Thursday, June 23, 2011

Good Dog, Carl

I grew up with my dad reading the stories of Robert Heinlein to me and my brothers, and novels like Citizen of the Galaxy and Have Spacesuit, Will Travel are now inextricably linked with my memories of family and childhood.  My favorite Heinlein juvenile was The Star Beast, because my dad would read Lummox's dialogue in a high-pitched voice, to much hilarity. All of this is a long way of saying that I have a soft spot in my heart for this type of science fiction, and as a result, it continues to be something I really enjoy reading.

Fuzzy NationBecause of this, I was thrilled when I came across the work of John Scalzi--I loved his novel Old Man's War, and the way he retold his novel The Last Colony through the eyes of another character in Zoe's Tale was an exciting way to introduce multiple voices into the same story.  It was this work with The Last Colony and Zoe's Tale that makes John Scalzi the perfect man to write Fuzzy Nation--a novel that not only is itself a retelling of H. Beam Piper's classic novel Little Fuzzy, but that also at its very heart deals with the issue of providing people of all kinds with a way to find their voices.

In the dust jacket of Fuzzy Nation, the novel is described as a "reboot" of Little Fuzzy, similar to the recent reboots of the Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek franchises.  As such, Scalzi preserves many of the key elements of Piper's novel, including the adorable fuzzies themselves, the beautiful sunstones that are found on the planet, and, of course, the theme of sapience that runs throughout the novel.  Scalzi also makes some key changes that work to further emphasize themes from Piper's novel.  One example of this is the theme of court rulings and legal precendent that becomes increasingly important in the second half of the original novel.  Scalzi makes Jack Holloway, the main character, a disbarred lawyer, rather than just a prospector, and he quotes legal rulings from the very first chapter.  Changes like this show that Scalzi is not just interested in preserving the plot and main characters of Piper's novel--he is working to capture some of the tone of Piper's novel as well.

Scalzi does make some significant changes to the original novel, including some that do a lot to move Scalzi's reboot past the fairly black and white morality of Piper's version.  And for those of you who have read the original Little Fuzzy, discovering the differences between Piper and Scalzi's version of the story is a big part of the fun of reading Fuzzy Nation, so I won't give away too much here.  One very interesting difference that I will comment on, though (since it appears first thing), is that Jack Holloway has a dog, Carl, in Fuzzy Nation, which he didn't have in the original Little Fuzzy.  It might seem like a fairly insigificant change, but given the major themes of sapience, pet ownership, and the line between humans and animals that runs throughout both novels, the introduction of another point of comparison makes Scalzi's novel more complex and presents these themes in a more challenging way.  There are also a few scenes involving Carl and some explosives in Fuzzy Nation that made me laugh out loud.

All in all, I really enjoyed Fuzzy Nation, and it did so much to bring a productive hesitation and moral uncertainty to Piper's Little Fuzzy.  That said, I do wonder if he could have pushed it a bit further.  One of the parts of Piper's original novel that I found to be most provocative were the two sections that were told in the Fuzzies' voice--one about halfway through, and one near the end.  Given Scalzi's history of and ability to radically switch perspectives (as seen in The Last Colony and Zoe's Tale), I was actually a bit suprprised that he didn't do something more along those lines--retelling the entire novel from the perspective of the Fuzzies (or at least significant parts), for example.  Instead, he stays close to the original point of view of Jack Holloway, a move that I found a bit disappointing.  Of course, that always does give him room to write a retelling of a reboot...