Friday, November 24, 2017

Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper

Animal or aborigine?
Little Fuzzy, published in 1962, is a novel by science fiction writer H. Beam Piper. The story is part of his Terro-Human Future History series, which depicts a future in which humans from Earth have colonized planets in distant star systems. The stories in this series are only loosely connected, however, so no prior knowledge of Terro-Human Future History is required to enjoy this book.

The story takes place in the late 26th century on the planet Zarathustra, a world that was discovered twenty-five years earlier. Since then a development company has been profitably extracting the planet’s natural resources for trade in interplanetary markets. By this time cities have been established on Zarathustra, but they are still relatively low in population, and the planet maintains a sort of Wild West atmosphere. Jack Holloway, one of the old-timers among the settlers on Zarathustra, works as an independent prospector, hunting gems in the area around a remote outpost he calls home. Though he probably knows the planet as well as anyone, he is greatly surprised one day by a visit from an undiscovered species of animal. This creature, whom he dubs Little Fuzzy, resembles something like a naked Ewok and shows obvious signs of intelligence. The question is, how intelligent is he? If Little Fuzzy turns out to be a sapient life form­—one who’s level of conscious thought approaches that of humans—under the laws of the Terran Federation his existence will legally negate the company’s right to extract resources from Zarathustra. The entire enterprise rests on whether Little Fuzzy is recognized as a sapient being or simply designated a fur-bearing mammal. To protect its investment, the company will stop at nothing to make sure the matter is decided in its favor.

At first this may sound like a novel about environmental ethics and a preachy metaphor for mankind’s poor stewardship of our own planet. There are touches of that, but Piper, who was anything but a hippie, does not lay it on too thick. Mostly he is concerned with the definition of sapience and the amorphous theoretical boundaries of what defines us as human. Piper not only thoroughly examines the psychological and biological aspects of the question but also its ethical and legal ramifications. The worlds Piper creates in his fiction are always fully realized in their political, economic, and legal dimensions, and nowhere is that more true than here in Little Fuzzy. Piper looks at indigenous rights from an interspecies perspective. If mankind ever does colonize the galaxy, what sort of legal and ethical framework will be needed to avoid the genocidal mistakes of our past?

Beyond the issues, one thing that makes this novel so enjoyable is that the fuzzies are just so darn cute, if such a term can be applied to words on a printed page. Their behavior is simply adorable, but Piper doesn’t overdo it. Cute never becomes cutesy. He always depicts the fuzzies as a realistic mammalian species and gives a convincing glimpse of what culture might look like among a sapient species other than our own. The scientific and philosophical aspects of Little Fuzzy are truly fascinating, and at times it also happens to be a decent sci-fi thriller.

If you can’t get enough of the fuzzies, there’s more. Piper published a sequel to Little Fuzzy in 1964, entitled Fuzzy Sapiens. This was followed by Fuzzies and Other People, published posthumously. Several other science fiction authors have since written additional books in a Fuzzy series based upon Piper’s original works. While I can’t vouch for those other writers, after reading this excellent novel I fully intend to read the remaining two books by Piper.
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