Little Fuzzy by H Beam Piper and Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi

Vertigo

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Having decided to read John Scalzi's Fuzzy Nation I felt it would be interesting to read it and H Beam Piper's original - Little Fuzzy - together and do a little compare and contrast of the two books. So I read Piper's original first and then immediately went on to read Scalzi's version. Below I have posted my thoughts on each of them with the second - Scalzi's Fuzzy Nation - containing all the comparisons.
 

Vertigo

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Having decided to read Scalzi’s Fuzzy Nation I thought I ought to read the original by H Beam Piper first and I’m very glad I did. Little Fuzzies is an excellent book that I really should have read long ago. However, I had real problems rating it; it was a very enjoyable fast-paced read but maybe a little shallow and very dated so I was looking at maybe 4 stars. Then, on reflection, I realised that it clearly was meant to parallel and criticise the way Native Americans have were treated from colonisation of the Americas through to the wars, and I thought ‘neat’ and maybe it deserves 5 stars. And then, upon further reflection, I was not so sure that it really was so very critical of that treatment and it slid back down again.

There are some minor spoilers in this review but actually anyone reading the book will certainly have guessed/expected them long before they actually reach those bits of the book.

At first glance Little Fuzzies seems to be a lovely sweet book about the impossibly good and cuddly Fuzzies. So much so that it is often described as a young adult book. But this is juxtaposed with a moderately serious discussion of what it means to be sapient, our attitudes to people less advanced than ourselves and the seemingly unavoidable greed of which we humans are so often guilty, and those are certainly more adult themes. The endearingly lovable nature of the Fuzzies is, I’m sure, a deliberate ploy to get us thinking ‘I want one for a pet’ which is, of course, exactly the wrong way to be thinking about anyone who is sapient. This works well and, when set against the predictable human greed and corporate exploitation of pretty much anything that can be exploited, makes for a powerful indictment of how we humans behave towards others when we have the upper hand. What doesn't work so well is the shallowness of the characters; the good guys are all totally competent and unambiguous and the bad guys are all completely imcompetent and equally unambiguous. Very unsatisfying, flat characterisation.

I’m surprised by how little comment I have seen in other reviews of this book on the parallels with the colonisation and conquest of the Americas. And yet it seems blindingly obvious to me and Piper repeatedly rubs our noses in it. This is the Wild West set on another planet complete with loner frontiersmen prospecting for sunstones (gold), toting guns slung low for the classic western quick-draw and we even have a gun fight won by the speed of the protagonist’s draw. The Fuzzies have only just been discovered so no trading has yet been done with them, but Piper makes the point of how shiny trinkets are used to trade with other primitive sapient species on other planets, clearly paralleling the early trading with Native Americans (both north and south). And finally the Fuzzies end up with a reservation and a human appointed to protect them. All of this seemed to me, at first, to be critical of that whole process and I still think it is critical of it, except possibly the last part where the book really does present putting natives into reservations and continuing to colonise and exploit their world as perfectly acceptable so long as it’s not done by a greedy corporate but rather by the fair and honest Terran government. And it’s that tacit approval of this approach at the end that left me feeling uncomfortable. And, finally, by the end of book the status of the Fuzzies has shifted only slightly from being made pets to being adopted; still patronising and still wrong.

Another major problem with Little Fuzzies is how dated it is. This is not really Piper’s fault; it is very much a book of its times and, although it must be accepted that attitudes back in the beginning of the ‘60s were very different to today, it is still difficult to read them sometimes. Everybody is smoking – cigarettes, cigars, pipes – and it’s even considered acceptable, with only a little hesitation, to give the Fuzzies a pipe to smoke. Though that last may be making the point that it is wrong to view the Fuzzies as children, refusing them tobacco, instead of adults and allowing them that tobacco. Strangely enough Piper takes a slightly different approach to alcohol completely denying whisky to the Fuzzies – ‘I don’t want any dipsos in the family’ – whilst happily (almost approvingly) feeding it to an alcoholic (is that meant to be another parallel with the Native Americans and ‘firewater’?). The other classic dated aspect is, as ever, the attitude towards women. Apart from one token powerful woman all the women in this book are either housewives or secretaries and that one powerful woman ends up subordinating her career to her man’s. I know I should expect it but it doesn’t make it any easier to read.

In conclusion this a great, fast-paced but flawed classic SF yarn that also has something important to say. But those flaws were enough for me to not quite put it up there with the really top classic books from that era. It will be interesting to read Scalzi’s reboot of this story next.
 

Vertigo

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This is a reimagining of H Beam Piper’s Little Fuzzy; essentially it is taking Piper’s original concept and modernising it and in that it works very well. There is a tendency to wonder whether I like this book because of Scalzi’s writing or because of Piper’s original and excellent idea. But, in the end, it doesn’t really matter; just think if it as a collaboration that has produced a book that is, in my opinion, better than the original. Also, from that collaboration point of view, it is worth noting that Scalzi presented his version to the Piper estate for permission to publish (despite this book now being in the public and such permission not being required) and they in turn gave their approval.

Though Scalzi stays faithful to the central premise he has changed characters and much of the action and indeed motivation. But the main difference is that he has simply modernised it; giving it a much more realistic feel for our modern understandings and attitudes, and so breathing new life into it. The Wild West feel of the original is largely gone resulting in a much more plausible setting, although one that largely loses much of the allegory on the exploitation of the Native American which seemed to me to be an important feature of the original.

However there are many other ways in which Sclazi modernises the tale and is so doing makes it a better read for today. Gone is all the cigarette/cigar/pipe smoking that seemed to occur on every other page, along with much of the drinking; women play a much stronger role; the portrayal of the Zarathustra Corporation felt much more realistic; the courtroom scenes feel more modern, again dropping that Wild West feel; the main protagonist is much younger and far more ambiguous. And this ambiguous characterisation is one area where Sclazi’s version excels. In Piper’s original one of my complaints was the very two dimensional characterisation; Scalzi has given his characters much more depth and ambiguity, they are not as simplistically black and white. To achieve this he has had to make the book longer (though not all that much longer) and in so doing pretty much everything has gained greater depth; from the characterisation to the technology to the Fuzzies themselves.

I know many people will consider this sort of rewrite of an acknowledged classic to be a bit sacrilegious but I see it as giving an excellent, if rather tired and dated, classic a new lease of life. Fifty years ago I probably would have preferred the shorter, almost swashbuckling, high noon feel of Piper’s original. Today I much prefer the more modern, character driven feel of Sclazi’s reimagining. However I did thoroughly enjoy reading both!
 
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