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Review 161: Fuzzy Nation

Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi

Once upon a time, there was a man named H. Beam Piper, and he wrote a series of books that began with Little Fuzzy, a tale of space-going humans who have to learn to live on a world with an adorably cute, yet sentient, species. While I haven’t read these books, my research tells me that they’re the type of fun, optimistic science fiction that is so emblematic of the early 60s. They dealt not only with the issues of human expansion into space, but with what it means to be an intelligent, sentient species. Given that we only have one case study – us – that definition will necessarily be narrow, and challenged. Humans have trouble relating with other humans who live only a six hour drive away, after all. Being able to relate to a non-human sentience that evolved on another planet will be a massive philosophical undertaking.

In 2010, John Scalzi announced on his blog that he had done a “reboot” of Piper’s work, revisiting the characters, themes and world that Piper had created and seeing what he could do with them. He did this partly because it seemed like a good idea, but also because it was something that hadn’t been done before in literature.

Some reboots are more imaginative than others. (Art by Evan Shaner)

If you’re a fan of science fiction, you know that stories from the visual media – TV and movies especially – get rebooted from time to time. The most notable recent examples are “Star Trek” and “Battlestar Galactica,” and include shows like “Smallville” and the most recent run of Batman movies. If you read comics, you know this happens all the time as well, in ways big and small. Characters like Green Lantern, Thor, and the Fantastic Four are fundamentally the same as when they were created, but have evolved in ways their creators may have never expected.

In all of these examples, the fundamental core of each story is kept from the original – the world, the characters, the themes – and given new life. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, and Scalzi felt that Piper’s world was good enough and interesting enough that it deserved to be re-introduced to a modern audience who might not otherwise know about it.

So, just for fun, he started writing Fuzzy Nation, a book that uses the characters and ideas from Little Fuzzy, the first of Piper’s books, and builds an entirely new story out of them. What resulted was a story that he thought was good enough to let out into the wild, and so – with the help of some intellectual property law and the blessing of Piper’s estate – he published Fuzzy Nation in 2011.

As I said, I haven’t read the original Piper books, but if they’re half as much fun to read as this one was, then I have to pick them up.

Sorry, I was looking for something pretty. Try again.

In the future, humankind has expanded out into space, as we so often do. With us, we have taken that peculiarly human trait, naked avarice, and brought it with us. The Zarathustra Corporation (ZaraCorp for short) is one of the leaders in exploiting and extracting usable resources from a planet. They’ve cornered the market on Sunstones – a decorative rock that glows with its wearer’s body heat and makes diamonds look like beach pebbles – and turned the ravaging of worlds into an art. A horribly environmentally destructive art.

Jack Holloway is a contract surveyor, a former trial lawyer, and not a very nice man. He helps ZaraCorp search for Sunstones on the hostile world of Zara XXIII, with the help of Carl, a dog with a fondness for explosions. Holloway finds seams of Sunstone and gets his cut of the money. It’s a nice enough arrangement out on a backwater world, and it doesn’t get complicated until he (and Carl) discover a Sunstone deposit that could fill the company’s coffers for decades.

At the same time, he encounters a curious form of life – or rather, it encounters him. Small, bipedal, intensely curious and undeniably clever, the Fuzzies (as Jack names them) seem to be truly remarkable animals. It is not until the ZaraCorp field biologist (and Jack’s former girlfriend), Janice Wangai, suggests that they might be sentient that things get truly complicated. After all, Colonial law is very clear on what companies like ZaraCorp are and are not allowed to do on each planet they run, and “ravaging the world of another sentient species” is pretty much at the top of their Do Not list.

The Fuzzies would make an AMAZING vest...

It soon becomes a race to save the Fuzzies from ZaraCorp and its army of lawyers. If they win, the Fuzzies will have a planet on which they can grow and thrive. If ZaraCorp wins, they’ll have nothing but the least useful bits of dirt and shrubbery left. Holloway has to do a good thing but he has to do it his way – a way that rarely has him acting like a good man.

The first thing I thought when I finished this, actually, was, “I needed that.” My reading choices for a while have been kind of heavy, or at least not a whole lot of fun to read. Good, yes, but not fun. I know this because I find myself doing things that aren’t reading – listening to podcasts, reading through articles I’ve saved on Instapaper, going through old columns at Cracked.com, things like that. With this book, though, there was none of that stalling. I read it every chance I could and blew through the whole thing in two days. So let that be take-home lesson number one: this book is fun to read.

