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Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi4.5 stars

Buy from IndieBound Movies get remade, usually badly, all the time. I was going to say it’s rare for a novel to be “remade” as movies are, with an author offering a updated interpretation of another author’s earlier work. But then I remembered that headache-inducing current fad for dusting off literary classics and adding zombies or mummies or werewolves to them. And I died a little inside. Because if ever there were a template for how a classic novel ought to be “remade” — or “rebooted,” or whichever term you prefer — Fuzzy Nation should be the book you think of.

Fuzzy Nation seeks to bring a 21st century storytelling sensibility to a half-century-old genre classic, and it succeeds far more wildly than I imagine even John Scalzi himself hoped. What began as an unabashed exercise in labor-of-love fanfic became not only excellent SF in its own right, but, incidentally, Scalzi’s best novel to date in a career that was already impressive and well above the bell curve. Adopting an appropriate modesty, Scalzi introduces the book by noting that it is “not intended to supplant or improve upon Little Fuzzy, which would be impossible to do,” leaving it up to folks like me to announce that from there, he goes on to do the impossible. 

Little Fuzzy was and is a fine tale, and one that holds up extraordinarily well compared to much SF of its day. Fuzzy Nation, I think, will resonate more strongly with contemporary readers. There are ways to update stories that don’t work, and that disrespect or miss the point entirely of the original material. This is what we see so often in Hollywood remakes. But there are the rare occasions where the modern approach to a classic story manages to fit the material ideally. Fuzzy Nation tells much the same story as Little Fuzzy, but Scalzi has remained true to the original while making the tale his own. His gripping and exciting reboot honors H. Beam Piper’s literary legacy by enlarging the classic novel’s scope, becoming a flowering and fulfillment of its possibilities. 

For those of you who have read the original (and it’s not hard to do — having fallen into the public domain, free ebooks of Little Fuzzy are everywhere, including Amazon, making torrenting unnecessary), some of the changes can be briefly catalogued. Scalzi’s most notable improvement is in character development. Piper’s Jack Holloway was a crusty old 70-ish prospector who immediately adopted a paternal, protective love for the Fuzzies who moved into his cabin, stopping at nothing to protect them as a man would his own children from the nefarious designs of the Zarathustra Corporation. Beyond that, we really knew nothing of him. Scalzi’s Holloway is younger, cockier, much less idealistic, motivated by his own self-interest, prone to jump headlong into trouble now and give a shit later. He has a backstory, which, as backstories should, plays a pivotal role in how the novel will play out. He will undergo a character arc that will not involve anything so banal as “learning his lessons” and outgrowing his most obvious of character flaws, but it will give him the self-awareness to acknowledge and come to terms with them. If Piper’s Holloway could be played by the older, mellower Harrison Ford of today, Scalzi’s version would be played by the younger actor who snarked his way into our hearts as Han Solo.

Scalzi disposes of the rest of Piper’s cast in its entirety. What’s more, he brings a sense of urgency to the plot that doesn’t quite play in the original, which had, at best, only a few short moments of true suspense. At the beginning of both books, Holloway discovers a massive seam of sunstone jewels, the planet’s primary export. But Piper really did nothing with this other than to establish Holloway’s vocation. Scalzi makes much more of this discovery in Fuzzy Nation, and places it squarely at the center of the dramatic tension that develops. This particular sunstone seam is so vast it promises wealth beyond avarice, enough to ensure ZaraCorp’s bottom line for years and years to come. And its discovery happens to coincide with Holloway's discovery of the Fuzzies, one of whom barges into his cabin one day in a flurry of chaotic hilarity. If it turns out the Fuzzies are sapient, not only will ZaraCorp potentially lose trillions, but Holloway himself could lose his one chance to retire a billionaire.

The assessment of the Fuzzies’ intelligence is first made here by Holloway's ex-partner, biologist Isabel Wangai. They have what you might call a rocky past. Holloway is skeptical of Isabel’s opinion — and admits he’s got good motivation to be — but with the help of her current flame, attorney Mark Sullivan, they try to come up with a plan to satisfy the question of the Fuzzies’ possible sapience that will not collide headlong with the full fury of an interplanetary corporate entity with endless resources to bear. Yet the new CEO of the company is prepared to play whatever dirty pool he finds necessary to protect a literally incalculable monetary windfall. 

Piper rarely lapsed into sentimentalism in his original. Scalzi avoids it like disease, while finding any number of ways to introduce humor and charm into the story at every fitting opportunity. The wit on display here is essential Scalzi, as anyone who’s read such books as Zoe’s Tale and The Android’s Dream (or his blog) will catch immediately. The inescapable matter of how cute the Fuzzies are gets played for laughs and not schmaltz. Scalzi even works in a bacon joke, which will mean something if you’re one of his blog followers. But the meat of the plot will be more appreciated by contemporary readers, I think, because it’s informed by a current understanding of politics, law, and economics that makes the primary conflict far more realistic and consistently suspenseful. Like Little FuzzyFuzzy Nation eventually becomes a courtroom drama, and Scalzi delivers one of the most rousing you’ll see in an SF novel. Not that SF has had too large a history of courtroom scenes. Still, this one is often jump-to-your-feet fantastic, with at least one epic surprise (a surprise Scalzi establishes convincingly early on). 

I’m not sure I’d like to see too many writers getting into the habit of rebooting SF’s rich past — though given his oft-noted Heinlein influence, I’d be intrigued to see what Scalzi might do with Tunnel in the Sky — but when it’s done with as much respect, talent and passion as Fuzzy Nation, then we may well find ourselves with a whole new future classic in the making. H. Beam Piper took his own life in 1964, reportedly despondent over what he feared was a failing writing career. If he could be here, almost 50 years on, to see just how much impact and inspiration he’s actually had, I’d like to think he’d find the happiness that eluded him.