Is John Scalzi history’s greatest monster?

Fuzzy Nation — John Scalzi


I’ve probably mentioned that I loathe reboots, necrolaboration [1], or updating old stories, in the sense that even when the effort is made out of affection for the source material rather than crass materialism, I’ve seen them go horribly wrong far more often than I have seen them go right [2]. I am not a fan of this stuff, is what I am saying. I am least likely to react well to a reboot of a personal old favourite, because that combines an almost certainly doomed effort with material with which I am familiar and about which I care. Generally, the best I can hope for is vague disappointment; the worst is a book I hate and an author I am forced to see as history’s greatest monster.

Which gets us to 2011’s Fuzzy Nation, John Scalzi’s reboot of H. Beam Piper’s classic, Little Fuzzy.

For various reasons, Piper’s novel fell into the public domain [3] and is available on Gutenberg. I will just wait a bit while you go off and familiarize yourself with it, to provide yourself with context for what is to follow.

Disbarred, disgraced lawyer Jack Holloway has built a new life for himself as a prospector on the planet Zara XXIII, searching for valuable sunstones as well as new ways to annoy his ZaraCorps supervisor Bourne. As the book opens, Jack makes a momentous discovery: a Golconda of sunstones. In the process of uncovering the gems, Jack inadvertently violates ZaraCorps environmental impact guidelines, something for which Bourne is inclined to fire Jack (at least until Jack explains that that would allow him to claim the new find all for himself).

Jack’s merry path towards transforming himself from annoying jackass to wealthy annoying jackass is disrupted when he returns to his camp to find that it has been invaded by a life form unfamiliar to him, a furry catlike animal unlike anything Jack has seen before; not only is the Fuzzy mammalian, unusual on this lizard-dominated [4] world, but it has hands and clear signs of something Jack can only call intelligence. And it’s not alone.

While the discovery of a new intelligent race would ensure Jack’s place in the history books, it would also cost him a hell of a lot of money. The charter the Colonial Authority granted to ZaraCorps was granted on the assumption that Zara XXIII has no natives. If the Fuzzies are intelligent, then the charter is void and so is any hope Jack has of getting his 0.5% of the 1.2 trillion credits of sunstones in his find.

While it’s true colonial history has a rich tradition of profit-driven genocide (sufficiently motivated prospectors armed with modern weapons can exterminate entire species faster than the conventional legal process can determine if they are intelligent or not), there are some complications that stay Jack’s hand. The first is that he’s a self-hating jackass, not a monster. The second is that he quite likes the Fuzzies. The third is that he doesn’t care for ZaraCorps in general or Wheaton Aubrey the Seventh in particular. Wheaton is the scion of the family that owns all the voting stock in ZaraCorps. While Jack would really miss 0.5% of a trillion plus credits, screwing ZaraCorps out of its 99.5% of a trillion credits would be sweet.

Plus there’s the matter of DeLise, a particularly goonish ZaraCorps security goon. DeLise’s attempts on Jack’s life are ineffectual, but his attacks on Jack’s goods and new buddies leaves Jack’s camp in flames and two of the Fuzzies dead. If the inevitable court case determines that the Fuzzies are people, not animals, then what DeLise did isn’t just arson, it’s murder.


I avoided this for years because I knew the odds that I would like it were low and I would prefer not to think of Scalzi as history’s greatest monster.

The first question that comes to mind is “did this need to be done as a reboot?” And yes, enough of the original is left that anyone familiar with the source material would spot what Scalzi was up to (even if he left out the dedication to Piper and the author’s note acknowledging his debt to Little Fuzzy.). “Reboot” is a terrible word but “this novel is an uncredited rip-off of a well-known classic” is much worse.

Mind you, there is a third alternative, which is to create some new work in reaction to the classic. It’s pretty clear, for example, that Haldeman read Starship Troopers but his book is in no way derivative of the earlier one. I prefer this third alternative.

On its own, this would have been an acceptable little novel—but it’s not on its own. It’s a reboot. How does it compare to the original? Well, I just reread the original and presumably, so did you, but here’s the link again in case you didn’t.

Having recently reread the original and now this, it’s interesting to see what got changed. Unsurprisingly, Scalzi’s version does not read as though it was being subsidized by Philip Morris International, whereas Piper’s version does (in retrospect, it is a shame Piper wasn’t getting money from Big Tobacco, because he sure wasn’t getting enough from his publishers). Times have changed and smoking is no longer socially acceptable [5] … or at least it’s not the default anymore.

On the other hand, Scalzi’s antagonists are a less interesting lot than Piper’s. Piper’s Leonard Kellogg turned out be more pathetic than malevolent, but DeLise is just a goon. In fact, DeLise is less analogous to Kellogg and more analogous to Piper’s Kurt Borch. Anyone here remember who Borch was without looking at Little Fuzzy? Didn’t think so. Piper’s Victor Grego plays Blofeld to Scalzi’s Aubrey’s Scott Evil. I don’t expect that there will be a sequel to Fuzzy Nation but if one were to be written, I bet Scalzi won’t feel the need to rehabilitate Aubrey the way Piper did Grego. Aubrey is just not a very interesting character, not the way Grego was.