And while it is an adventure, it does hit on some interesting and contemporary topics, not the least of which is the question of how ethically a corporation should be expected to behave. ZaraCorp, like any company, has a primary mission to make money, especially as the company is publicly traded. They have to get money to those stockholders who have invested in them so that they can make more money to exploit more resources. And that’s a point that Scalzi has made in his own blog: “I think the majority [of] corporations act logically and rationally and in a manner consistent with the general reason for their existence,” he writes. “And the reason most corporations exist — and most large multinational corporations in particular — is simple: To maximize shareholder value.”

Go on - take the pension fund. They'll probably just waste it on food...

In Fuzzy Nation, he takes this to the place where corporate rational self-interest turns bad. You see, it is perfectly possible for a corporation to achieve its goal while still being environmentally responsible or socially conscious. In other words, to fulfill its responsibility to the shareholders without violating the ethical or moral codes of the people who actually make up those groups.

But there are those who are all too willing to put the fiduciary responsibility of the corporation above the ethical responsibilities of people, and that’s where the Evil Corporation comes in. ZaraCorp fits this to a T. They see nothing but profits in Zara XXIII, and if the Fuzzies stand in their way – sentient or not – they will do whatever is necessary to eliminate them while at the same time doing their level best to stay within the legal bounds prescribed by the Colonial Authority. Or not to get caught crossing them, at least.

In the end, this becomes about why we do what we do, and how we project those reasons onto other people. ZaraCorp is motivated by untempered greed, and assumes that Holloway will be too. Holloway is interested in himself, but finds himself needing to be interested in other people. The motivations of the Fuzzies, for most of the book, is unclear, but they too have to learn the difference between what they think other people want and what they really want.

It’s a fast, tight book that is great fun to read, has characters that you like, even if they’re despicable, and has some moments of wonderful emotion that come around the corner and hit you like a hammer. It’s part philosophical adventure, part legal thriller, and part sarcastic comedy, verging on satire. Books like this are why I keep coming back to Scalzi.

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“…with all due respect for your considerable skills and intellect, the fact of the matter is that you have absolutely no clue what it is I want out of this.”
– Jack Holloway, Fuzzy Nation
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John Scalzi on Wikipedia
Fuzzy Nation on Amazon.com
John Scalzi’s blog
H. Beam Piper on Wikipedia
Little Fuzzy on Wikipedia

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Filed under aliens, business, colonization, corporations, ethics, first contact, humor, John Scalzi, morality, science fiction

Review 114: The Ghost Brigades

The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi

The book that preceded this one was Old Man’s War. It was Scalzi’s first novel and I loved it. It had everything – high-end science fiction, philosophy, cool battle scenes and a protagonist whose sense of humor reminded me a lot of many of my friends. The book’s premise was very simple – why do we use young people to fight in wars? Because they have the bodies that work best for the task – strong, fast and generally resilient. But young people can also be rash, impulsive and generally ignorant of a whole lot of life’s complexity. If their physical capabilities were not an issue, then who would we want? Why, old people, of course. They have the life experience, the patience and the perspective to be better soldiers.

No.

So, it’s The Future. Mankind has spread out among the stars, and the Colonial Union is the political organization that keeps them together. Any government needs a military, so the Colonial forces make sure they have the best recruits, all brought from Earth. With some pretty high-tech jiggery-pokery, the senior citizens from Earth’s richer nations are made into lean, green fighting machines, capable of performing in ways that make the Marines of our day look like palsey victims. Their minds are transferred from their old, decrepit bodies and put into new ones, grown from their own DNA, but altered to make them better soldiers. It’s all very exciting and cool, but at some point, I suppose Scalzi asked himself a question: what happens when someone signs up at age 65, but doesn’t make it to age 75 when they’re supposed to start their service?

NO!

Well, we have all this DNA just sitting there, right? We can’t let it go to waste, can we?

That brings us to the Ghost Brigades, the rather morbid nickname for the Colonial Union’s Special Forces. Their bodies are grown from DNA whose previous owners have expired, and are modded in more extreme ways than the regular defense force soldiers. Then, when the body is ready, they’re woken up. An amazing piece of biotechnology called, rather whimsically, a BrainPal prepares their brains for consciousness, acting as a kind of bootstrap for the emergent personality. It tells them what they’re supposed to know, so they don’t have to go through the tedious process of learning it all. And, of course, much more. The Special Forces do what the regular Defense Forces can’t, and act in ways that their more “ordinary” soldiers couldn’t understand. In Old Man’s War the Special Forces only came in at the end. In this book, as you might have guessed, they play a much more central role.

