When Jack Holloway’s dog blows up a cliff during a prospecting mission on the planet Zarathustra, Jack loses his contract with ZaraCorp. Fortunately, inside the cliff he discovers the biggest vein of precious gems that have ever been found on the planet and he gets to take a percentage of the profits as finder’s fee. Things start to get complicated when Jack returns home to discover that his house has been invaded by a fuzzy mammal that seems a lot smarter than he should be on this planet that has no sapient creatures. When he calls in his ex-girlfriend, ZaraCorp’s biologist, to have a look, they realize that there may be trouble ahead. A sapient race means that ZaraCorp will have to give up their rights to the planet’s resources. Murder attempts and court cases ensue.
Fuzzy Nation is John Scalzi’s “reboot” of H. Beam Piper’s Little Fuzzy. I mostly enjoyed Piper’s original plotline, but his novel got bogged down in long repetitive discussions about sapience which included some outdated ideas about the nature of consciousness. Not his fault, of course, since those ideas were trendy (though not empirically derived) back then, but they did make Little Fuzzy feel dated. In addition, the court proceedings were laughable and this is not likely to be dismissed by today’s readers who have grown up watching courtroom drama on TV.
In Fuzzy Nation, Scalzi has not only ditched the bad court procedures and old psychology (he replaced Freud’s psychoanalytic theory with Theory of Mind), but he has also eliminated the dull sapience discussions, too. This is still a story about what it means to be sapient, but Scalzi manages to intelligently address the issue without making us watch his characters sit around and talk about it. He also does a better job of explaining why humans shouldn’t be removing resources from planets with sapient races.
Scalzi’s characters are also more vibrant, especially Jack Holloway who, in Piper’s version, addressed himself as “Pappy Jack.” In Scalzi’s version, Holloway is a young hot-head who doesn’t seem to be able to open his mouth without spitting testosterone. Jack’s dog Carl is a welcome addition and his interactions with the cute Fuzzies gives the book some warmth and humor. I also liked Jack’s ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend who becomes Jack’s lawyer. All of the men in Scalzi’s story are unrelievedly aggressive and sarcastic, and I’m tempted to assume this is some manifestation of John Scalzi’s own personality, but instead I’ll argue that those types of personalities are likely to be disproportionately found on a distant inhospitable planet that’s home to man-eating raptors.
I listened to the audiobook version of Fuzzy Nation which has been produced by Brilliance Audio and Audible Frontiers. It’s the same recording, but the Audible Frontiers version includes H. Beam Piper’s Little Fuzzy. Fuzzy Nation is narrated by John Scalzi’s friend, actor Wil “Don’t be a Dick!” Wheaton. He did a great job with all of the characters and he was especially perfect for the role of Jack Holloway. (I guess it’s okay to be a dick if you’re just acting).
Fuzzy Nation is a successful re-write of Piper’s classic, and I can heartily recommend it. The audio version is especially rewarding. If you want to read Little Fuzzy first, you can download a free print version because it’s in the public domain.