Review: Scalzi’s Fuzzy Nation Engages on Every Level

Geek Culture

Last week, I received a hardcover copy of John Scalzi‘s (@scalzi) Fuzzy Nation, courtesy of TOR, for review purposes.

Published by TOR, John Scalzi’s Fuzzy Nation is a reboot of H. Beam Piper’s 1962 Hugo-nominated Little Fuzzy. It is a story filled with corporate greed, environmental issues and asks the question, “What makes a species sentient?” If you are unfamiliar with this title, here is the synopsis:

Jack Holloway works alone, for reasons he doesn’t care to talk about. Hundreds of miles from ZaraCorp’s headquarters on planet, 178 light-years from the corporation’s headquarters on Earth, Jack is content as an independent contractor, prospecting and surveying at his own pace. As for his past, that’s not up for discussion.

Then, in the wake of an accidental cliff collapse, Jack discovers a seam of unimaginably valuable jewels, to which he manages to lay legal claim just as ZaraCorp is cancelling their contract with him for his part in causing the collapse. Briefly in the catbird seat, legally speaking, Jack pressures ZaraCorp into recognizing his claim, and cuts them in as partners to help extract the wealth.

But there’s another wrinkle to ZaraCorp’s relationship with the planet Zarathustra. Their entire legal right to exploit the verdant Earth-like planet, the basis of the wealth they derive from extracting its resources, is based on being able to certify to the authorities on Earth that Zarathustra is home to no sentient species.

Then a small furry biped–trusting, appealing, and ridiculously cute–shows up at Jack’s outback home. Followed by its family. As it dawns on Jack that despite their stature, these are people, he begins to suspect that ZaraCorp’s claim to a planet’s worth of wealth is very flimsy indeed…and that ZaraCorp may stop at nothing to eliminate the “fuzzys” before their existence becomes more widely known.

From the first paragraph to the last word, I was completely engaged, unable to put the book down until it was read cover to cover. Scalzi’s writing is exactly what I want in a book. The action begins immediately. Nothing is drawn out, with one beat leading to the next, driving the story forward. Before finishing the first page, I had the first of many chuckles. Nothing is superfluous. There are no unnecessary descriptions of people’s appearances, locations or objects; giving the reader just enough information, allowing them the freedom to add their own colors to the world presented to them.

In the first chapter, my brain was jarred out of the story when the sound system in Holloway’s skimmer was mentioned. One of my biggest issues, with both books and film, is when my attention is drawn to an object that has no relevance, whatsoever, to the plot. I was afraid that had just happened. However, I told my brain to be quiet and continue reading, as up until that point, I was quite enjoying the book. Later in the story, a huge smile came across my face when the aforementioned sound system played an important role.

Scalzi does another thing with this story that I think all good science-fiction should do: It deals with the social issues of today but in a fictional setting. I need my science-fiction to cause me to contemplate or re-contemplate issues. I’m one of those types who needs their entertainment to be both mentally engaging and entertaining. Fuzzy Nation caused me to seriously re-contemplate my views on how our actions affect the animals we share this planet with, not just how they affect humans.

Fuzzy Nation accomplished this in a fashion that has not been achieved since FernGully: The Last Rainforest came out when I was 16 years old. In many ways, Fuzzy Nation made me feel like I did all those years ago, but without the feeling like I was being preached at. I don’t want to compare the two, as in many ways they are quite different. Nonetheless, in 19 years, nothing has come close to affecting me in this way, causing me to seriously think about many of the environmental issues, and the resulting social/economical issues, tackled in both stories.

Then comes the question of sentience and what makes a species so. I really want to tip my hat to Scalzi here, as he made me think of Gene Roddenberry and how Roddenberry went about tackling many of the issues explored in Fuzzy Nation, both in Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation, specifically the TNG episode The Measure of a Man. Without giving away any spoilers, not only was the trial dramatic and heart-wrenching, but criteria was established and clearly laid out by statute, adding to the power of the debate and causing readers to question for themselves, “What makes us human?” Again, I am not directly comparing Roddenberry and Scalzi. However, they both had the same impact on me in a way not yet accomplished by any other story or by delivery of style.

Aside from the really major things I need from a work of fiction, Scalzi inserted a lot of little touches, making me enjoy the story even more. Without them, the story still would have been brilliantly written. Some examples of this include: Using the term “The Goldilocks Zone” and describing what it means; asking someone to die in a fire; plus the inclusion of a character whose first name is Wheaton and using the line, “Shut up, Wheaton!”, plus more. The line, “Shut up, Wheaton!” caused me to laugh for two reasons: 1) Wil Wheaton narrated the audiobook; and 2) If you are not a TNG fan, Wil Wheaton played a character named Wesley Crusher. One line from TNG that is thrown around often is, “Shut up, Wesley!”

The really amazing thing about this story is that Scalzi has me re-thinking what makes someone the good guy and what makes them the bad guy. I have really defined, black-and-white rules about such things. I am very binary when it comes to ethics, morals and what constitutes good and bad behavior. With the majority of the characters, you know full well who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. And then we have Jack Holloway. Again, without giving away any spoilers, I will be spending a lot of time trying to decide if he is a good guy or a bad guy. Some may place him the middle. As I am not a gray person, I will be contemplating this situation for some time and, in the process, perhaps redefining some of my boundaries. Now that is quite the accomplishment from a writer and a story.

Fuzzy Nation took me on both an emotional and mental journey. I laughed. I fought off tears. I became highly disturbed. I was agitated and angry. I cared about the outcome. It is making me think deeply. Engaging me on every possible level is not an easy task. Scalzi accomplished this flawlessly.

Do I recommend this book? Most definitely. If I had to give this book a score on a scale of 10, I would give it a 9.5. The only reason it isn’t a 10 is because nothing is perfect. There is always room for improvement and growth. What would I change in this book? Absolutely nothing. This story satiated my needs in a way that has not been accomplished in years. However, we each have our own tastes.

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