Friday, June 03, 2011

Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi

Very little science fiction is actually looking forwards these days, what with alternate history and steampunk and the corrosive Baby Boomer nostalgia for lost youth and uncomplicated space programs. The classic American genre of science fiction, based as it primarily was in the great transportation singularity of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, faltered when it realized that the hockey-stick-shaped graphs that gave it birth would eventually flatten out, as all trends do. (Its direct descendant, of course, is based on the current information singularity, which is still at the point where eternal unlimited growth is an argument that won't get you immediately laughed off the stage.)

That's unfortunate, but no commercial genre can continue for decades without changing -- take a look at the popular thrillers from the '30s, '70s and today, or the romances from those eras, and that will be immediately clear. A genre must move -- I won't say "move forward," since that doesn't actually mean anything (directed evolution is a lie, and metaphors based on that are equally shaky), but it must move in some direction, as a shark does, to keep oxygen flowing and all of its muscles working.

Science fiction in particular is an odd genre, in that the clubbiness of the field itself has inculcated an in-group sense of history and time-binding that's much less prominent in other commercial genres -- SF has always looked backwards and inwards to define itself, since Hugo Gernsback reprinted H.G. Wells and started a letter column in Amazing Stories. And so history is even more important in SF than it is in genres that would seem, from outside, to be more "conservative" or inspired by their own pasts; SF writers have been rewriting each other since that genre name has been used, and a fresh twist on an old concept is, an awful lot of the time, considered even better than a brand-new idea by the SF readership.

Which then brings us to John Scalzi's new novel, Fuzzy Nation, which is as backwards-looking and time-binding as it's possible for a SF novel to be in 2011. Fuzzy Nation is a rewrite, from the ground up, of H. Beam Piper's classic 1962 novel Little Fuzzy -- the most famous book of a second-tier SF writer. (No offense meant by "second-tier;" SF has a deep bench of medium-interesting writers, and the very aspects of the field that I'm writing about keep those writers relevant for generations.)

So Fuzzy Nation is, as Little Fuzzy was, the story of prospector Jack Holloway on the alien planet Zarathrustra 23, in the kind of medium-future universe (casual interstellar travel and planets that feel about as big as 17th century colonies) that we don't see much anymore. Jack meets members of a previously unknown humanoid species native to Zara 23, which are potentially sapient -- and a ruling to that effect would kick Holloway's employers, the stereotypically gigantic and rapacious ZaraCorp, off of the planet forever.

Would a stereotypically gigantic and rapacious space corporation simply accept that outcome? Of course it would not. It would fight dirty. It would go to court!

Little Fuzzy had a big courtroom climax, and Fuzzy Nation, following the same recipe (though Scalzi substitutes many of the ingredients and varies his cooking techniques), turns into a legal SF novel for most of its second half. (The first half has some more traditional SFnal stuff, discovery and skulduggery and Scalzi's usual fizzy, amusing dialogue.) Scalzi does vary some of the beats and inputs -- Holloway is much more of a jerk in Nation than he was in Little, doesn't get the girl in the reflexive way he does in Little, and the financial situation is both more stark and slightly more nuanced -- but he follows the arc of Little Fuzzy's plot closely, so anyone who has read the Piper novel will find little in Fuzzy Nation to surprise him.

That assumes, of course, that a SF reader wants to be surprised, and that's a dangerously outdated assumption in a world where Blackout/All Clear just won the Nebula award. Fuzzy Nation is a sweet, smartly written novel with whipcrack dialogue and an instantly recognizable future, one that tells a story that the usual SF reader will expect and love and remember fondly. There's nothing new or surprising in it, but Scalzi has been rewriting the fondly remembered tropes of mid-century SF since his first published novel, Old Man's War, and Fuzzy Nation is exactly the sort of novel we've come to expect from him: a fun, safe entertainment, exactly calibrated for its audience.


James Davis Nicoll said...

Holloway is much more of a jerk in Nation than he was in Little, doesn't get the girl in the reflexive way he does in Little, [...]

Jack doesn't get the girl. Gerd van Riebeek does.

Andrew Wheeler said...

James: Ah, but I didn't say he got the girl. And indeed he doesn't.

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