Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Writer's Book Report: John Scalzi's FUZZY NATION

ONE LINE SUMMARY REVIEW: *Fuzzy Nation* is a "reboot" of a classic 1962 sci-fi novel which competently re-engineers the story to modern standards of technology, storytelling, and political correctness but which falls short of the original's charm and emotional impact.

I've never read anything before by John Scalzi, but given that he is the object of the Rabid Puppies hatred and Sad Puppies deep ambivalence, I thought I'd check out *Fuzzy Nation*, his "reboot" of H. Beam Piper's classic *Little Fuzzy*.

Why reboot a classic sci-fi novel? Well there's the commonplace problem of technology outstripping sci-fi for starters, particularly the original's lack of personal digital information and communication gadgets. In the original Jack Holloway consults books on microfilm, develops movies in a darkroom, and can't reach characters by videophone because they're away from their houses. This is all very anachronistic to a generation that grew up with databases, cell phones and personal computers.

There's also the issue of contemporary tastes in politics. The planet Zarathustra in the original was clearly based on South Africa of the early 20th Century. The names of some of the animals even sound slightly Dutch-ish (e.g. "Veldbeest"). The outcome of the original novel's dispute over the "sapience" of the Fuzzy species seems incomprehensible to modern political sensibilities. If the Fuzzies turn out to be people who were living on Zarathustra before humans came, most modern readers would assume that this means humans need to clear off the planet. But in the implicit politics of H. Beam Piper's universe humans can still run things and exploit the mineral and biological wealth of the planet, they just have to work *around* the natives, while they *run the natives' affairs for them*.

This is the politics of paternalism; of "white man's burden". That might not seem strange at all to a reader in the early 60s who had grown up on Edgar Rice Burroughs and H. Rider Haggard, but to a modern reader that attitude is almost inexplicable. So while "politics" may be a dirty word, it's not unreasonable to tweak the unexamined imperialist and paternalistic assumptions of the original in order to reach modern audiences.

So far so good, but the place where this re-imagining falls short is re-tooling the story for modern tastes in storytelling. The original novel's Jack Holloway was a larger-than-life archetype of frontier self-sufficiency, an upright and elderly but still-sharp prospector and sometime gun-slinger. The new Jack Holloway is a young and crooked lawyer eking out a living prospecting after being disbarred and alienating just about everyone he meets. Why re-imagine Holloway this way? Because conventional wisdom is that flawed and somewhat unlikable characters are more interesting. While this is fine as well as it goes, it's a bit simplistic because what really matters is what you do with the character.

Scalzi hits another writing-workshop bullet point by giving his picaresque Holloway greater agency in the plot outcome than Piper's Holloway has. In the original Jack Holloway plays a key role in initiating the events of the novel, but by the story's third act he is largely sidelined and the main action is resolved by deus ex machina -- a major no-no according to polite canons of literary taste.

So in outline form Scalzi's story looks like a major upgrade to the H. Beam Piper version. But fleshed out, it doesn't quite measure up to the classic. Why? Because while Scalzi is a fine writer, he's just not as good here as H. Beam Piper is. A story like this takes a tremendous amount of exposition; in Piper's version this imbues the setting with a kind of Golden Age wonder but in Scalzi's version it simply weighs down the narration and dialog.

What's more while Scalzi's version is unquestionably more competently plotted, there's a lot more to care about in Piper's version. Piper stocks his story with memorable and vivid characters where Scalzi's supporting cast is sufficient to move the story forward but forgettable. Piper's version is, underneath the charm, a serious sci-fi attempt to address the question of where "human" rights come from. In Scalzi's version this is merely a plot point.

And H. Beam Piper's version scores over the Scalzi version in this one respect: character arc. The classic H. Beam Piper protagonist is a self-sufficient, rugged individualist, but in many ways *Little Fuzzy* subverts this archetype. *Little Fuzzy* was conceived at a time Piper had moved to Paris, where he missed his friends and his marriage began to fall apart. *Little Fuzzy* is really about the the tension between self-sufficiency and loneliness.

So it misses the point the reconstruct *Little Fuzzy* to give Jack Holloway more agency in the fate of the Fuzzies, because it's not really about the Fuzzies. It's about a lonely old man who adopts a family and through them develops new friendships. That arc is what gives the *Little Fuzzy* its powerful emotional impact. Scalzi's Holloway starts out the story as as secretive, manipulative schemer and ends as a successful, secret, manipulative schemer. It's sufficiently entertaining, but not particularly moving.

*Fuzzy Nation* is a cute and entertaining book that is utterly inoffensive to standards of literary taste or politics -- standards that I generally endorse. There's nothing wrong with a book being adequate and inoffensive, but that's not what greatness is about. A great story is timeless. It's been over fifty years since the publication of *Little Fuzzy*, and despite being dated in several respects it still stands up. Will people still be reading *Fuzzy Nation* in 2070? I doubt it. They'll be reading *Little Fuzzy*.