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Book Review: Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi

Genre: Science Fiction, Golden Age SF, Legal Thriller, Space Adventure
Hardcover: 304 pages
Publisher: Tor Books; First Edition edition
Publication Date: May 10, 2011
ISBN-10: 0765328542
ISBN-13: 978-0765328540
Author’s Website: John Scalzi

At first glance, John Scalzi’s Fuzzy Nation seems like it is nothing more than liberal politics wrapped in an homage to H. Beam Piper and super-fast storytelling. And undeniably, it has the overused but much loved liberal writer motif of giant corporation=bad, lone wolf employee=good – an Erin Brockovitch tale, if you will. Yet the story is subtler than that, albeit enclosed in an entertaining planetside story of first contact and corporate greed.

Fuzzy Nation as Scalzi explains in the author’s note, “is a reimagining of the story and events in Little Fuzzy, the 1962 Hugo-nominated novel by H. Beam Piper…. [But] readers do not need to have read the Piper novel to enjoy this one.” Jack Holloway, a disbarred North Carolina lawyer, takes ship to Zara XXIII, a planet licensed to Zarathustra Corporation for the exploitation and refining of its raw materials. Holloway is an independent surveyor on the planet, working to find mineral wealth so that ZaraCorp can harvest it. It’s a lonely life, but with the stalwart companionship of the detonating dog Carl, Holloway makes the best of it. That is, until some of the local fauna decide to take up residence in his home. Dubbing them “fuzzies” Holloway thinks them nothing more than exceptionally bright monkeys. But when he sends video of the animals to his ex-girlfriend (and only biologist on the corporation-run planet) he sets off a firestorm of corporate greed, espionage, and personal danger that reads like a John Grisham legal thriller.

Scalzi’s character Holloway is a self-serving sort. He does nothing without some advantage to himself, and it is this very thing that got him disbarred and turned Isabel into an ex-girlfriend. Holloway is the protagonist, yes, but he is not exactly a likable character, though the reader will no doubt appreciate his cleverness (on which much of the plot hinges). He is a rogue, through and through, the type of self-serving man that Ayn Rand might have seen as a platonic ideal.

On the opposite side is Isabel. An idealist who discovers that the fuzzies are more than just animals, she believes that people are basically good, that they will do the right thing, even when they stand to lose billions of dollars should the sentience of the fuzzies be discovered. As the story progresses, Isabel’s and Holloway’s two worldviews clash, and you can imagine which one wins in the face of a corporation that will stop at nothing to bury the notion of fuzzy sentience once and for all.

Fuzzy Nation is not exactly what you might call an action-packed novel. There are moments of real, physical danger – like when Holloway crashes his craft in the jungle of a world whose dominant species is akin to the velociraptor and whose fauna are primarily reptilian and large. That is dangerous to be sure. And Holloway continually pokes the eye of the local enforcer, a bully in a cop’s badge, as well as Wheaton Aubrey VII, the heir anointed of ZaraCorp. So there is some real, physical danger there also, but the majority of the suspense of the novel is in Holloway’s constant maneuverings for a better position, his jockeying for money, wealth and status. (As I wrote earlier, he isn’t a likeable character – he is just too selfish.)

The novel divides rather handily into two sections. In the first, Holloway, Isabel, and Isabel’s new boyfriend – a ZaraCorp lawyer – as they dodge attempts by Zarathustra(1) to annihilate all knowledge of the fuzzies and try to prove to a rigorous legal standard that the fuzzies are sapient. This is about two-thirds of the novel.

The latter third is essentially a courtroom drama a la Law & Order. Holloway draws on his legal expertise to bring charges against the bully enforcer, Joe Delise, for destroying his property. It might seem like this would be a dull portion of the novel, but Scalzi captures the thrill of legal proceedings without being pedantic, and throws in a enough surprise twists (Holloway is clever, remember?) that it is actually rather exciting to read. It won’t appeal to all readers, however, and if John Grisham novels have never been a preferred reading choice, then Fuzzy Nation will only hold limited appeal for you. This is a novel about one-upmanship not action-adventure or space opera. It is about competing interests, and the underdog winning out against the wealthy powerhouse.

Readers of 60s and 70s science fiction will get some of the same tone from Fuzzy Nation. Like some of the earlier SF stories, the plot is not overly complicated, the setting remote but easily understandable (Scalzi makes several cultural references, so the story is not set very far in the future), and its themes are in line with many (but not all) of the stories of that era.

Though the framework of the plot is the lone gunman vs. the evil corporation theme, Scalzi widens the scope to make the reader think about the nature of sentience and our assumptions about it, about trusting to the legal system to make determinations for which is not truly qualified, and of how clever legal tricks can turn the tide of debate, as will the truth once presented.

Fuzzy Nation looks like it is nothing more than a corporate legal thriller set in space that has cute, cat-like creatures. And it is that. Yet, Scalzi pushes us to think more deeply about some of these notions without preaching, entertaining us with queries, clever plot twists, and a roguish hero so that the Socratic prodding of the tale is fun to consider. Fuzzy Nation is a good read for fans of 60s and 70s SF, John Grisham, and David and Goliath narratives.

1. One wonders if Scalzi intentionally named the corporation for Zororaster – who believed that the human condition as the mental struggle between truth and lie – and the protagonist of Nietzsche’s novel where the philosopher introduced the concept of the übermensch?