I'll show them! I'LL SHOW THEM ALL!!!

Charles Boutin is a traitor to humanity. For reasons known only to him, he has sold out the Colonial Union to its enemies, a troika of alien species that would be more than willing to wipe us off the map. The Defense Forces would love to find him, of course, but he’s hidden himself among the enemy. So they got the next best thing: a copy of his own mind that Boutin had made while researching the BrainPal.

In theory, it should work: put this mental backup copy into a “clean slate,” a body that has no mind of its own. A Special Forces body.

And so, Jared Dirac was born. Decanted. Whatever. It was hoped that when he opened his eyes, he would be Charles Boutin in a new body, and could promptly be interrogated. But it isn’t that easy. Jared Dirac is a normal Special Forces soldier, a blank slate who is ready to do the job he was, literally, born to do: keep humanity safe.

Art by Vincent Chong

He’s sent off to training, with the expectation that he would be just another Special Forces soldier. But he is, of course, much more than that. As his brain matures, the memories and personality of Charles Boutin come with them, and Dirac starts to understand more of what made the man turn traitor to his own species. This information could lead the Defense Forces to their ultimate goal, or to their destruction….

It’s a great book. Tons of fun, although the exposition is a bit heavy-handed in the beginning. There’s a whole lot of reminding about what you learned in Old Man’s War, and I didn’t really need it. That’s the thing about recap, though: if you avoid it altogether, you can confuse people who haven’t picked up the previous book in a while. Slather it on and you bore the people who have good enough memories.

Once you get past that, though, it’s straight on fun, with some pretty serious questions folded into it. One of the major questions raised in this book is that of identity – who is Jared Dirac? How can a being who is brought to full consciousness by an implanted computer be properly called “human?” It’s clear that he is, but a fuller look at the Special Forces – especially the squad known as the Gamerans – really does push the definition of “human” to its limits.

The Japanese cover to Ghost Brigades

It’s a very thoughtful book in many places, exploring the grey areas of not only humanity and “human-ness,” but also of the role of humanity among the stars. Explaining his reason for turning traitor, Boutin asks us to consider the entire purpose of government itself – how it operates, how much power it has and how much it should trust its citizenry. He fundamentally disagrees with how the Colonial Union goes about its business, and will do whatever he has to in order to set it on what he believes is the right path. And in the middle of all this is Jared Dirac, who has to actually start making choices in his life – something that Special Forces soldiers were never bred to do.

As with Old Man’s War, this is a great book to read, and I look forward to the other books set in that universe. You should too.

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“We don’t mind when the other guy brings a gun to a knife fight. It just makes it easier for us to cut out his heart. Or whatever it is that he uses to pump blood.”
Lieutenant Jane Sagan, The Ghost Brigades

The Ghost Brigades on Wikipedia
John Scalzi on Wikipedia
The Ghost Brigades on Amazon.com
John Scalzi’s Blog

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Filed under adventure, aliens, ethics, existentialism, fiction, friendship, identity, John Scalzi, military, morality, philosophy, science fiction, technology, transhumanism, truth, war

Review 03: The Android’s Dream


The Android’s Dream by John Scalzi

What do you get when you combine aliens, diplomacy, artificial intelligences, religion and sheep together? Well, for most people, the answer would be a horrible mess. For John Scalzi, however, it’s a fantastic read. Nothing too complex, no greater statements about the nature of humanity and the necessity of war that holds together the stories in his Old Man’s War universe, just a good old-fashioned espionage romp. With sheep. Or at least a sheep. Kind of.

The story begins with, as so many stories do, a murder. Not an intentional murder, really, but one that was born of shame and revenge, as so many murders are. Under normal circumstances, this wouldn’t rate much, except that the death of an alien trade ambassador is never a convenient thing. When said diplomat may just possibly have been killed by his human counterpart, that’s even more difficult to deal with. Instead of a nice, tidy trade agreement cementing the relations between the United Nations of Earth and the Nidu, an alien race with an extraordinary sense of smell and hair-trigger tempers, we have what the State Department might just call “a challenge.”

