Through my involvement with Tor.com Fantasy, Macmillan, the parent company of Tor Books, in part pays for the bread on my table, the beer in my fridge and the heat in my home. As such, consider this following article not a recommendation or formal review, but a collection of my subjective thoughts on the novel.
Stephen Donaldson once said, and I paraphrase, that releasing The Gap Cycle helped him realize that his success wasn’t necessarily built on the backs of Stephen Donaldson fans, but rather he had been lifted to stardom by Thomas Covenant fans. He suppose that a majority of readers grew attached to characters, stories and worlds, rather than to the authors themselves. I thought of this quote several times throughout my time with Fuzzy Nation, the latest novel from super-blogger John Scalzi.
You see, the more I read of his work, the more I realize that while I’m a slavering fanboy for John Perry, the protagonist and narrator of Scalzi’s award-nominated Old Man’s War, I’m only a mild fan of John Scalzi. To then further reduce that distinction, I’m nuts for Old Man’s War, which blew me away and proved itself a worthy 21st-century analogue to Starship Troopers and The Forever War, but, while enjoying each one in turn, have been somewhat let down by each Scalzi novel I’ve read since. So, in reality, I’m not so much a Scalzi, or a even John Perry fan, but a fan of Old Man’s War. And, at this point, I’m almost certain that Scalzi will have trouble ever reaching those heights again.
See, part of the problem is that Scalzi seems intent on out-Scalzi-ing himself with each novel. Much of what set Scalzi’s early fiction apart from the crowd was its effortless wit and charm. Old Man’s War retold a tale we’d hear before a dozen times, but did so in a manner that made it seem new again, made the reader care again. It was a triumph. I applauded the fresh voice of John Perry in Old Man’s War, but have since wondered whether that wasn’t so much the voice of the Perry as it was the voice of the author, unfiltered even through the eyes, mannerisms and personalities of his characters. Scalzi can write a damn entertaining protagonist/narrator, but has trouble writing them in a way that doesn’t sound like someone we’ve met before. There’s little to separate the voices of John Perry, Zoë Boutin Perry and Jack Holloway — they’re all the same character wrapped in a slightly different shell.
“Well that’s just the thing, isn’t it, Jack?” Bourne said. “You have to earn that trust. And right now, you’ve got not so much of it with me. But I’ll tell you what. I have a surveying satellite that’s coming up over the horizon in about six minutes. When it gets there, I’m going to have it look at that cliff wall you probably just blew up. If it looks like it’s supposed to, then the next time you get into Aubreytown, I’ll buy you a steak at Ruby’s and apologize. But if it looks like I know it’s going to look like, I’m going to revoke your contract and send some security agents to bring you in. And not the ones you go drinking with, Jack. The ones who don’t like you. I know, I’ll send Joe DeLise. He’ll be delighted to see you.”
“Good luck getting him off his barstool,” Holloway said.
“For you, I think he’d do it,” Bourne said. “What do you think of that?”
Holloway didn’t respond. He’d stopped listening several seconds earlier, because in his binoculars was a thin stratum of rock, sandwiched between two much larger striations. The stratum he focused on was dark as coal.
“Yes,” Holloway said.
“Yes, what?” Bourne said. “Jack, are you even listening to what I’m telling you?”
“Sorry, Chad, you’re breaking up.” Holloway said. “Interference. Sunspots.”
“Jesus, Jack, you’re not even trying anymore,” Bourne said. “Enjoy your next five minutes. I’ve already called up your contract on my infopanel. As soon as I get that satellite image, I’m pressing the delete button.” Bourne broke contact.
Holloway looked over at Carl and picked up the detonator panel. “Crate,” he said to the dog. Carl barked, picked up his bone, and headed for his crate, which would immobilize him in case of a skimmer crash. Holloway dropped the detonator into the storage bin, secured his infopanel, and strapped himself into his chair.
“Come on, Carl,” he said, and goosed the skimmer forward. “We’ve got five minutes to keep ourselves from getting kicked off the planet.” (pp. 18-19)
All that wit and self-assured cockiness. It’s charming, of course, and anyone picking up a Scalzi novel for the first time is sure to enjoy it no matter the novel, but some diversification would be nice for more experienced fans. If bare-chested barbarians and fireball-throwing wizards are wish-fulfillment for basement dwelling Dungeons & Dragons fiends, characters like Holloway and Perry seem like absolute wish fulfillment on the part of their author.
Of the novel itself, it’s set in the same universe as the Old Man’s War Series, but has few (if any) direct ties to those novels. Fuzzy Nation takes place on the planet of Zara XXIII, a lush jungle-like planet colonized by humans for one purpose: complete exploitation of its minerals, valuable stones and, oddly, fossil fuels. Scalzi plays in a Faster-than-Light future that still relies heavily on fossil fuels as a main means of combustion and transport. Now, I can’t claim to know enough about FTL travel or the generally supported and accepted theories in Science Fiction (I don’t read enough of the genre), but it seems a bit of a stretch that humanity could discover FTL travel, leave our solar system and spread colonies throughout the galaxy without finding a fuel/energy source to replace plain old fossil fuels.
I’ve not read H. Beam Piper’s Little Fuzzy, the novel that inspired Scalzi’s re-imagining, so it’s hard for me to separate Scalzi’s influence and decisions from Piper’s, but I was pleased to find that the fuzzies, the cute little humanoids who spur the drive to save the planet from the evil ZaraCorp, were a great foil to Holloway. Holloway spends some time with them, but he’s mostly ambivalent towards the creatures through most of the novel and much of the novel is spent navigating human politics and the philosophies behind sentience. It’s great to see Holloway’s attitude towards them change throughout the novel, the fuzzies’ involvement in the final climax of the novel is wonderful and unexpected, and Scalzi does a good job of juggling the different characters and their reactions to the potentially-sentient species — from adoration to ambivalence, from fear to frustration, each character that encounters the titular creatures is not left without a strong impression.
It’s ballsy of Scalzi to couch the climax in a courtroom, but he pulls it off and, despite some coolness when starting the novel, I literally couldn’t put the book down for the final 150 pages. Would it hold up to the Grisham crowd? Doubtfully; but Scalzi’s surface-level explorations of sentience, humanity and the ethnographic consequences of humans exploring the galaxy are all interesting and well thought out. It’s all wrapped up a bit too neatly in the end, but, frankly, I expected no less going into the novel.
As with every Scalzi novel I’ve read since Old Man’s War, I can’t help but walk away from Fuzzy Nation without feeling some disappointment mixed with enthusiasm. With Old Man’s War Scalzi contemporized Heinlein, and Fuzzy Nation is his attempt to take another classic tale and bring it back to relevance in the 21st Century. He entertains, that’s certain, but that’s not always enough. I’d like to see Scalzi push himself as a writer and storyteller. It might be unfair of me to hold Old Man’s War over Scalzi’s head as I have, but, well… when he writes such an acclaimed novel, and then insists on emulating it over and over again, that’s just a criticism that Scalzi’s going to have to learn to live with.