Wed
Mar 11 2009 5:33pm

Sapience and responsibility: H. Beam Piper’s Fuzzy books

Little Fuzzy (1962), Fuzzy Sapiens (1964) and Fuzzies and Other People (1984—but written in 1964) don’t seem to be exactly in print. Little Fuzzy can be purchased with a pile of H. Beam Piper’s other stories for the Kindle for 80 cents, an offer so good I can hardly believe it, but the other books don’t seem to be available at all. Well, there are plenty of copies around second hand. These are classics. They’re also charming, and have aged surprisingly well.

They’re part of my favourite subgenre of SF, the kind with planets and aliens. The books fit into Piper’s Nifflheim universe but all they need is each other. Zarathustra is a recently settled planet run by the Chartered Zarathustra Company as a Class III planet, one without native intelligent life. Jack Holloway, an independent sunstone prospector, discovers what he at first takes to be an animal and calls it a “Little Fuzzy,” and then realizes it is a member of an intelligent species—or is it? The very interesting question of the sapience of the Fuzzies, who don’t qualify under the “talk and build a fire” rule of thumb, takes up the rest of the book. The evil company will lose control of the planet if it has intelligent natives. There’s a court-case—it’s surprising how little SF has climactic court cases. This is a terrific one, funny, exciting, and ultimately triumphant.

It’s interesting to consider that date of Little Fuzzy, 1962. There’s a line in the book where a hotel is reluctant to admit Fuzzies and the lawyer “threatens to hit them with a racial discrimination case” and they immediately back off. In 1962 there were still hotels in parts of the US that didn’t admit people of all human skin colors. In some US states, people of different skin colors weren’t even allowed to marry, never mind South Africa. Martin Luther King was campaigning, the civil rights campaign was in full swing, and Piper, a white man who loved guns, frontiers, and history, chose to write about a world where these questions were so settled—and in the liberal direction—that everyone’s arguing about the civil rights of aliens and he can throw in a line like that. There’s also the question of the “childlike” Fuzzies, who have a protectorate for their own good. There’s no doubt Piper knew exactly the history of such protectorates when applied to humans other humans called “childlike” and took into their paternal protection. Holloway calls himself “Pappy Jack” for a reason.

In Fuzzy Sapiens, (and I guess the name is a spoiler for the first book!) the company turns out not to be so bad, putting together a planetary government turns out to be really difficult, and some bad people try to exploit the Fuzzies. Fuzzies are sapient, but they’re at the level of understanding of a ten- to twelve-year-old child. And they have problems with reproduction which needs human science to cure. And here Piper goes head on with a species that really does need protection, that really does need things “for their own good,” that is sapient but may not be responsible, and the difficulties of dealing with that. The answer for the Fuzzies is that they are becoming symbiotes, giving the humans something the humans want as much as the Fuzzies need what the humans can give them. That’s Fuzzy fun—and the question of whether you can get that from human children (though they do grow up...) is left aside. People want to adopt Fuzzies, and the word “adopt” is used. But what can you do if you have a whole species of sapients who are about as responsible as a ten-year-old child? We don’t have any real sub-sapients on Earth, but Piper made up the Fuzzies and made them cute and made a thought experiment that doesn’t have simple answers.

It’s Fuzzies and Other People that really lifts the series out of the ordinary, because for the first time we have a Fuzzy point-of-view. The novel follows a small band of Fuzzies who have had no human contact, as well as Little Fuzzy lost in the wilderness, and the usual human cast. The Fuzzies have agency. They are figuring out the world. They aren’t as simple as they look. When humans have taught them tricks, like making a fire or a spear, they’re more than ready to use that for their own purposes. (There’s a lovely line where Little Fuzzy is making a spear and remembers that the humans have said to use hand-made rope but he doesn’t have time so he’ll use some wire he has in his bag...) They’re still charming and innocent and childlike, but in their own internal point of view they have dignity. The book ends with a group of Fuzzies going off to Earth. I wish Piper had lived to write the books that would have come after and shown Fuzzies in the wider universe.

