Little Fuzzy: How do you define sapience?

science fiction book reviews H. Beam Piper Little Fuzzyscience fiction book reviews H. Beam Piper Little FuzzyLittle Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper

The Zarathustra Corporation owns and has been mining the planet of Zarathustra for years. They’re allowed to own the planet because it contains no sapient races. But when prospector Jack Holloway discovers a potentially sentient mammalian species, the Zarathustra Corporation may lose its charter and, therefore, the planet’s resources that they’ve been exploiting. What exactly are these little fuzzy creatures? Pets or people? It makes a big difference to Zarathustra Corporation.

I read H. Beam Piper’s 1962 Hugo-nominated novel Little Fuzzy in preparation for reading John Scalzi’s Fuzzy Nation, his recent “reboot” of Piper’s classic. Little Fuzzy is a quick read featuring cute Ewok-like creatures whose sapience could do great financial damage to a very large corporation. Holloway, who calls himself the creatures’ “Pappy Jack” tries to protect the Fuzzies while the Zarathustra corporation argues with biologists and psychologists about their classification. Are they sapient? How do you define sapient? Must they be able to speak? Light a fire? Bury their dead? Use weapons? Think consciously?

The whole question about sapience is interesting, but the novel tends to get bogged down in it — there’s a lot of dialogue about the definition of sapience and the legal issues it brings up, and eventually the issue goes to court, where’s there’s even more talking. I think I would have enjoyed this part more if the discussion hadn’t felt like it was written in the 1950s. The science, especially the psychology, is noticeably dated, a common problem with old SF. For example, when the characters discuss consciousness, Freud’s ideas about id, ego, and superego are espoused. The trial proceedings also don’t fit modern methods (e.g., calling witnesses that the other side isn’t aware of). I can see why Scalzi felt the need to update Little Fuzzy. Other than the science and court procedures, though, Little Fuzzy feels quite current. It’s a sweet story that will please most readers and would be appropriate for a young audience, too.

I read Little Fuzzy on audio. It is included in Audible’s downloadable version of John Scalzi’s new Fuzzy Nation. It is NOT included in the CD version of Fuzzy Nation. You can purchase Little Fuzzy separately, but why would you want to do that when you can get both for one credit by buying Fuzzy Nation? In either case, Little Fuzzy is narrated by Peter Ganim who does a nice job. His reading of the narrative is straightforward and austere, but his dialogue is lively and appropriately inflected.

You can download a free print version of Little Fuzzy because it’s in the public domain or get it free on Kindle from Amazon.

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KAT HOOPER is a professor at the University of North Florida where she teaches neuroscience, psychology, and research methods courses. She occasionally gets paid to review scientific textbooks, but reviewing speculative fiction is much more fun. Kat lives with her husband and their children in Jacksonville Florida.

View all posts by Kat Hooper


  1. SandyG265 /

    I actually re-read Little Fuzzy recently and enjoyed it. I always read old sci-fi books with the understanding that they are going to seem dated.

  2. I agree Sandy. I was specifically looking for its datedness, though, because I was planning to read Fuzzy Nation right afterward and I knew it was a revision of Little Fuzzy. Little Fuzzy wasn’t any more outdated than anything else written in the early 1960s. In fact, it was less dated than most of its peers.

  3. sANDYg265 /

    Kat, I don’t mind the books being dated. I just know that they will be. In fact I like to go back and re-read old sci-fi books that I read when I was in high school and see how they’ve held up and which ones I still enjoy. The Fuzzy series is still one of my favorites. I just wish they’d release Fuzzy Sapiens for kindle. My paperback isn’t in very good shape anymore.

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