Apr 17, 2011

Yeti Review: Fuzzy Nation - John Scalzi

In A Few Words: A compulsively readable collision of tightly plotted legal thriller and idea-centric science fiction, Fuzzy Nation evokes fond memories of a simpler era of storytelling.

-Light-hearted adventure appropriate for all ages.
-Holloway shines in a revamped, more cohesive cast
-Story moves quickly and continues to surprise even if you've read Piper's original Little Fuzzy
-Full of Scalzi's trademark humor, Fuzzy Nation is eminently entertaining and impossible to put down for the last 2/3 of the book

-Jack Holloway is the same character we've seen from Scalzi multiple times before
-Ending wraps up a little too cleanly
-Antagonists are borderline archetypal, albeit very fun to hate.

The Review: Ladies and gentleman of the jury, Fuzzy Nation is a strange amalgamation of a book. The facts are clear: 1) It's a science fiction novel written by notorious internet troublemaker John Scalzi. 2) It's a more complex re-imagining of H. Beam Piper's Little Fuzzy. 3) It was originally fan fiction, written for personal pleasure and without the intention of ever being published. 4) It's revenge fantasy, allowing the reader to revel in the pain of a corporation too concerned with the bottom line and too willing to look the other way. And 5) as cliché as it is to say, Fuzzy Nation is also compulsively readable; a reminder that SF doesn't have to be as sterile as the vacuum of space.

Like so many space age novels, the original Little Fuzzy is a novel of ideas. Character and prose take back seat to the thought experiment of the Fuzziess, a newly discovered species that seems sentient but not undeniably so. After all, how do you define sentience? Scalzi returns to this same question half a century later but he does so within a genre that has matured significantly in the mean while. The once novel ideas of space exploration and alien encounters are fifty years played out, and it's no longer enough to simply wonder "what if?"

To that end, Scalzi gives Piper's original account of adorable aliens a welcome reboot and in the process manages to modernize the tale without sacrificing the optimistic heart at its core. Jack Holloway's persona might have been passed for "gritty" back in the space age but he'd be squeaky clean amongst the anti-heroes of today's fiction. Holloway 2.0 remains a prospector digging for sunstones on ZaraCorp's newest colony but now touts a law degree, a checkered past and a less than healthy affinity for Schadenfreude Pie. The other supporting players aren't so lucky - even though the story follows the same general arc as the original, Scalzi more or less replaces the cast in its entirety. The end result is an ensemble that feels more cohesive than its largely two dimensional progenitor (not to mention considerably less sexist).

It's this cohesion which allows Scalzi to deliver his revamped plot at a breakneck pace, pulling new readers in quickly while establishing that Fuzzy Nation is much more than a page-by-page remake of the original. The book starts with a bang - literally - and it's not much longer until Holloway discovers the titular Fuzzies, Scalzi's versions of which feature a little less prominently than Piper's critters. If Little Fuzzy depicts Holloway's relationship with the Fuzzies as impaired by ZaraCorp, Fuzzy Nation depicts Holloway's relationship with ZaraCorp as complicated by the Fuzzies. The difference is minor but nontrivial as Scalzi refines Piper's idea-centric explorations into a superiorly plotted story.

Either way, Holloway and his new-found furry friends are soon inextricably tied to ZaraCorp's financial future and it's employees start to test those links anyway they can, without regard to those silly things called laws. As the story races toward it's epic courtroom conclusion, those tightly wound threads begin to snap in unexpected places, much to the delight of anyone tired of the gross corporate malfeasance which plagues the world today.

Pleasantly distracting as it may be to see a corporation get what's coming to it, fans of Scalzi's popular blog will have no trouble recognizing his particular brand of biting rhetoric (and a penchant for pet anthropomorphism) in the ever-sarcastic (and dog owning) Holloway. The delicate balance of intelligent commentary and unrelenting snark has always been Scalzi's trademark and it's clear he knows what his audience has come to expect. Part of me worries that he isn't stretching himself enough narratively and as such risks overexposure of his primary voice. I'd hate to see him become the literary equivalent of a one hit wonder, stuck playing the same tune when he wants to diversify his sound. Fortunately, the other part of me isn't paying attention, he's two nostrils deep in the book and isn't coming up for air any time soon.

Ultimately, it's this hard to pinpoint "unputdownability" which really defines Fuzzy Nation. Like Little Fuzzy and so many of its space-age counterparts, the focus is less on the science itself, and more on the ideas and questions that science might one day allow us to explore. No advance theoretical physics degrees or quantum mechanics textbooks required. But that's not to say he ignores his physics; Scalzi clearly understands that the heavier something is, the more energy it takes to move it at a given speed. In support of this hypothesis, the prose is kept light and lean, allowing the reader to rocket through the book in just a few sittings.

After all, the key to a successful reboot isn't originality, it's execution - whether or not the changes you make result in a story worth reading, regardless if you've read the original. In Fuzzy Nation, Scalzi executes flawlessly, proving that Piper's core concept is just as relevant today as it was fifty years ago with a pitch perfect summer sci-fi novel that both embraces and enhances the source material. While there's still the lingering question of whether or not John Scalzi needs to write something outside his comfort zone, as long as his books are this entertaining, it's going to be difficult to prove that case in court.

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