I didn’t quite manage to read all the library books I borrowed before leaving the country. In the Thunder Bay airport, prior to boarding the plane to Pearson, I renewed my library books online so my dad wouldn’t be obligated to take them back until it was convenient for him. However, I made it a priority to finish Fuzzy Nation before venturing across the Atlantic—not because it would prepare me better for Britain or anything, though it is another world over here. I just didn’t want to have to go to the trouble of borrowing it again from the library or even buying it as a tasty DRM-free ebook….
I haven’t read Little Fuzzy, though I certainly want to now that I’ve finished Fuzzy Nation. The conflict in this book is all too easy to imagine happening in a possible future: lawyers and judges and advocates battling it out in court to determine if a species is sentient. If we ever do encounter alien life, it could be far from obvious whether the life is sentient. Indeed, it’s possible aliens exist out there with sense perception so different from ours that they barely know there’s an external universe at all. (Maybe we’re the ones who don’t perceive the external universe properly. Welcome to Flatland.)
Anyway, Jack Holloway is a contractor-surveyor who discovers the Fuzzies, mammalian cat-like bipeds on Zarathustra XXIII. Though he resists the idea they’re sentient, eventually the Fuzzies convince him (and his ex-girlfriend, ZaraCorp’s resident biologist), that this is the case. That’s bad news for ZaraCorp, since the presence of a sentient species would require them to terminate their insanely lucrative mining operations and cede control of the planet to the Fuzzies. It’s also quite bad news for Jack, since just prior to discovering the Fuzzies he made a discovery for ZaraCorp that would net him quite a nice amount of money.
So everyone hollers for the judge and starts playing dirty legal tricks—and not-so-legal tricks—as they manoeuvre themselves into what might be the case of the century. John Scalzi is excellent at writing quippy dialogue, and he’s great at making characters into sarcastic, ill-tempered jerks. In fact, Jack Holloway is a good candidate for a sympathetic but unlikable protagonist. He’s not a very good person, and he admits it. Figuring out his motivation is an important part of this story—for ZaraCorp and for the reader—and I think there’s a case to be made for ambiguity on Scalzi’s part here. It’s possible to conclude that, deep down, Holloway’s a good guy doing the right thing—more likely, I tend to believe him when he says, “I’m not a good man, but sometimes I’m the right man.” It reminds me of the conclusion to Season 5 of Buffy, in which Giles ruthlessly disposes of Glory when she’s in the form of Ben: “… she’s a hero, you see. She’s not like us.” There are some things really good people—heroes—can’t bring themselves to do, and when that happens, someone else steps up to do it on their behalf. Jack’s like that.
Though Fuzzy Nation has its share of tense scenes and action sequences, one’s enjoyment likely rests more on how much the legal wrangling in the courtroom stays interesting. I think that, at times, Scalzi gets a little carried away with showing off how clever and/or sleazy his characters are—he’s proud of all of them, especially the bad guys, and wants us to know it. The book is a little smug, in this way, and that would be forgivable if its pacing were different. But because so many scenes are very flat, dialogue-driven courtroom dramas, it’s hard to do anything but sit back and watch the smugness steep. While this didn’t stop me from liking Fuzzy Nation—there are parts of this book that are laugh-out-loud funny and parts that are so tragic—it’s something I could have done without.
The best parts of Fuzzy Nation are probably when Jack is wrestling with his own feelings about the Fuzzies. He’s an unreliable narrator—hence our ability to question his motivations even though we’re inside his head—so one mustn’t take his reasoning at his word. But I like that he doesn’t immediately believe the Fuzzies are sentient. Although I think Scalzi makes ZaraCorp and Wheaton Aubrey into rather two-dimensional villains, they’re really evil two-dimensional villains, and I like how some of the protagonists don’t realize the extent to which the villains will go to win. Fortunately, the villains don’t know the extent to which the protagonists will go—especially after Aubrey and his minions force Jack’s hand.
As I said above, there is no escaping the fact that Fuzzy Nation is a clever little book. I liked it and laughed at it. And it has its share of important themes, most of them centred around whether humanity, as it expands into the galaxy, will continue the same destructive practises of exploitation and corporate misconduct that we see today. The characters aren’t necessarily very deep, and the action and plot are largely predictable. I saw the Crowning Moment of Awesome comeback coming from a kilometre away, and yet I still tingled as I read it. I’ve gone from reading none of Scalzi’s novels to several of them in a very short time, and I wouldn’t say that he’s a master of the craft—but he’s definitely a master at certain aspects of it. Fuzzy Nation is about tiny furry cat-like people, enriching oneself by exploiting others, and dogs blowing stuff up. So read it!