Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi

Jack Holloway works alone, for reasons he doesn’t care to talk about. Hundreds of miles from ZaraCorp’s headquarters on planet, 178 light-years from the corporation’s headquarters on Earth, Jack is content as an independent contractor, prospecting and surveying at his own pace. As for his past, that’s not up for discussion. 

Then, in the wake of an accidental cliff collapse, Jack discovers a seam of unimaginably valuable jewels, to which he manages to lay legal claim just as ZaraCorp is cancelling their contract with him for his part in causing the collapse. Briefly in the catbird seat, legally speaking, Jack pressures ZaraCorp into recognizing his claim, and cuts them in as partners to help extract the wealth. 

But there’s another wrinkle to ZaraCorp’s relationship with the planet Zarathustra. Their entire legal right to exploit the verdant Earth-like planet, the basis of the wealth they derive from extracting its resources, is based on being able to certify to the authorities on Earth that Zarathustra is home to no sentient species. 

Then a small furry biped—trusting, appealing, and ridiculously cute—shows up at Jack’s outback home. Followed by its family. As it dawns on Jack that despite their stature, these are people, he begins to suspect that ZaraCorp’s claim to a planet’s worth of wealth is very flimsy indeed…and that ZaraCorp may stop at nothing to eliminate the “fuzzys” before their existence becomes more widely known.

To start off with the explanation people may or may not know – this is a reboot of the 1962 novel Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper, which was nominated for the Hugo Award in 1963. I haven’t read it, so I can’t say how this book matches up with its predecessor, and so am taking it purely on its own merit. This was a fun, easy book to read. Which feels a little strange to say, given all the lawyer talk that had me slow down and take the time to unravel what it all meant for the future of the characters and the fuzzys. Actually, the thing that surprised me most about this book was how much the story depended on legal proceedings. The story reads in a particularly cinematic fashion, and as such, I expected it to end up looking more like an action movie. It still does in a number of ways, but the fact that the central conflict hinges on whether the fuzzys are sentient beings, the ruling of which will affect Zara XXXIII’s legal status, gives the story a very different flavor than what I originally expected. It also casts Jack Holloway’s character in a different light than what one would expect.

Holloway is a smooth-talking, selfish ex-lawyer turned surveyor who gets off on making everyone around him hate his guts. His prime interest is in looking out for himself, even when he’s outwardly doing good deeds. Having recently become a muti-billionaire after the discovery of a vast deposit of sunstones, Holloway has a huge stake in denying the fuzzys’ sentience because otherwise all mining stops and ZaraCorp leave the planet. However, he becomes the fuzzys’ main spokesperson, as well as their ideal of what a “good man” is. It’s really cool to see how his code of ethics both changes and remains the same over the course of story – he still holds his interests above everyone else’s but that also means he holds his pride and sense of right and wrong over everyone else’s as well, which puts him into a unique position to advocate for and defend the fuzzys’ sentience. I will say that I never actually *liked* Holloway, or any of the other characters, really. This was definitely a book that I read for the plot.

It probably says something about nostalgia and certain cultural markers standing the test of time that this particular sixties, sci-fi version of an alien plant colonized by Earth felt very endearing in its familiarity. There’s your all-powerful corporation, dangerous dinosaur-predators, spacecraft, skimmers, various people in their necessary positions to colonize planets, and other typical tropes and trappings. From what I’ve read elsewhere, this story has been updated to reflect more modern arguments concerning the definition of sentience, which is a really cool idea. All things considered, if I had read Little Fuzzy in addition to Fuzzy Nation, I’d most likely pick the latter as my favorite because it retains all of the things that give old sci-fi it’s appeal while being written like a novel from present times.

All in all, this is a fun novel to read. Even with the question of what is sentience, it’s not exactly deep reading, but it’s fast, entertaining, and has a huge amount of delicious tension. Good stuff.

Disclosure – library