A Baaaad Case of the Warm and Fuzzies: H. Beam Piper v. John Scalzi

LittleFuzzy

That v. in the title of this post doesn’t stand for versus in the conventional sense. It’s the v. you see in the titles of mashup music tracks like this one (lyrics not family-friendly).

From time to time I make halfhearted efforts to like the things everyone else seems to, like The Beatles. In the same spirit I occasionally apply myself to classic science fiction. I recently dug into Little Fuzzy, the much-loved novel by H. Beam Piper. Because I’m here typing this, you know I made it through, but—whew!—it was a close thing. I nearly passed out from saccharine overdose on page 25, and the dosage levels climbed higher as our story morphed from a Lost World-ish alien encounter into a kidnapping drama, only to climax in a courtroom full of adorably mischievous, romping, fuzzy…Fuzzies! Aw, who cares about lex retro non agitThese little guys are just so damn cute! And sapient, too.

Briefly, Little Fuzzy deals with the discovery of a new species—Fuzzy fuzzy holloway—on a corporate-chartered planet, Zarathustra. Amid a pleasing mid-century fog of cigar smoke and alcohol, company representatives engage in devilish machinations in the attempt to thwart “Pappy” Jack Holloway, discoverer of the Fuzzies, and his friends. The question that hangs over the book from page 10 or so is: Are the Fuzzies sapient? The answer is self-evident all along, which makes the extended discussions of what in fact constitutes sapience a bit tedious.

The most touching thing about this book is its metafictional dimension: H. Beam Piper was a troubled man, a gun nut, and drinker who committed suicide at 61. It is poignant to imagine how this story must have pleased and comforted him, to the point where he went on to write several more novels in the series. He apparently died believing that no one much appreciated his stories. Posterity has proved him wrong.

fuzzy nation scalziAt this point you’re probably wondering what on earth John Scalzi has to do with this post. Ha! Unbelievably, Scalzi has rewritten Little Fuzzy—yes, you read that right; not written a sequel to it, but rewritten it, “mostly for [his] own amusement,” and published it under the title of Fuzzy Nation. This I had to read.

Fuzzy Nation was a very strange reading experience. Strange and pleasant, in fact. All the pleasures of re-reading, and none of the incipient boredom! As I hummed along, I started thinking, “More people should do this.” Why don’t they? Musicians cover each other’s songs all the time. Why shouldn’t writers cover each other’s books? The impression left by Fuzzy Nation was not so much of a mashup as of an inspired cover version—say, Insane Clown Posse covering Sly Fox.

Inevitably, Fuzzy Nation starts off mirroring Little Fuzzy scene for scene, but soon turns into its own thing. Scalzi does an admirable job of sticking to the plot, while turning the story into something else entirely.

A table is in order!

***

Little Fuzzies Fuzzy Nation
Main Character “Pappy” Jack Holloway, a loveable old codger Jack Holloway, a rebarbative ex-lawyer
Only Important Female Character Ruth Ortheris, a psychologis with a surprising secret Isabel Wangai, a biologist
Fuzzies Papa, Mama, Mike, Mitzi, Ko-ko, Baby, Goldilocks,
Cinderella, Complex, Syndrome, Id, Superego,
Flora, Fauna, Dr. Crippen, Dillinger, Lizzie Borden
Papa, Mama, Grandpa, Pinto, Baby
Antagonist The Zarathustra Company The Zarathrustra Corporation

A quick glance at the above reveals the key difference between the two books: Little Fuzzy really is about the Fuzzies, which are small, cute, humanoid aliens. Did I mention they’re cute? Piper revels in their cuteness page after page. Scalzi barely bothers to describe their antics. He’s less interested in cute and more interested in moral grey areas. Piper’s Jack Holloway is a stock character: a lone wolf prospector with a heart of gold. Scalzi’s Jack Holloway is also a lone wolf prospector with a heart of gold…or is he? Most of the tension in Fuzzy Nation is generated by keeping the reader in the dark about Holloway’s true motives, as well as his Troubled Past™. This effectively creates suspense, at the cost of making this a book about, well, Jack Holloway.

Scalzi’s dialogue is witty, as always, and his descriptions are richer than Piper’s. I got a stronger sense of what type of planet Zarathustra is. (I did miss the “damnthings,” though. It was a shame to turn them into “zararaptors.”) Fuzzy Nation is in no way a lesser book. It just isn’t really a book about Fuzzies.

One interesting caveat concerns the main female character. In Little Fuzzy, Ruth Ortheris is a psychologist who works with the Zarathustra school department, sides with the villains…and ends up playing an absolutely pivotal role in the story. In Fuzzy Nation, Isabel Wangai is a Kenyan-by-way-of-Oxford biologist whose only role in the story is to get repeatedly humiliated by Jack Holloway, whose ex-girlfriend she is, and then forgive him. This is a telling difference. I don’t know what it’s telling us—perhaps something ironic about the changes in social mores between the 1960s and the 2010s—but it seems worth mentioning.

I wouldn’t recommend either of these books alone, but as a set, they make a fascinating reading experience. You may soon be wondering, as I am, why this rewriting thing doesn’t happen more often.

Anyone up for contacting the Heinlein estate and proposing a new series of Rewritten Classics? Bags I The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress!

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