Piper also gets points for feminism and for cleverly using the reader’s implicit (1962) assumption of anti-feminism against them. There’s a female scientist in the first book who also turns out to be a Navy spy, and nobody suspects her, even when she thinks “a girl in this business ought to have four or five boyfriends, one on every side of the question.” My instinctive reaction to that is always “Ugh!” but it’s an “Ugh” that a lot of early SF has conditioned me to expect. When it turns out she’s a spy, why, that makes perfect sense. The pool of stenographers is as old fashioned as the viewscreens, but I think that comes under “they have an FTL drive but no iPods and everyone still smokes.” You can’t really complain about that kind of thing. All the women we see have jobs, many of them have scientific jobs, and when we see a woman sentenced in court she gets the same sentence as the others. 1962? Pretty good.

I think a lot of Piper’s best work was at short story length, but I think these are a terrific set of short novels. I didn’t read them when they were first published (I wasn’t born until a month after Piper died!) but in 1984 when the first two were republished at the time of the publication of the third. So I was twenty, not twelve, and they were already twenty years old, but they charmed me to pieces. They still do. My son read then when he was twelve, and promptly read the rest of Piper. (He especially liked Space Viking, also available in that astonishing 80 cent Kindle bundle.) These are still deeply enjoyable stories. Nobody writes things like this any more, so it’s just as well we’ve still got the old ones and they’re still good.

26 comments
Edward Bear
1. sehlat
Most of Piper's work, including "Space Viking" and "Little Fuzzy" is in the public domain over at Project Gutenberg (www.gutenberg.org) without having to pay Amazon's Kindle Tax.
MonkeyT
2. MonkeyT
I've been arguing for a while that, with the current state of CGI, these books are ripe for a film adaptation. Hopefully they take it seriously and we won't wind up with a series of "talking animal" movies.
MonkeyT
3. Jendragon
I love this series! My father had it in his big box o' Sci-Fi that he turned over to me when I got into middle school, along with Podkayne of Mars and Asimov's Robot series, among other classics. I find it fascinating that Piper so easily envisioned advances in mechanical technology, but his computers still took up a whole room and had blinking lights.
Todd McInroy
4. TMcInroy
There were also two other books written by other authors, Fuzzy Bones by William Tuning 1981, and Golden Dream A Fuzzy Odyssey by Ardath Mayhar 1982. It was after these were pulished that the manuscript for Fuzzies And Other People 1984 turned up.

Fuzzy Bones is a interesting revisionist history in which the Fuzzys turn out to be from another planet (decended from survivors of a crashed spaceship)

Golden Dream is a prequel to Little Fuzzy from Little Fuzzy's perspective.
Tex Anne
5. TexAnne
I was 14 in 1984, and I read all three books to pieces. How I wish sunstones were real! And I remember being amazed when Pappy Less'ee turned out not to be entirely wicked. I don't think it was the _first_ time I'd noticed that shades of grey existed, but it was this book that made it stick.
Dave Robinson
6. DaveRobinson
I've been a big fan of Piper for a long time - and remember being thrilled when Fuzzies and Other People was published. I still wish William Tuning had written more though, because there were parts of Fuzzy Bones I really enjoyed.
Mitch Wagner
7. MitchWagner
Jo, have I told you lately that I love this series of classic sf reviews? We have so many favorite books in common.
Paul Howard
8. DrakBibliophile
In many ways, I enjoyed Fuzzy Bones by William Tuning better than the third Piper Fuzzy book.
MonkeyT
9. Chris CCC
This review is exactly what I love about Tor.com. It's just plain fun to learn about this kind of cool-sounding old sci-fi. It's not in print and I doubt if I'll ever find time to read about it myself, but I'm glad to have learned about it and now it's on my radar. I never would have know about these books otherwise.
MonkeyT
10. Michael Walsh
Last year John Carr's bio of Piper was published - "H. Beam Piper: A Biography". ISBN: 0786433752. Go thou and order!

