I read two books in order to write this one-book review.
I didn’t have to, but you can count me among the science fiction readers who hadn’t heard of H. Beam Piper or his book Little Fuzzy before John Scalzi announced his reboot of the 1962 Hugo-nominated novel last year.
Like its inspiration, Fuzzy Nation is the story of Jack Holloway, a contract prospector carving out his living under the thumb of the planet-holding Zarathustra Corporation. Shortly after unearthing a find of Zara XXIII’s precious sunstones that could set him up for a life of ease, though, Holloway befriends a previously-unknown native species he dubs “the fuzzys.”
They’re cute. And friendly. And possibly sentient. And that means trouble for both Holloway and the Corporation, because the discovery of sentient native life would mark the planet as off-limits to the wholesale extraction of its resources.
It’s the same conflict which drives the story in Little Fuzzy, though Scalzi wisely aimed for more than a contemporarily-voiced retelling. (You can read more about his motivation and approach to the book in his GeekDad interview.)
Where Piper’s mustachioed, pipe-smoking Holloway comes off as genial and almost grandfatherly, for example, the protagonist of Fuzzy Nation is a more complex character with banged-up relationships and a sketchy past that comes into play throughout the novel.
The structure of action, unfolding interpersonal dramas, and revelations in the book’s final third will be familiar to Scalzi readers who’ve come to appreciate the skill with which he arranges his elements before clicking them all into place in the climactic act. And – like Little Fuzzy – while the ultimate outcome of the book’s central conflict never really feels like it’s in doubt, the final chapters are very difficult to put down as things get tense and the stakes grow ever larger.
Content-wise, Fuzzy Nation is easily appropriate for middle-schoolers and up – though it shouldn’t be pigeonholed as a kids’ book – and I think it would make a great introduction to the genre for anyone who thinks science fiction is all spaceships, robots, and laser guns.
So, should you read the original Little Fuzzy first?
I opted to read Piper’s book shortly after Scalzi announced Fuzzy Nation, and I can say that I enjoyed both books. The former in no way spoiled the experience of the latter. Despite all they have in common, these are two very different books, with Piper’s story – though dated in tone – offering much much more insight, for instance, into the internal conflicts driving the Zarathustra Company.
I’ve enjoyed Scalzi’s writing a lot since picking up Old Man’s War in 2008, and while Fuzzy Nation tells a smaller-scale and more straightforward tale than those in most of his other novels, his style and skill make it a highly entertaining read. It succeeds both as a new novel from a talented writer and as a tribute and gateway to Piper’s work.
Double Fuzzy Bonus.
Disclosure: GeekDad received an advance reading copy of Fuzzy Nation for this review.