Thursday, February 12, 2015

Fuzzy Nation, by John Scalzi

This week, possibly because I was reminded of John Scalzi from last week's novel, I'm reading another book from Scalzi called Fuzzy Nation. As Scalzi himself says in the introduction to this novel, Fuzzy Nation is actually a reboot of an earlier novel, Little Fuzzy, by H. Beam Piper. I myself have not had the fortune of reading Little Fuzzy, and it is not necessary to do so to enjoy Scalzi's work. However, I personally am now interested in reading the original material at some future point and comparing it with Scalzi's own reinterpretation.

Fuzzy Nation is set on the planet Zara XXIII, a metal-rich world currently being exploited by the interstellar mining Zarathustra Corporation. What makes Zara XXIII particularly valuable to Zarathustran holdings is the presence of sunstones, gemstones found only on ZaraXXIII, and which emit a faint glow from someone's body heat. Rarer than diamonds, Zarathustra hopes to maintain dominance in the interstellar market with a treasure trove of sunstones. Our main character is Jack Holloway, a surveyor under contract with Zarathustra to do all the hard work of finding the valuable resources which Zarathustra can then swoop in, mine, and then ship off-planet back to depleted and resource-hungry Earth. When Jack discovers the veritable mother lode of sunstones, it looks like he and Zarathustra will be financially set for decades to come. However when a family of hitherto unseen fuzzy critters shows up at Jack's compound, it may spell trouble for everyone planetside. If the fuzzies turn out to be sapient, as some people suspect, then all mining on Zarathustra will have to cease immediately.

Aside from a really good story about what we would consider to be sentient life on other planets, Fuzzy Nation raises really good questions about the ethics of a resource-hungry economy and if it can successfully coexist with, and help sustain, a vibrant ecology at the same time. The answer has always seemed to be a no, especially true where strip mining is involved. And as farms, cities, and human industries expand it leaves less and less space on our little blue marble here for the billions of other species that we share the planet with. Plus as of 2014 we're still stuck on our little blue marble so we don't have an option to move stuff off-planet if it's inconvenient to have it here. On the other hand, the fact that I was able to read this book and then write this review is largely because people mined materials out of the ground which then went into the electronic devices I used. It doesn't look like there's any easy answer, not soon at any rate, but it's definitely something we should be thinking about.

Fuzzy Nation also raises a very excellent point which sadly isn't explored terribly much because the book reaches its climax very soon afterwards. Characters point out that even if the fuzzies get protected status, it may actually cause them to go extinct more quickly. This is the double-edged sword of protected status that many creatures have encountered here in the United States and I'm certain elsewhere as well. In many cases it is illegal to disturb the nesting or breeding grounds of protected creatures and the discovery of those creatures mean any and all activity in that area must end immediately. However, as there is a financial motive for continuing activity in that area, whether it be house construction, mining, logging, or something else entirely, very often the animals will be quietly killed off so that humans can continue their activity, rather than descend into the red tape and bureaucracy of accommodating a protected species. Unfortunately, although this is a very real issue in conservation and protection efforts today, it doesn't get terribly fleshed out and quickly gets eclipsed by the fantastic climax.

I will admit that there were some things that seemed altogether far too convenient at the very end of the novel. Well, specifically one thing but I won't go into it because spoilers. Anyway other than that the ending had a ton of courtroom drama which actually made sense because it was a preliminary hearing instead of an actual trial. (Interestingly, the American legal system tries to make trials go as smoothly as possible so all evidence and witnesses are actually submitted ahead of time for use in the trial. Despite what movies and TV would have us believe, surprise witnesses are actually an exception.) Anyway, with a bit of downright awesome legal chicanery we get our resolution, which was probably my favorite part of the book to be honest. If anyone enjoys a good debate you'll definitely love the ending to Fuzzy Nation.

Overall, I really liked this book. I will admit that I felt it had its shortcomings because there was a really good opportunity there to examine human industry, needs, and desires and whether they can ever coexist with a sustainable ecology. However, that may have ended up overshadowing the fuzzy plotline, which is what the book's really about. I'd definitely say it's worth a read.

- Kalpar

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