Friday, 20 May 2011

Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper

Lowdown: Adorable and intelligent creatures discovered at a frontier planet create a stir with us humans.
I will probably never experience it myself, but I strongly suspect having a book of yours published feels quite similar to witnessing the birth of your child (or to giving birth if you're a female). John Scalzi, one of my favorite authors and a person for whom I care on a personal basis through regularly reading his blog, is once again at a position where he can tell us exactly how a book release feels like given that he just had his book Fuzzy Nation published. Fuzzy Nation happens to be a reboot of a book I never heard of before, Little Fuzzy, written by a guy about whom I never heard of before, H. Beam Piper. As part of Scalzi's book launch preparations he recently referred readers of his blog to the web page where Project Gutenberg hosts free electronic versions of Little Fuzzy; given that I am quite looking forward to reading Fuzzy Nation (it's already on my Kindle), I thought this would be a great opportunity for a nice exercise in literature where I get to compare the original with the reboot. I therefore went to download my free Little Fuzzy copy (you can do so too here) as a prelude to Fuzzy Nation and went straight ahead with reading it. This review, therefore, represents the first part of my Fuzzy exercise, soon to be followed by reading & reviewing Fuzzy Nation (which looks like it has to wait a couple of books before I get to it; didn't want to needlessly tire myself with fuziness).
Little Fuzzy turned out to be a classic tale of science fiction. Set in a future where humanity has proliferated through space, things take place at a frontier planet that is mostly the property of a company. This company is there to make as much money as it can out of the planet's resources. Our hero, as in the guy at the center of the story, is an otherwise unattached "gold digger" guy, Holloway, who makes his money by digging for precious gems that are actually the remains of long dead ancient local life.
One day this loner stumbles upon a new creature that looks like a small humanoid. Indeed, it's very child like: smart and cute in a way the childless Holloway might fall for. Indeed he does; he names it Fuzzy and they become family.
The problem is that Fuzzy seems to be a sapient being. The presence of native sapience would prevent the company from exploiting the planet the way it wants to due to galactic treaties, therefore sending it on a crusade to vilify Fuzzies. Who will win this debate? The question comes down for the courts to decide.
When I say Little Fuzzy is classic science fiction I mean that it reminds me of the likes of Asimov. It tells a futuristic story that's exciting and thrilling, with characters you love and characters you despise, but in addition to that futuristic story it carries with it social messages very relevant to the era we live in. Or rather something like 20-30 years ago when Little Fuzzy was probably written, because for all of its space age technology the heroes of our story still record video to tape.
As befits a book of high quality like Little Fuzzy, there is more than one agenda here. The most notable are the one dealing with corporate ethics on one hand and the one trying to philosophically discuss what sapience is. The first is a matter relevant to our lives in a world where money has the last word, the latter is the question that stands at the core of many an idea: what is it, exactly, that makes us humans so unique? Can other animals share these traits with us?
Piper does deviate from the standard science fiction I grew up on (and for that matter, standard fiction in general). I noticed it first when I started having problems keeping track of the different characters: there are quite a lot of them, with good coverage of many shades of gray and lots of development on characters that are far from central.
The other deviation is more interesting. In a story that pits an individual against the big conglomerate, I would have expected things to take the individual to the very bottom and put him up against the wall before he can start fighting back to the inevitable happy ending. This does not happen here, though: the way Piper sets things up our individual never has his back against a wall and we do not get that familiar sensation of being taken from the very bottom to a high. Instead we get a middle of the road approach that is probably much more realistic and obviously less predictable. The approach certainly makes the book stands out as interesting even if it does so at the price of depriving the reader from an emotional roller-coaster.
What we therefore end up having on our hands with Little Fuzzy is an adorable science fiction tale that sets the scene nicely for Fuzzy Nation to reboot. I can clearly see why Scalzi sought to reboot this one: the story features classic Scalzi themes (e.g., cute/weird aliens, sarcasm/odd humor). On the other hand, surpassing the original would be a mighty tough job. Even equaling it is.
Overall: I thoroughly enjoyed the first half of my literature exercise. Highly recommended at 3.5 out of 5 stars.

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