read Arthurian lit with its multiple, incompatible retellings of the same "story" to not be bothered by the issue.

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  26. Even more baffling is why Scalzi bothered to write it

    He wrote it as an exercise.

    he could just as easily -- and likely to better result -- have written a new novel dealing with similar theme

    Probably not. Unless you just mean he could have gone through and filed off the serial numbers on this one. But if he was in shape to write a true new book, he probably would have done so, given he was under contract for one.

    I question his wisdom in permitting this book to be published.

    He owed Tor a book, he didn't produce one, he had this manuscript, and he's got a family to support.

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  27. I mean, pastiche, parody, or even retelling the story from a different viewpoint, they're one thing. But a reboot that essentially tells the same story? That's pretty sad.

    I agree, but then that's kind of my shtick these days. :)

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  28. He owed Tor a book, he didn't produce one, he had this manuscript, and he's got a family to support.

    Really? If so, that's both sad and, paradoxically, heartening. Sad because it means Scalzi let a sub-par book get published just because to fulfill a contractual obligation. But it's also heartening because it suggests Fuzzy Nation isn't representative of Scalzi's work and that I might well enjoy his other works.

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  29. Yeah. He mentioned in one of his blog posts that he owed Tor a book (first of a two-book contract) and Fuzzy Nation was taken as a substitute for it.

    I do recommend Old Man's War, which I personally think is his strongest novel. If you like it, the rest of the Old Man's War series is worth at least looking at. If you're still looking for more at that point, The Android's Dream is stronger than Agent to the Stars (his first-ever-written novel, originally posted for free online for his fans, published in paper after he was talked into it).

    I haven't read The God Engines, so I can't say anything about that.

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  30. James, copyright and trademark are quite different in US law. Scalzi can retain copyright and Penguin can still hold it up as an example of continued and active use of a trademark under their purview. The two are not incompatible.

    I will also recommend Scalzi, on the strength of his short stories that I've heard via Escape Pod. Every author has works that do not show off their talents, and I suspect this is one of Scalzi's.

    Also, why can't I edit comments? I had to delete it and re-post it with the junk I forgot to change/add. Blogger/Blogspot make hulk angry...

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  31. There were a few previous authors that wrote Fuzzy books.* Ardath Mahar wrote Golden Dreams: A Fuzzy Odyssey, William Tuning wrote Fuzzy Bones, and Wolfgang Diehr wrote Fuzzy Ergo Sum. So there is a long history of other authors playing in the gene pool, mostly at the direct instigation of the publishers, but in each case they tried to expand the franchise rather than rewrite it. [Admittedly the first two books were heavily contraindicated when the manuscript for Fuzzies and Other People was later discovered.]

    Personally I found Scalzi's rewrite an attempt to appeal to modern sensibilities, and definitely of inferior quality. It does read like it's the writer's exercise** that other comments have made it out to be. Then again, as I may attest, it has gotten a lot of younger SF fans looking at Piper books again. I've had a number of people ask me for recommendations.

    I'd much rather seen another take on it at the very least, such as Jerry Pournelle did when he took his inspiration for his Future History from Piper.

    [* This doesn't count works such as Undertow by Elizabeth Bear, which were directly inspired by the books.]

    [** Which is quite believable. Rewriting something you admire is a good practice at eliminating writer's block, but definitely not good art.]

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  32. Was that older cover released before Return of the Jedi? The creatures look quite Ewok-like.

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  33. Maybe Scalzi should have called it a retro-clone :)

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  34. PS or fan-fiction - then people would have been grateful it wasn't 200 pages of human/fuzzy orgies.

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  35. "Was that older cover released before Return of the Jedi?"--anarchist

    Yes. I had a copy with that cover by 1979. Return Of The Jedi came out in 1983.


    "The creatures look quite Ewok-like."--anarchist

    Yes, they do. Or, more accurately, Ewoks look quite Fuzzy-like.

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  36. Was that older cover released before Return of the Jedi?

    That cover is from the 1975 Ace mass market edition and is the one I used to own. I doubt it had much influence on Lucas, though. As I recall, the Ewoks are simply a reworking of the Wookiees from an early draft of Star Wars, where they're used by the Rebellion in the battle against the Death Star. Heck, even their name is just Wookiee with its syllables reversed.

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  37. Even though Ewoks were just Wookiees reworked (because it was so much cheaper to hire, transport, feed, house and costume lots of little people than it would've been to hire, transport, feed, house and costume lots of extremely tall people), the result of that reworking did turn out very Fuzzy-like.

    In particular, because Ewoks didn't have Wookiee-like strength for fighting, they needed Fuzzy-like cleverness and organization instead.

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  38. The thing to remember about Old Man's War is that it takes place in a really really evil universe, but the protagonist doesn't see any problem with it and can't see why anyone would (including religious figures attached to religions that would, but don't in this book). If you assume that everybody you meet later on got brainwashed as part of a process shown earlier in the book, it will make a lot more sense to you.

    So yeah, other than the matter of fact happy presentation of a nightmarish dystopia, it's a pleasantly written and narrated book.

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  39. So yeah, other than the matter of fact happy presentation of a nightmarish dystopia, it's a pleasantly written and narrated book.

    I know very little of this book at all, so elaborating on this would be appreciated. What exactly makes the novel's setting "a really really evil universe?"

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  40. The premise of Old Man's War is that it reverses's the Heinlien and all historical war's reliance on youth - although it doesn't really.

    The Universe is depicted as some sort of Manichean uber conflict with species continually fighting amongst themselves to establish, grow and retain "colonies". The Terran's response is the Colonial Defence Force with a monopoly on politics and communication, they cheerfully engage in genetic experimentation to "augment" the CDF soldiers.

    Wars are a matter of diverse opponents and nasty deaths. Because habitable worlds are limited this provides a plot device to limit even "tactical nuclear" weapons. Space combat is glossed over in favour of Heinlein's ground combat.

    The conditions have held for as, I recall, several hundred years, with the enormous and continual resources being devoted to the military. Oh, and Earth a modern analogue does not know anything and is denied the technology to learn.

    Old Man's War and more particularly the sequels describe how the protagonist John Perry upsets this stasis.

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  41. Sorry to jump on an old thread but I just read the book in question.

    And please do note that I've been a fan of the Fuzzy series for many years. . . .

    With regard to it (the /Little Fuzzy/ "reboot") "tainting" people's approach to the Fuzzy series, and certainly since movies were brought up, two things which came to my mind while reading it were

    1- "This guy may have seen one two many movies" - perhaps a reaction to the attempt to "update" it and make it very twenty-first century (and as this is a story that dates centuries into the future, I really think this "reboot" while age much worse than the book which inspired it);

    2- "This guy is thinking, 'what a great screenplay this would/will make!'" Not fair, maybe, but if this Jerk Holloway feels anything besides a physical sensation through the first half of the book, I don't remember being told about it.

    This is what worries me; this is a bad story looking to be a bad movie, and if /this/ is the Fuzzy story that gets made into a movie, that will be sad, indeed.

    Oh, and nice blog ya got here.

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