I’m talking about John Scalzi’s reboot of H. Beam Piper’s classic SF novel, Little Fuzzy. For context, I haven’t read Old Man’s War, his Hugo nominee, or anything else by Scalzi and I love H. Beam Piper.
So I was prepared to potentially hate this book very much. On the other hand, people of my generation are now used to seeing retconned classics, some of which have turned out to be suitable homages or credible artistic treatments in their own right. So I was also prepared to enjoy it for what it was, whatever it might be, if that in and of itself was enjoyable.
Spoilers below the fold…
I’m disappointed, but not terribly so, and there’s enough good points about the book to give it a thumb’s up. Like Piper’s original, the book reads fast and clean and is entertaining enough to consume in a single read, which is a nice feature in today’s market of 700-page books that aren’t self-contained. Scalzi’s Jack Holloway is in many ways a more interesting Jack Holloway than the original Jack Holloway, and I say that as a big fan of Piper’s Holloway.
However, one of the mechanisms that Scalzi used to make the book a little tighter was to take the cast of characters from the first book and compress them into three and a half characters in this book. There are elements of the old cast in the three main protagonists (Scalzi’s Jack is Piper’s Jack plus Piper’s Gus Brannhard, for example). So one of the reasons why Jack is more interesting is that he has more depth, but there’s no more Gus as a independent entity.
One of the things I like about Piper’s writing is an effective use of archetypes. You get to know George Lunt and Ben Rainsford and Ruth Ortheris in all of about three paragraphs, but Piper doesn’t condemn them to stereotypes, as there’s something interesting here and there for the reader to enjoy. Little amuse-bouches to give them depth without requiring him to sacrifice too much page count to his narrative, and Piper is always about the narrative over the characters.
Scalzi doesn’t do that here, his protagonist list is short and he spends some time getting to know them, and the book is far less about narrative than it is about them (and about Holloway, in particular).
One thing I did not like was the junking of the antagonist crew. Piper’s Victor Grego (the Industrialist who becomes a protagonist in his own right in the sequel) is gone, replaced by a boilerplate spoiled snot exhibiting all the worst possible stereotypical characteristics of the Corporate Tool + Inherited Wealth Bastard. There’s not much in the way of moral ambiguity or conflict for anyone other than Holloway: on the good guys side you have the principled scientist and a fight-the-good-fight lawyer, and on the bad side you have a corporate goon and the aforementioned corporate tool. In between you have Scalizi’s Jack, who is smarter and cagier and sneaker and less principled than Piper’s Holloway. He’s not as quick with the six-guns, though.
Now, you probably couldn’t have given a decent treatment to the bad guys and still had the story click along like the original unless you’re H. Beam Piper, so it’s hard to give Scalzi too much criticism for not being as good of a writer as H. Beam Piper. On the other hand, the guy did almost win the Hugo and he picked the story, so I don’t feel bad about giving the book an overall “You reached a bit too far and didn’t quite make it” rating.
And now I’m going to go read the original again. Enjoy your Friday, everybody.
To some extent I wonder if that isn’t just the style of the times. When Piper was writing, nobody thought anything of having characters whose sole purpose was expository; “Hi, I’m Ensign Seven, my job is to point to the fuel gauge and yell that it’s low, and then you’ll never see me again”. These days that story would be done by a computer.
Which makes me wonder whether that’s an unconcious way that modern technology is changing the way we think about the future. It used to be that space rockets were navy ships, with dozens or hundreds of people whose jobs were very simple mechanical stuff (the old “designed by geniuses to be run by idiots” thing.) Now that we’re all used to what computers can do, of *course* computers do all that stuff. No need for the Third Assistant Engine Knob Turner anymore; an automatic system takes care of that.
That’s an interesting point, Duck. It’s certainly the case that Space Opera isn’t quite the genre-dominating style any more.
The Fuzzy books aren’t S.O., really, but it doesn’t invalidate the observation. It does seem somewhat more common now for authors to focus less on a Cast of Characters (unless they’re writing a sweeping epic, in which case we usually learn tons about all of them), and more on a single protagonist… or at least a small number of protagonists.
And it’s telling that modern space opera is quite different in style. Consider Mass Effect where the ship’s crew is seen as pretty small, and a significant fraction of them are marines, not there to operate the ship at all. Or The Culture, where the ship are their own crew and a protracted battle might take more than one millisecond.
the ship’s crew is seen as pretty small, and a significant fraction of them are marines, not there to operate the ship at all
Sounds like pure Doc Smith to me.
Doc Smith would have the characters be marines AND sailors AND reactor techicians AND radio operators AND astronomers AND diplomats AND chemists AND machinists AND race-car drivers AND…
Well yeah. But von Buskirk was all marine and several yards wide.
Piper’s Victor Grego (the Industrialist who becomes a protagonist in his own right in the sequel) is gone, replaced by a boilerplate spoiled snot exhibiting all the worst possible stereotypical characteristics of the Corporate Tool + Inherited Wealth Bastard.
Well, drat. I read an excerpt a while ago, and liked the savvier, unsentimental Jack Holloway, but it’s not much of a book without the guy whose sense of humor gave us the “Charterless Zarathustra Company”.
There is a possible character to fit that mold, sorta a “nod to in case I decide to write the second book, this guy will probably be Grego”, but he gets not much treatment in this one.
Incidentally I heartily recommend Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series, it’s like a funnier (though not comedic) and less didactic version of Starship Troopers (the book, not the movie).
Read it; wasn’t really a fan. I was looking for “technology is the ultimate equalizer, and when everyone’s piloting combat robots the best soldiers are the oldest ones who’ve had an entire lifetime to learn how to fight dirty”. Instead I got the ultimate Mary Sue.
That’s a great succinct review, DD. Thumbs up.
I would recommend it as well (except for the Sagan Diaries).
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