Monday, August 08, 2011

BOOKS: Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi

There's been a long and rich history of covering songs in the music industry. Maybe the most successful was Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" which covered a country ballad version originally by Dolly Parton. But there are a host of others, including covers by the original singer themselves. I think Neil Sedaka spent most of the seventies doing upbeat versions of his earlier songs, to great effect and monetary success.

The movie industry has also long been a source of covers, including a shot-by-shot remake of Psycho. Mostly it's remakes of foreign films, but we get lots and lots of updated versions of old 'classics' as nothing succeeds in Hollywood like prior success. Or so they wish.

In books, straight out and out covers are pretty rare. After all, it's hard to change the beat, as in music. In the movie world, covers usually offer better video and audio (and colour, in some cases), as well as more spectacular stunts and CGI. In other words, reasons to treat newer as better when it's really, at the core, the same. You just can't do that in books. Words seem so eternal.

Now, I caution you to make the distinction between updating and just merely borrowing the basic plot and characters of say, Shakespeare, and doing an actual cover. There are, only seven stories after all. So, duplication is inevitable. And style is virtually everything.

So, why am I talking about the very rare art of the cover in books? Little Fuzzy, originally by H. Beam Piper, and of late, by John Scalzi, under the title Fuzzy Nation.

I believe I have almost the complete Piper canon. I'm missing his debut novel Uller Uprising, but I have, amongst others, Space Vikings, Lord Kalvin of Otherwhen, The Cosmic Computer and, of course, the Fuzzy books. Loved most of them, enjoyed them all. Like many, I was a little peeved that Scalzi would stomp on our memories of Piper, who died young and troubled and too early in what was a good career writing science fiction and could have been a great one.

So what's Scalzi's version doing here in what is a month of five-star reviews? He earned it by slapping a 21st century varnish on Piper's first Fuzzy book and making it an entertaining read, whether you've read the original or not. In doing so, Scalzi had the full co-operation of the Piper family estate. 

Scalzi refers to this book as a rebooting of the franchise, noting J.J. Abrams' recent movie reboot of the Star Trek franchise with the original characters. It's actually a pretty good analogy and might have, indeed, birthed the idea of doing a Little Fuzzy reboot.

What emerges is a harder edged version of the story. The spread of humanity through the cosmos has taken along the rapacious mining ideology with it. New planets are fit for plunder as long as no intelligent life is found anywhere on the world. A planet like Zarathustra.

A maverick amongst the visitors from the home world discovers that a race of previously thought of as unintelligent Ewok-like beings might be intelligent after all. He comes to like and respect the Fuzzies and attempts to get them declared intelligent in court. Intelligent like you or me, not intelligent as in cats, rocks and politicians. Naturally, the Big Bad Company doesn't want the ruling to go in the favour of the Fuzzies, which would cost them bazillions. So, nastiness ensues. In the end, things work out they way the reader wants them to. All in all, an entertaining one-sitting read.

And that goes for the original too.

I didn't want to like the Scalzi novel. As a Piper fan, I was reading it to critique it. I had enjoyed Scalzi's work before, chiefly in Agent to the Stars. But I wanted to savage this ... exploitation of a valued good memory. Instead, I read a book that was deferential to the source material and an improvement in some ways.

In other words, a valid reason to while away an evening. Five stars.

1 comment:

A Question Of ITIL said...

Great writer!
Here's a competition to win advance copies of his new book Redshirts!

John Scalzi Redshirts Competition