Monday, May 30, 2011

Fuzzy 2.0

In 1964, H. Beam Piper took drop-cloths, laid them out to catch the blood, then blew his brains out. He died thinking himself a failure. He had no job or prospects, his agent wasn't answering his correspondence. He did not know that his agent had died without notifying him that he'd made several sales.

Conversely, John Scalzi is a successful and influential science fiction writer. Mr. Scalzi has taken the characters and the setup of one of Mr. Piper's best novels Little Fuzzy and written his own version of it, a novel Fuzzy Nation.

Though I have been a fan of Mr. Piper's for many years, and have loved several of his novels and short stories, I had skipped over Little Fuzzy. Last week I got a free ebook edition and read it. It was marvelous and shame on me for not reading it years ago. My plan was to read both Mr. Piper's and Mr. Scalzi's books then compare and contrast.

I think that Mr. Scalzi is the better writer of the two. He's taken the elements of Mr. Piper's original work and rearranged them in a pleasing fashion that uses fewer moving parts, and that ramps up more conflict more effectively.

But I liked Mr. Piper's novel a lot more, because I prefer Mr. Piper's future more. I identified with Jack Holloway better as a hermit than as a disbarred lawyer. Mr. Piper's future is dated in places--like when he has film developed--but in other ways it is more advanced with reliable lie detectors and too-cheap-to-meter nuclear energy.

Mr. Scalzi's future is a strange place where people go hundreds of light-years to mine anthracite coal. I suppose if you want to grind an axe against despoiling nature through strip mining, this is one way to do so. But I don't think fossil fuels have the energy density to muscle a starship across interstellar distances. And I don't think a spacefaring civilization will strip mine another planet as cheaply as it can mine what's in the asteroid belt. Don't science fiction writers these days think about science?

Conversely, Mr. Piper's future is one where nobody worries about lung cancer from smoking and hovercars apparently are equipped with Mr. Fusion reactors. And when Jack Holloway shows a fuzzy how to smoke a pipe, it's a courtesy, not a crime.

Mr. Scalzi's lawyers are a lot different from Mr. Piper's lawyers. When the stakes are very high we expect the bad guys to lie cheat and steal, but not the good guys. Mr. Piper's good guys won't perjure themselves, but Mr. Scalzi's do so and we excuse their malfeasance because they're on our side. Conversely, Mr. Piper makes it abundantly clear that the judge won't be on their side, or our side, but on the law's side.

Each novel has a deus ex machina in the climactic court-room scene where fuzzy sapience is decided. Mr. Piper does so with a bunch of space force marines who present surprise evidence. Mr. Scalzi does so with a video camera that she assures the misbehaving corporate types is being watched by daddy who'll spank whoever misbehaves.

What makes me grumpy about Fuzzy Nation is not that Mr. Scalzi wrote a bad book, he wrote a wonderful book. Contrasting the two novels told me more about how the culture has changed in the last half century. And it has not been for the better.

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