With luck it'll be on the Hugo ballot.
seth johnson
11. seth
I wanted to echo the other comments here expressing thanks for the writer drawing attention to classic, out-of-print SF like this series.

seth
Evan Leatherwood
13. ELeatherwood
Could not agree more. Piper knew how to spin a tale, and the courtroom scenes in Little Fuzzy live in my imagination right next to the trial in To Kill a Mockingbird for sheer suspense. Pure, exuberant, wonderful storytelling.

Found my copy in a milk carton on the floor of my favorite used bookstore in Brooklyn. The cover pulled me in. I also bought a copy of Clifford Simak's Mastodonia, with an equally cool old "YA" pulp cover, and read them both. Simak's another underestimated Golden Age writer -- maybe a review on Tor.com is in order.
Kate Nepveu
14. katenepveu
I am bookmarking the Gutenberg copy of _Little Fuzzy_ and look forward to reading it, thanks Jo, thanks sehlat.

(Climatic court cases--Kagan's _Hellspark_, which is also about sapience, yeah?)
Mitch Wagner
15. MitchWagner
If you use Stanza on the iPhone, you can download a bunch of Piper's work, including "Little Fuzzy" and possibly the sequels, pretty easily from there.
Felix Torres
16. fjtorres
For those that like the Fuzzy Books: Lloyd Biggle, Jr's MONUMENT is in a similar vein, just played more for fun (Really good legal manueverings in that one.) than for thought-provocation.
And along those lines:

Are we *certain* there are no Fuzzy-like sub-sapients on earth?

I can think of at least five candidate species right off the top of my head and that's without getting into the whole "Dogs have masters, cats have staff" debate. :-)
Karen Lofstrom
17. DPZora
Better than downloading from Gutenberg: manybooks.net, which releases all the Gutenberg material in a buncha different formats. I work at Distributed Proofreaders (where we MAKE the ebooks you're reading) and our stuff is released at Gutenberg. But I still get my books from manybooks, and that's where I send ebook newbies.

Come join us at Distributed Proofreaders!
MonkeyT
18. Clay Blankenship
I read Fuzzies and Other People back in the 80's after finding it in a used bookstore. I'd pretty much forgotten about it. I recall it spanning generations in Fuzzy society. Now I think I will try to hunt down the others.
René Walling
19. cybernetic_nomad
I discovered Fuzzies with Fuzzy Bones, as a teen. Luckily it was years before I saw the Piper books and read those so the details of the Tuning book were fuzzy in my mind. Piper is one of those writers that, when I discovered him, I hunted all the used bookstores for any of his books (and still do -- I'm missing First Cycle)
MonkeyT
20. Mary Frances
After a little effort, I managed to locate all three of Piper's Fuzzy books and reread all three. I did this partly because I had a vague memory of being disappointed in Fuzzies and Other People, and I wanted to check my recollection against what Jo said about it, above. Well, I don't know where the memory came from, or what I was thinking of when I read that book 25 years ago, but I was wrong: it may have a few rough edges (though I wouldn't bet on that, either, any more), but it's at least as fine a piece of work as the first two.

What struck me this time through, though, is something I think I just accepted as a plot contrivance, once upon a time. And maybe it is/was, but . . . did anyone else notice that the way humans react to Fuzzies is a little like the way Fuzzies react to the "wonderful food" that the humans give them? They don't just like Fuzzies, they almost crave Fuzzies. It's almost instinctive: as if the Fuzzies are filling some almost biological need in the humans who adopt them. Jo, you point out that Piper says that what humans get from Fuzzies is "fun," or that the Fuzzies are substitute children, but I'm not sure that that's all he had in mind. For one, it's the human characters who keep saying that to themselves, or to each other; though their thoughts on the subject are a bit, well, fuzzy, the Fuzzies themselves seem to hint that there is a bit more to it. Maybe.

