Monday, May 9, 2011

Fuzzy Nation

When I read that John Scalzi's Fuzzy Nation was coming out, I had to find our copy of H. Beam Piper's The Fuzzy Papers so I could reread the original of the story that Scalzi has enlarged and updated.  Then the Piper book sat on my shelf until last week, when Cassandra Ammerman at Tor sent me a shiny, new hardback copy of Fuzzy Nation, and I had to hurry up and read one book right after the other, which turned out to be a fine thing to do, as Scalzi's story is an agreeable addition to Piper's, much more than just a re-hashing of some of the old issues.

The human meets alien story has so many conventions, at this point, that it's hard for an experienced reader of science fiction to go into any story about aliens without suspecting them of sentience. Heinlein's story The Star Beast was one of my formative experiences with this genre, so the phrase "raising John Thomases" always goes through my mind when a strange alien is introduced (the "star beast" was kept as a pet until its human owner, John Thomas, discovers it has been studying them for generations).  There's not much suspense at all about the sapience of these smart little "fuzzies," and Scalzi copes with that by having his narrator, Holloway, say things to them like "your evil mystic cuteness has no effect on me" when it obviously does, and by the humor in such things as the way the fuzzies interact with Holloway's dog.

Besides humor, though, the other way Scalzi copes with the lack of suspense about sapience is by making Holloway a clever lawyer and much of the second half of the novel some pretty riveting courtroom drama.  There will be surprises even for the person who has recently reread the Piper story--you may know the secret of how the fuzzies communicate, but the way it is revealed in Scalzi's fictional courtroom will still be delightful, partly due to Scalzi's inventiveness and partly due to the possibilities offered by updating the technology (Piper's humans had "vocowriters" and video phones, while Scalzi's are equipped with security cameras and ipads).

Even though Holloway claims, at the end of the novel, that "building a nation is not all parties and fireworks," he belies his own claim even as he says it, and the author belies it by making the building of this fictional nation so much fun.

Fuzzy Nation comes out tomorrow, and you don't have to have read any previous science fiction to enjoy it, although if you want to, that will add another dimension.  I like being reminded that in the 1950's, writers thought that "cocktail hour" was an immutable human custom and would be carried out to all the planets. It makes me wonder if the environmental concerns of our generation, reflected on Scalzi's fictional planet, will seem similarly transitory sixty years from now.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thinking of you - a friend sent me a huge box of second-hand books. They're all mysteries, which I know isn't really your thing, but I just imagined you saying, "hurry up and read - there's more to come!"

-lemming

kiirstin said...

This really does look like a lot of fun. Would you suggest I read the original first, if I can get my hands on it, or should I go into Fuzzy Nation cold?

Jeanne said...

Lemming, it's always time to hurry up so you can read more!

Kiirstin, I was trying to say that I don't think you need to read the previous version to fully enjoy Fuzzy Nation. It can stand on its own.

Nymeth said...

I'm very much looking forward to reading this. I'm not sure when that will be, but I downloaded Little Fuzzy from Project Gutenberg in preparation. Even though Scalzi's take stands on its own comparing the two sounds like a lot of fun.

Jeanne said...

Nymeth, It is fun to read fiction about "the future" from the past!

Unfocused Me said...

My copy arrives tonight, but I expect I'll turn it over directly to Unfocused Girl, since I'm heading out of town for six weeks or so (occasional weekends aside) for a trial and won't have much time to read anything that isn't a transcript or an exhibit.

Also, sorry, but I just can't read the name John Thomas without snickering.

Jeanne said...

Unfocused Me, I thought of you all the way through the trial portion, since you're one of the few actual courtroom lawyers I know.

And yeah, I have the same reaction to the name John Thomas. You have to wonder about Heinlein's reading, don't you? Even if he didn't get through the entire Lady Chatterly's Lover, he might have read enough about it to be inspired by the flower bedecked, um...

Unfocused Me said...

Jeanne, I expect RAH knew *exactly* what he was doing when he used that name, but figured 98% of his audience would not.

Jeanne said...

wink, wink, nod, nod, huh? The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that the young RAH of Patterson's recent biography wouldn't have missed any controversial novel of the previous era!