I had never heard of H. Beam Piper when I spotted the Michael Whelan cover on the 1976 reprint of Little Fuzzy. Of all Piper’s novels, this is probably the one that readers remember most fondly; it was certainly good enough to get me hooked on his fiction.
More than six centuries after the detonation of the first atomic bomb, old prospector Jack Holloway lives a hermetic life as a bush prospector, looking for sunstones on the Earth-like planet Zarathustra. His solitude is interrupted by the appearance of a completely unexpected companion; a small humanoid whom Jack dubs Little Fuzzy.
Little Fuzzy does not seem to be able to speak, but he is bright and uses tools. In fact, he not only uses tools but crafts them. Jack becomes convinced that his new friend and his new friend’s family, who soon show up, are more than mere animals. Zarathustra, it seems, has natives.
While the Fuzzies are welcome news to a lonely hermit, they’re extremely unwelcome news to Victor Grego, local head of the Chartered Zarathustra Company. Thanks to the charter in Chartered Zarathustra Company, the company owns Zarathustra outright. However, the charter was granted on the assumption that Zarathustra is a Class-III uninhabited planet. If there are natives, then Zarathustra is a Class-IV planet, the company’s charter is invalid, and the Chartered Zarathustra Company is screwed (if being reduced to merely fantastically wealthy counts as screwed).
Grego is a bright guy and he sees at least two possible ways to protect his company. The first and most important is to set the company scientists to the task of proving the Fuzzies are just bright animals. His second plan, to put a bounty on Fuzzy hides in the hopes of hunting the rare beings to extinction, never gets off the ground.
Unfortunately for Grego, his domesticated scientists won’t get the chance to arrive at their predetermined destination. An altercation out near Holloway’s claim leaves one Company man dead at Holloway’s hands. A Fuzzy is dead as well, stamped to death by panicky lead scientist Kellogg.
Holloway is almost certainly in the legal clear; he acted in self-defense. Kellogg, on the other hand, either killed an animal, which was unkind but legal, or he committed the first human-on-Fuzzy murder on the planet. The only way to determine the question is a trial (that SF fave). For Kellogg, the burning question is if he will find himself facing a firing squad; for everyone else, the stakes are the future of the Company and the future of the Fuzzies.
Only one of them can prevail….
H. Beam Piper is one of the tragedies of science fiction: incorrectly convinced that his career had stalled, he shot himself in 1964 rather than turn to others for financial support. His work then fell out of print for about a decade.
Piper is an author whose work still has a surprisingly broad appeal for Anglospheric SF fans ; conservatives like Pournelle can enjoy it and so can comparative liberals like Pournelle. While it’s true that current readers will find that the novel shows its age in places—women are girls and everyone smokes like chimneys—in many ways Piper was surprisingly modern for an author whose heyday was more than a half a century ago. It is even more surprising that he sold stories to Campbell’s Astounding so frequently.
One way in which Piper was extremely atypical for his time and niche is that while he didn’t write that many female protagonists , he didn’t have any trouble giving supporting characters (like this book’s Ruth Ortheris) careers and agency. A lot of what Ruth does she does offstage, but her activities have a major impact on the outcome of the plot.
Another way in which Piper seems oddly modern is that part of the plot is driven by anthropogenic climate change, The reason that the Fuzzies have migrated into regions occupied by humans is because the Company drained a vast swamp to turn it into farmland. Regions downwind of the former swamp began experiencing droughts, which pushed the Fuzzies into new ranges.
More conservative readers can be assured that the book is not all women-with-agency and climate change; Piper loved him some guns and there’s a fair amount of shooting in this—and not just company men who annoy Holloway, although “they pissed off Jack Holloway and got shot” seems to be common enough to be classified as “death by natural causes” on Zarathustra. There are explosions too: some quite satisfying ones near the beginning of the book. Finally, Piper demonstrates some fine conservative values when it comes to crime and punishment, although he undermines this a bit by revealing just how many of the cops on this Company planet are pretty comprehensively bent.
[Conservatives may be concerned that the book takes a such a disapproving view of the Chartered Zarathustra Company. Rest assured that Victor Grego is rehabilitated in the sequel, without losing any of his plutocratic street cred.]
Piper’s imagined colonial laws regarding natives are interesting. Worlds with natives seem to be basically open territory, with reservations set aside for the natives. While it is clear that losing control of Zarathustra would be calamitous for the Company, it also seems as if the standard treatment of Class-IV worlds would be pretty hard on the natives (all of the natives heretofore encountered have been significantly less technologically advanced than the humans, and we all know how that ends). Nobody on Zarathustra is looking forward to what’s coming as soon as word gets out it is a Class-IV world, which makes me wonder why the Federation handles Class-IV worlds the way they do. OK, “because powerful interests like the Chartered Uller Company bribe politicians to make sure the laws don’t change” could be an answer, but it seems a bit inconsistent that the Federation has been careful to close some loopholes .
The heart of the book is the trial; every previously encountered intelligent race of tool-users has been unambiguously intelligent. The Fuzzies seem to be an edge case; they don’t talk and they don’t use fire, and “talk and use fire” is the standard rule of thumb for intelligence. That said, legally “talk and use fire” is at best a guideline. The Fuzzies exhibit complex behavior, including tool-crafting, which is more than an animal should be able to do . It’s quite a puzzler. The fact that billions of credits and the fate of a species are riding on the answer makes finding the answer that much more urgent.
Little Fuzzy has been so popular that people who are neither Piper nor his heirs have written sequels and reboots. In addition to Piper’s own Fuzzy Sapiens and Fuzzies and Other People, William Tuning wrote Fuzzy Bones in 1981; that was followed by Ardath Mayhar’s 1982 Golden Dreams. AND … John Scalzi published a reboot called Fuzzy Nation in 2011; Wolfgang Diehr published Fuzzy Ergo Sum in 2011 and Caveat Fuzzy in 2012 (I was not aware of the latter two until I started writing this review). The Tuning and the Mayhar were no doubt well intended but not up the original. I cannot comment on the Scalzi or the Diehrs because I have not read them. In fact, I probably won’t read them, because I have been burned by too many ill-conceived homages and sequels .
Regardless of what various modern authors are doing, you can still enjoy Piper’s work for its own strengths. In fact, you don’t have to pay to do so; much of it fell into the public domain and can be found here.
1: That said, readers from that part of the Anglosphere known as India would be well advised to avoid Uller Uprising unless you have issues with low blood pressure.
2: The protagonist of “Omnilingual” being a notable exception.
3: Claiming that you thought natives were animals won’t keep you from being shot for killing or enslaving them before they were legally established to be people. It’s probably just as well Grego’s plan to wipe them out never got off the ground.
4: Bear in mind when this was written.
5: I can be bribed. but it is possible that all you will get for your money is a review consisting of obscenities and words like “abomination.” Pay me and see what happens!