Monday, February 20, 2012

The Fuzzies, Old and New

Sitting on my desk was a worn, old paperback copy of Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper, and a fresh new hardbound volume entitled Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi.  Both had arrived with the recommendation that I would like them and that they would provide interesting reading.  And I was given the intriguing “hook” that the latter was essentially a rewrite of the former.

I've read plenty of science fiction, especially in my earlier days:  the likes of Heinlein and Asimov being the most prominent authors.  I even read many of Heinlein's early works to my children during their early grade school years.  And I recently read Old Man's War by John Scalzi which I found thoroughly entertaining.  I've also practiced law for, well, a long time.  I now read most things with a healthy dose of skepticism due to my profession, but I've still come to enjoy John Grisham's books – even though they stretch the bounds of legal realism quite often.  But so what, they're a good read.

So, as I looked at the two versions of the Fuzzy books on my desk, I was torn by which one to read first, the old paperback or the new hardbound.  On the one hand, I was sorely tempted to read the Scalzi version first.  I pretty much figured I'd find an enjoyable book, plus I'm a sucker for reading a hardbound over a paperback any day.  When done, I planned to read the Piper version just to see how Scalzi's version made use of it.  Then, I began to worry that if I did that, I'd spoil the first book by expecting the original to be like the later version, much like watching the movie remake before watching the original.  So, I settled down with Little Fuzzy first.  As it turned out, I didn't regret the choice of order for one minute.

It is not any real secret to say that both books deal with an alien planet and many of the same characters, individual or corporate.  Nor is it a secret to let slip that both have to do with the impact the appealing fuzzy creatures have on humans and on the human run corporation developing their planet.  It is also true that both books end up in pretty much the same spot in the global sense, although the reader is a little more uncertain about what the future holds for humans and fuzzies in the Piper rendition.

Stylistically, the versions are very different.  The Piper rendition reminded me of an old science fiction book.  The characters seemed old even though the plot was fresh, much like watching a classic movie for the first time – great plot but an unmistakable aura of the past surrounding it.  This feel is even more pronounced in science fiction, where many books of the genre are not about the recent past or the present, but the future.  This puts a good amount of  distance between the way the characters talk and, to some extent, behave, compared to the future time in which the book is set.  I read the book over a few days, putting it down several times, both because I should have, but also because I could, if you know what I mean.  The story developed in a fairly linear way but did grow more compelling page by page.  Nothing was hugely surprising or out of place as the story developed.  The eventual outcome was pretty evident, only the manner of getting there was unknown.  Had this been the only version I had read, I would have chalked it up to a good story, reasonably well presented.

So, how did I feel when I picked up the second version, now knowing the general premise of the story?  I must admit, my expectations at first were low (other than that I was now reading a hardbound copy.)  The first thing I noticed was that the Scalzi version had dialogue that just seemed fresher, less stilted, more up to date.  Its believability alone pulled me into the story.  Here was the leading character from the first book, Jack Holloway.  His persona was different, but he was clearly the same character.  His interaction with the other cast of characters was engaging and kept me turning the page.  But I was still uncertain how the book would hold my attention once it got well along, and I thought I would pretty much know the outcome.  Just as in the Piper version, the eventual outcome seemed pretty much preordained in the Scalzi version, unless he was some kind of sadist or at least a spoilsport.

But Scalzi performed the feat of making the story totally fresh.  In part, this is because the story was clearly different.  But in part, it was because the story was very cleverly crafted in the roles the various characters played, much more than in the Piper rendition.  And this got me about two thirds of the way through the book when it seemed that the story should pretty much have played out and ended – at least, the Piper version ended.  But Scalzi had more for Jack Halloway to do and explain, and he did most of it in a rough provincial courtroom on a planet light years from earth.  Now, I will admit that I like science fiction that uses future props to tell the story, but the last part of this book used an intriguing combination of chesslike thinking by Holloway and some creative developments.  The book became impossible to set down as one turn of events led to another and finally culminated in the ending you expected and yet weren't sure would actually happen.

To me, this duo of books seems a lot like the development of the light bulb.  Credit Piper as the Edison of imagination.  Credit Scalzi as all those who came after him combined, producing a brilliantly glowing rendition based on the original book!