Damn, but I wish Piper been able to write the next book, especially if it was going to follow the Fuzzies off planet. Maybe he didn't have something specific about human nature or the nature of human sapience in mind, but--given how flawlessly the first books fit together--I wouldn't be surprised if he did.
Jo Walton
21. bluejo
Mary Frances: What an interesting thought! Creepy, too.

The only evidence I can see against it is the jewel thieves' dislike of the fuzzies they have working for them. Otherwise, yes, people do seem to have a universal instinctive positive reaction to fuzzies, even when you wouldn't expect it, as in Victor Grego.

I am now thinking of Tiptree's story "And I Awoke And Found Me Here Upon the Cold Hill's Side". And George R.R. Martin's "And Seven Times Never Kill Man".
MonkeyT
22. Mary Frances
Well, the other thing I keep remembering but forgot to mention last night is that the original title of Fuzzy Sapiens (when it was published in the 1960s) was The Other Human Race . . . not sure which title was Piper's, or what it might mean exactly, but still.
John Armstrong
23. JohnnyYen
I remember the first book vividly, and the cover - a fuzzy, spear (looked more like a scalpel) in hand, standing triumphantly over a lobster/scorpion critter he'd just killed.
It was promoted as a kid book in the school library, I imagine because it had little fuzzy people in it.

--edit: went and looked it up and it's definitely a lobster, the spear is surely a scalpel (or a Steak Knife do the Future)and Fuzzy is one hell of a lot fuzzier than I remembered.

Michael Whelan was the artist
He did Friday and the cat Who Walks Through Walls and a large number of The Dark Tower books

http://www.michaelwhelan.com/catalog/home.php
Jimmy Simpson
24. nimrodd
"Fuzzy Sapiens" was Piper's original title. When Avon published it in 1964, they changed the name (to make sure people wouldn't be able to associate it with "Little Fuzzy"???) and put a cover on there that would make it disappear completely (http://www.zarthani.net/Images/otherhum64.jpg). Then when it didn't sell, they turned down "Fuzzies and Other People", which along with some other things that happened, caused Piper to believe he was washed up and he committed suicide in late 1964.
Michael Cox
25. wygit
>JohnnyYen: That's funny. I'm actually looking at both of the prints you mentioned, Friday and The Fuzzies, on my living room wall as I write this. The Fuzzy print is not from a book cover, it's "Peekaboo Fuzzies", and both are from glassonion.com , Whelan's store.

>Mary Frances: I felt the same way when I first read "Fuzzies and other People", and I think it was because I had already read "Fuzzy Bones" and liked it so much, with the story line about Grego, Christiana and Diamond. (ok, I'm a romantic), and "Fuzzies & Other People" was a split off the story line. I didn't like thinking that the whole Grego, Diamond and Christiana story had... never happened!

And damn, I can't find ANY of the books except "Little Fuzzy" available as ebooks.
( Not even Kindle books, although I don't have a Kindle. I don't WANT someone else deciding to remove books from my library if they feel like it.)

Anyone spotted any of the others anywhere?
Chris Palmer
26. cmpalmer
There is also a storybook version called The Adventures of Little Fuzzy, adapted by Benson Parker with art by Michael Whelan and David Wenzel.

It was published in 1983 and I remember kind of being freaked out by it because I saw it (and bought it) at a grocery store. It's a pretty good
adaptation with a gorgeous wrap-around Whelan cover and interior illustrations following Whelan's stylistic cues.

I was really surprised that someone did a mass-market children's picturebook adaptation of a classic SF novel, something that was almost unheard of back then (but I'm all for the idea as long as they don't dumb them down too much).

Here is the cover:


There are a few copies on eBay (not mine - I'm keeping it!).

(For the record, I posted a version of this comment on the Scalzi Fuzzy Nation excerpt page, but figured it was also applicable here - feel free to moderate if not).

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