One of Piper’s more unusual characteristics, particularly given that he was selling most of his stories to noted racist John W. Campbell, is that his casts were ethnically diverse and tended (at least the Federation ones) to be sprinkled with multi-ethnic names like Themistocles M’zangwe and Hideyoshi O’Leary, While Piper wasn’t as blatant about it as Norton was, arguably a lot of his protagonists weren’t white as SF fans of the 1950s and 1960s would have interpreted that term. I note, eyeballing the text, that Scalzi’s version isn’t some unfortunate whitebreadification. To be honest, I was a bit worried that might happen. It’s way too easy for an author to populate books with characters from the same narrow category as the author (without any conscious intent to discriminate).

One aspect where Scalzi falls short of Piper, who we should all remember was writing back in a more barbaric era, is his treatment of the primary female character. Piper’s Ruth Ortheris is a professional scientist and more; although her activities are often off-stage, they’re arguably as important to the resolution of the plot as Piper’s old Jack Holloway. In contrast, Scalzi’s Isabel Wangai is not all that important to the plot. She’s simply someone Jack has to take into account. The fact that they used to date (and the reason they broke up) are factors that affect Jack, and thus the plot, but in the end, she’s not as significant as Ruth.

I am guessing that the motivation for the treatment of Isabel is not institutional sexism in SF but rather the model Scalzi was using for character balance. To put it in universal terms, take Lester Dent’s Doc Savage versus Paul Ernst’s The Avenger. In The Avenger, Richard Benson is first among equals, but each member of his team is good at something Benson isn’t. In contrast, Doc Savage is the GM’s favourite NPC and nobody on Savage’s team gets to be a more magical sparklepony than Doc. Little Fuzzy is written in The Avenger mode; Fuzzy Nation is written in Doc Savage mode. I suspect this is part of why young Jack is a lawyer; that way he gets to perform all the thrilling court-hijinks rather than sharing the spotlight.

I think modern readers will prefer Scalzi’s portrayal of the Fuzzies to Piper’s. Piper’s Fuzzies were competent hunter-gatherers but the humans treated them as children, parceling out groups in a manner uncomfortably reminiscent of the Stolen Generations. Scalzi’s Fuzzies, in contrast, have their own agenda regarding the humans and certainly won’t end up being treated like kids or worse, pets.

It seems almost required to denounce the reboot as a cynical and corrupt take on Piper’s world, but actually, the administration of Piper’s Zarathustra was pretty comprehensively corrupt; by the end of the book a wide variety of functionaries were looking at charges and jail time. Zara XXIII definitely has issues. but Fuzzy Nation doesn’t require the Navy to sweep in and place the planet under military rule.

Scalzi’s young Jack seems less likable than Piper’s old Jack, although … if you sit back and think about old Jack, he’s exactly the sort of crotchety old guy who ends up a recluse on a backward world, someone whom the law isn’t surprised to find in proximity to bodies with fresh bullet holes in them. Young Jack is more overtly unpleasant, someone who will push a lover under a metaphoric bus for short-term gain, someone who goes out of his way to bait people. Old Jack’s a killer.

I didn’t hate Fuzzy Nation and I don’t think of Scalzi as history’s greatest monster for having written it. That may sound like damning with faint praise but, as I said, I hate reboots. I didn’t entirely hate this particular example. As broccoli goes, it’s not bad broccoli … but it’s still broccoli.

Fuzzy Nation is available from Tor.

1: Necrolaboration is collaboration between the living and the dead, a dread rite involving arcane symbols on paper known as “a cheque”. Usually dead people have a hard time keeping up with the living, but this is one of the rare cases where the dead guy is likely to be the useful member of the partnership.

2: Something else that seems to be doomed to failure is a middle-aged male (this seems to be mostly a guy thing) SF writer suddenly deciding they’re going to write their own Heinlein juvenile, something that seems like it should be doable and yet all too often results in fairly dire fiction. This is probably generalizable to “love for an author does not translate into being able to emulate their strengths.” See, for example, Robert Parker’s version of the “Poodle Springs” novel fragment, which answered a question nobody had ever asked: “What would it be like if Philip Marlowe spend an entire book whining about the fact his wife has more money than he does?” Jesus, Philip, just go drinking with Nick Charles and ask him how he deals with it.

3. As hard as it may be to believe; there was a time when copyright wasn’t as eternal as Disney’s grasp on the souls of lawmakers.

4: Yeah, it’s kinda inexplicable that billions of years of evolution on two completely unconnected worlds would end up giving rise to clades similar enough that people would use the same terms for them. Yes, parallel evolution and all that, but not only does nobody ever confuse dolphins with ichthyosaurs but dolphins and ichthyosaurs are distantly related, which shouldn’t be true of any Zara XXIII lineage and any terrestrial lineage.

5: If you want to see true values-dissonance, wait until I get to the comedic gang-rape in The Girl, the Gold Watch and Everything, or the hilarious drunk driving in any of a number of Thorne Smith novels.

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