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Little Fuzzy by H. Beam PiperAce Books cover by Michael Whelan4 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsH. Beam Piper is one of SF’s tragic figures. His 1964 suicide — rumored to have been motivated over despondency that his writing career was on the skids, which, with bitter irony, wasn’t true at all — stands in stark contrast to the warmth and humanism of the stories he left behind. Indeed, his enormously influential and beloved Fuzzy stories are such an impassioned celebration of life itself that Piper’s own end seems doubly unfair and wasteful.

Original Ace Books paperback coverLittle Fuzzy is a delight, as long as you’re aware you’re in for cuteness by the trowel. Still, there’s a line between cloying and charming, and for the most part, I’d say Piper stays on the right side of it. Those of you who have been aware of it for years but never picked it up probably thought it looked like a kids’ book. And yes, it is accessible and highly appropriate for kids, but only in the same way the legendary Heinlein juveniles have been for so many decades. What may surprise folks is just what kind of a story it really is. It looks for all the world like a rollicking planetary adventure featuring Disneyish, big-eyed adorable critters tailor-made for the plush toy market. In fact it’s mostly a courtroom drama that questions what distinguishes sapience from non-sapience. In this regard, Little Fuzzy is emphatically science fiction, not merely “sci-fi.” It didn’t earn a Hugo nomination for nothing.

Jack Holloway is a crusty old prospector on the planet Zarathustra, whose daily routine is upended one day by the discovery of the titular critter hiding out in his shack. Though humans have been on the planet for decades, this is the first time this life form has been seen. And Little Fuzzy’s behavior soon begins to convince Jack he’s dealing not merely with a cute pet, but a thinking being.

But if this is true, then it threatens the commercial charter of the Zarathustra Company, which owns exclusive rights to exploit the planet’s natural resources, particularly the rare sunstone jewel available nowhere else in the universe. Plans are quickly set afoot by them to discredit the very idea the Fuzzies — and the first one has now moved its whole family into Jack’s home, demonstrating there’s a potentially sizable indigenous population to face — are sapient beings, while Jack and his friends and cohorts move just as quickly to protect their little friends by establishing their sapience legally. At issue is the very question: What does make a living being sapient after all? There’s a basic legal standard — can it talk and build a fire? — but perhaps the Fuzzies will prove that sapience manifests in subtle and hitherto unexpected ways. Events come to an inevitably disastrous head, and we’re off to the races.

Piper addresses a number of concerns that were prescient at the time, and many of the things he touches on thematically are strikingly relevant today, such as the notion of corporate interests attempting to stifle any scientific discovery that threatens their bottom line (all too evident in the early 21st century among climate change deniers). As an environmentalist tale, it beat Dune to the green party by three years. Its central narrative about the respect due indigenous cultures is one that’s been at the heart of America’s conscience ever since the Trail of Tears, and in 1962, the fact of xenophobia was about to get a vigorous workout in the civil rights and youth counterculture turmoil that would mark the remainder of the decade. Piper’s handling of these themes is commendably free from any lopsided, condescending political didacticism. It also does not, truth to tell, have much depth. There’s an easily grasped critique of colonialism here — respecting indigenous cultures good, wiping them out bad — that does duty by SF’s long-standing tradition of holding up a mirror to our real world. What Piper doesn’t do is talk down to or lecture his audience.

Nor — excepting the perhaps-unavoidable moments here and there of cuuuute — does he descend into the exploitive, mawkish, Spielbergian depths so many writers would resort to. It’s all too easy to see how the tale could have been an exercise in pure, shameless emotional button mashing, with sweet little big-eyed Fuzzies squeaking in horror as they are menaced by cackling evil scientists with sharp instruments. But Piper doesn’t resort to such tawdry, manipulative bathos to wring cheap tears from his readers. Sure, the one ugly event that occurs is played for its emotional impact, and there are one or two “oh the poor little thing!” moments. But even these scenes serve the narrative purpose of addressing whether or not the Fuzzies are, in fact, sapient beings. Where other writers would have gone off-message to embarrassing effect, Piper keeps his focus.

It’s true that by contemporary standards, the story needs stronger suspense. There’s an extended sequence when the Fuzzies are missing, but you’re never really concerned they’ve come to a bad end. Furthermore, there’s a resolution that feels too pat, where appropriate guilt is meted out and consciences are raised. The bad guys are unambiguously bad, the good guys are shining beacons of altruism, and there’s no real worry as to who’s coming out on top. But I’d still call Little Fuzzy a deserving classic of the genre, for combining intellectual engagement with storytelling charm and wit to create a truly memorable SF tale. And if, at the end, it makes you wish you had a Fuzzy plushie, hey, don’t be embarrassed, just go with it.

Followed by Fuzzy Sapiens. “Rebooted” in 2011 with great success by John Scalzi as Fuzzy Nation. Piper’s full trilogy was also collected in the 1998 Ace omnibus edition The Complete Fuzzy.