Before his literary descent into self-indulgent sprawl, Robert Heinlein used to write with verve and passion. His ‘Starship Troopers‘ worked on so many levels: taut prose, exciting narrative and best of all, the sense that Heinlein really committed to the ethical principles of citizenship and moral philosophy his characters espoused.

I was one of a minority who were unimpressed by John Scalzi’s Starship Troopers pastiche-novel, ‘Old Man’s War’. I thought the plotting was unconvincing and the characterization mostly perfunctory. While the setting had some imaginative elements (the ’old man’ concept, basically) I never felt really involved in the story: where was the brio?

I was therefore underwhelmed by the prospects of reading his latest novel.

Scalzi’s ‘Fuzzy Nation’ is billed as a reboot of Henry Beam Piper’s 60,000 word novella ‘Little Fuzzy’, published in 1962. The Wikipedia article describes that work as a piece of juvenile fiction informed by a mild libertarianism.

Piper’s story is simply told: the planet Zarathustra is owned by the Zarathustra Corporation which mines resources such as the precious ‘sunstones’. Independent prospector Jack Holloway discovers a friendly aboriginal species which he calls the Fuzzies after their fur. How delightfully pre-PC is that?

The Fuzzies turn out to be pretty smart but if they are classified as sapients the corporation will have to back-off as the planet will then be protected. There follows a standard conflict between the good guys: frontiersman Jack Holloway, the cops, the military vs. the bad guys: evil corporate executives, scientists and lawyers. Nothing too subtle happens and the good guys win.

The story is too twee and sentimental for me but it’s not a bad teen-read from the classical age of American hard SF. I wondered what had possessed Mr Scalzi to think there was anything in this slight tale to even justify a reboot, and then I wondered what on earth he would make of it.

The original ‘Little Fuzzy’ has a number of weaknesses: the action is spread over too many characters who are hard to distinguish; the discussion about the sapience of the Fuzzies is an excuse for long-winded and boring science-dump stuff; the plotting is rather predictable with few, if any genuine surprises. Despite that, you do find yourself cheering for the good guys, just a bit.

Scalzi has worked hard to fix these problems. He’s decided that the story is really a thriller: one man against a corporation with a pretty evil agenda; the Fuzzies are now the McGuffin which moves the plot along. His second decision was to pare the cast list down and show some interest in character. We are not talking Dostoevsky here, but Scalzi is plainly interested in Holloway as an anti-hero, a man of dubious motivation who most reminded me of Daniel Craig’s James Bond. Holloway is a grade-A a**hole who deliberately antagonises everyone he meets. The reader is continually confronted by the issue of whether Holloway is in fact a good guy or just another plausible sociopath on the make.

The plot is handled well too. The issue is the same as in the original: if the Fuzzies are sapient, then ZaraCorp has to close down its enormous investment and exit the planet leaving the riches for the aboriginals, while the killing of Fuzzies will be classified as murder. The early part of the book is driven by commercial chicanery and attempts on Holloway’s life; the second part moves to the courtroom and here Scalzi racks the tension up to a surprising and definitive denouement.

All in all, Scalzi has written a reasonably exciting thriller which is tauter, more focused and more involving than the original. But let’s get back to the Fuzzies. Although in plot terms they’re rather a sideshow, their lubricative narrative-function requires that they’re cute, cuddly and sympathy-inducing. I wonder what would have happened if Zara 23’s newly-discovered ‘sapient’ aboriginals had been frenziedly-xenophobic, blood-sucking ambulatory leeches. Perhaps the always-savvy Jack Holloway would have been first in the queue for skimmers slung with heavy-duty flame-throwers? Just a thought.