June 21, 2011

BOOKS: Fuzzy Nation, John Scalzi (2011)

The notion of the fictional reboot has been around in the comic book world for a good long time; publishers are always returning to square one to give their longtime characters a jumpstart, or to clear out the cluttered, incomprehensible backstories that have built up over the years. And in recent years, reboots have become a popular way to energize faded movie franchises -- Christopher Nolan's take on Batman, or J.J. Abrams' new version of Star Trek.

Here we have a relatively rare print reboot, as Scalzi takes the premise and some of the characters from H. Beam Piper's 1962 novel Little Fuzzy and spins his own version of the story. The Piper novel had gone out of copyright -- not sure how that happened so quickly -- but Scalzi requested and got permission from Piper's literary estate to publish this book. I haven't read Piper's book (it's now on my list), but Scalzi's tale is a charming bit of light fluff, reminiscent of the Heinlein juveniles.

Our hero is Jack Holloway, who works as an independent contractor on the mining planet Zarathustra, where he's a good enough miner that the bosses are (just barely) willing to put up with his rebellious streak and independent nature. When Jack comes across a major strike of valuable gems, it looks as if everyone's going to wind up happy -- the payout from Jack's find will allow him to retire a wealthy man, while getting him out of ZaraCorp's hair.

But then Jack has the bad fortune to stumble across the fuzzies, an indigenous species who just might be sentient, which would drastically reduce ZaraCorp's right to mine the planet (and Jack's forthcoming windfall). He's sorely tempted to say nothing, but ethics get the better of him (well, if they didn't, he wouldn't be the hero, now, would he?), setting into motion a legal battle over the sentience of the fuzzies, and forcing Jack to hunt frantically for a way to give them their due without completely sacrificing his own financial well-being.

Jack is the sort of endearing wise guy that Scalzi writes so well (and judging from the writing at his delightful blog, Whatever, that Scalzi kinda is), and though none of the other characters are as well developed, they are amusing versions of their archetypes (the Grumpy Judge, the Evil Industrialist, the Ex-Girlfriend, the Security Goon, etc.). The fuzzies are cute and cuddly and so adorable that you may find yourself wanting one for Christmas, and the final courtroom battle plays out in grand, entertaining style; Scalzi does a particularly good job of presenting the fictional legal background and issues to be contested without ever simply dumping great gobs of exposition on the reader.

An entertaining piece of light reading, and there's certainly room for Scalzi to continue the franchise if he chooses (as Piper did; there were eventually three novels in the original series).

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