The only thing that can heal this little rift between the two planets is a sheep. But not just any sheep – a special breed, created just for the Nidu called the Android’s Dream. Without this sheep, the ruling family cannot hold on to power, and the Nidu will be plunged into a catastrophic civil war that will, in all likelihood, take Earth with it. In order to find the sheep, avert catastrophe and, most importantly, avoid calling shame down upon the government, State Department employee – and veteran of the Earth’s greatest military failure – Harry Creek will have to use every skill at his disposal. And then some.

It’s a great read, this book. Telling any more about the plot would ruin it, so I’ll just exhort you to pick up the book and get reading. In all honesty, you could probably finish it pretty quickly. But I can’t just stop here, so let me tell you more about why I liked it as much as I did.

What made it so good, what always makes good sci-fi good, is the reality of the world the author creates. It’s great to come up with high-concept scientific ideas, or intricately-planned space battles, but for the reader to really immerse him-or-herself in the book, it has to have a world in which the reader can easily imagine her-or-himself existing.

I thought of this during one scene early in the book. A character was riding the Washington, D.C. Metro and the narrator was describing the various aliens who were riding with him. There was an explanation of how various species had integrated themselves into the city, overcoming prejudice and discrimination, but what really got me was the description of a young woman reading the paper, the only other human in the car. Amidst all the different bodies, tongues, smells, and appearances, she didn’t even notice.

“If her great-great-grandmother were on the train,” Scalzi writes, “she would have thought she was on commuter train heading toward the fifth circle of Hell. This woman didn’t even look up. The human capacity for being jaded was a remarkable thing.”

It was at that point that I really accepted the reality of the book. It wasn’t a perfect world, it wasn’t one that had been ripped apart or perfected by alien contact. What had happened was what happens here any time cultures interact – after a brief period of unpleasantness, cultures start to mingle until it gets to a point where no one can remember when things were at all different. This book has all those little details that help sell the world, things that blend our world with theirs. Bored mall employees, amoral hit men, political jockeying, all of those things are familiar. Actual ghosts in machines, planet-cracking bombs, aliens that are almost entirely mouth and digestive systems, those are not. But they’re believable, because Scalzi is one hell of a writer.

I do have one little nit to pick, however. It’s not a big nit, but a nit nonetheless.

The book is an adventure, plain and simple. It’s a plot-driven story that pulls you along from one event to the other with nary a chance to catch your breath, and I never complain about that. It has some great characters… who remain almost entirely static throughout the story. I can’t say there’s no character development in the book, because the big hairy guy who eats people does have a change of heart about it, but other than that…. Harry Creek begins the book as a reluctant hero who is hiding his super-hacker, ass-kicker light under a bushel, and he’s happy to continue to be that at the close of the book. Robin Baker is a sassy, independent young woman who holds up under pressure – though not necessarily happy about it – throughout the book, and the Nidu ambassador Narf-win-Getag is untrustable the moment he walks on the page, and he remains so up through his sudden and inevitable betrayal near the end.

Like I said, this isn’t a huge complaint, because the book that Scalzi has written isn’t a character book. It’s an adventure, and adventure books usually don’t require a whole lot of character development. That doesn’t mean the characters aren’t believable – they certainly are – and it doesn’t mean they’re not interesting – they absolutely are. They just don’t grow. Fortunately I know from having read Old Man’s War and its related books that Scalzi has no problem with character development, and so I can assume that keeping his characters reasonably static in this book was a deliberate choice.

As a tangential comment on characters in the book, there was one character that drove me nuts. This character is not central to the story, and only appears a few times. What makes this person interesting are the following two things: first that the character is named Sam, and second that Sam’s gender is never established. Maybe it’s me and I missed something, but I have no idea if Sam was a man or a woman.

I caught it mainly because Tad Williams used the same name to pull a similar trick in his Otherland series, but in that story he was hiding Sam’s gender from another character, not the reader, so we eventually found out what was what. In this story, Sam’s gender remains a mystery for no other reason than I figure it amused Scalzi. It has no bearing on the story, and it doesn’t make the fate of Sam’s lover any less tragic, but I found it fascinating.

In any case, it’s a great read and – as a bonus – very funny. The opening line alone lets you know that, no matter what you think you’ve read before, you haven’t read anything quite like this. But I’m not telling you what that line is – I can’t give away everything….

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“If there’s one thing that distinguishes the human species, it is a pathological need to stay connected.”
-John Scalzi, The Android’s Dream
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John Scalzi’s homepage
John Scalzi at Wikipedia
John Scalzi at AMC.com
The Android’s Dream on Amazon.com

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Filed under adventure, aliens, John Scalzi, science fiction