A TALE OF TWO FUZZYS
By Velvet Belle Tree
In March 2011 at a science fiction convention, I was standing at a dealer’s table looking for something to buy, when my eyes alighted on Little Fuzzy (LF) by H. Beam Piper (1962). I didn’t get to read it until May. By that time, John Scalzi had published Fuzzy Nation (FN) (2011), a sanctioned reboot of Piper’s book.
First, let me get out of the way the problems with Little Fuzzy, which are essentially that it was written in 1962. There is a combination of far in the future technology (contragravity, hyperspace travel), not too distant future technology (videophones called screens) and technology on the verge of obsolescence (slide rules and typewriters). And then there’s the gender mix. Among the main characters, only one is a woman, a psychologist.
The story takes place about 600 years in the future, on Zarathustra, a frontier planet. The planet is classified as one without sapient life and can therefore be exploited by the Zarathustra Company. One day, an adorable little creature shows up at the hut of Jack Holloway, an old, but respected, prospector. He names it Little Fuzzy. Soon Little Fuzzy disappears and reappears with his family.
Jack believes that they’re sapient as do others that see them. But the Company doesn’t want them to be declared sapient because they would lose their charter. The theme of the book is: what is sapience? The commonly held definition is: builds fire and talks. But the Fuzzys don’t seem to have language and they don’t build fires. But they have weapons and tools to make them, and bury their dead.
In a courtroom scene, a psychologist comes up with a good definition:
“What in your professional opinion, is the difference between sapient and nonsapient mentation?”
“The ability to think consciously.”
“Do you mean that nonsapient animals aren’t conscious, or do you mean they don’t think?”
“Well, neither. Any life form with a central nervous system has some consciousness — awareness of existence and of its surroundings. And anything having a brain thinks, to use the term at its loosest. What I meant was that only the sapient mind thinks and knows that it is thinking.”
When I finished the book, I thought it strange that Scalzi would do a reboot of it. In his Old Man’s War series (Old Man’s War, The Ghost Bridages, The Last Colony, Zoe’s Tale [2005-2008]) there is an alien race which has been “uplifted” to intelligence by another alien race, but has not been given consciousness, the superior aliens thinking it unnecessary or perhaps just doing an experiment. This uplifted race is a member of the space-faring community. But they feel that something is missing — they want consciousness. They are eternally grateful to the Earthman who makes them “consciousness modules” and want to live vicariously through tuning in to the inner life of his daughter. None of this made sense to me. How could you miss something you’ve never experienced? If all humans were color blind, we wouldn’t feel that we were missing something by not seeing colors, because we wouldn’t have any way to know what that experience was. And the desire to live vicariously through a human girl makes even less sense. How could they understand the inner life of a completely different species? They wanted consciousness, got it, and then didn’t know what to do with it and it seemed to have no effect on their lives.
In Fuzzy Nation, the only character carried over from Little Fuzzy is Jack Holloway. But now he is a young man, and to put it politely, people think he’s a jerk. There are about 100,000 people on the planet and only three scientists: a biologist (Jack’s ex-girl friend), a geologist and a xenolinguist who was mistakenly assigned to the planet. And the only person who doesn’t work for the company (here called ZaraCorp) is the Colonial Authority judge.
In LF we are shown many examples of the Fuzzys’ possible sapience before Jack believes they’re sapient. In addition to their use of weapons and tools, there is the incident where Little Fuzzy sees Jack kill a predator with a rifle and when a damnthing, a large predator with a horn and protrusions on its chin, comes near the cabin, he mimics the look of the damnthing and then mimics shooting it. And then we’re shown a group of Fuzzys ceremonially burying a dead member of their group.
There’s nothing like that in FN. The most advanced thing the Fuzzys do is make a sandwich (after seeing it done once) and divide it up in fairly equal portions. They also communicate with Jack’s dog.
In the crucial courtroom scene, everyone (except Jack who already knows) is astonished to hear Papa Fuzzy speak — perfect English! A while back, a prospector who was functionally illiterate crashed in the jungle and was killed. On his infopanel, he had software for teaching a young child how to read. From this, Fuzzys were able to learn to speak English. I, who am skeptical about the claims of Rosetta Stone software, just don’t buy it. I don’t see how you can learn a language from reading software, especially a language of a different species. And even if that were possible, I don’t think that children’s software would enable him to say things like: “The one you call Baby was my child. The one you call Pinto was to be the mate of my child.” The Fuzzy even knew to speak in as low a voice as possible, which was still at the upper range of human hearing.
Although some of the attitudes in Little Fuzzy seem anachronistic, in general, the characters’ emotions are more satisfying. Jack considers the Fuzzys who live with him his family and when speaking to them refers to himself as Pappy Jack. When the man who killed a Fuzzy, stomping her to death in anger, realizes that he’s killed a sapient being, he feels guilt and genuine remorse. In Fuzzy Nation, Jack seems to just tolerate the Fuzzys; his attitude isn’t clear until near the end when he suddenly becomes their champion. The man who kills two Fuzzys has no remorse and only wants to make sure the court knows that he was doing it under instructions from his superiors. The main attitude of the characters in FN is one of cynicism.
Little Fuzzy is centered around the Fuzzys and what it means to be a sapient being. In Fuzzy Nation, there is at least as much about the ZaraCorp and Jack’s relationship to it as about the Fuzzys. We get to know the Fuzzys much less in FN than in LF. So I have to ask, what was John Scalzi trying to do in rebooting Little Fuzzy? As they say, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.