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The Complete Fuzzy
H. Beam Piper
Ace Books, 454 pages

Art: Michael Whelan
The Complete Fuzzy
H. Beam Piper
H. Beam Piper was born in 1904. He had no formal education and, at 18, went to work as a labourer for the Pennsylvania Railroad. Largely self-educated, he garnered an extensive knowledge of science and history. In his later years, Piper, a solitary and guarded man, did not tell his friends of his precarious financial state. In 1964, H. Beam Piper shut off all the utilities to his apartment in Williamsport, Pennsylvania and took his own life.

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A review by Jean-Louis Trudel

Most writers can only pray to be outlived by their works, but Piper's Fuzzy novels have proven to be his enduring legacy.

Though fans of military SF, time travel tales or tough-minded space-opera may remember Henry Beam Piper (1904-1964) for other reasons, his best loved creations were no doubt the "Fuzzy Sapiens" featured in the classic diptych of Little Fuzzy (1962) and The Other Human Race (1964; later reprinted as Fuzzy Sapiens). A third novel was finished in manuscript form when Piper killed himself in 1964, but it remained lost until 1984, when it was found in a basement trunk and published as Fuzzies and Other People. In the intervening years, other writers attempted to complete the story lines of the first two books. In 1981, William Tuning authored Fuzzy Bones, and Ardath Mayhar contributed Golden Dream to the cause in 1983. Little Fuzzy was even adapted for younger readers in the form of a children's book called The Adventures of Little Fuzzy (1983).

Ace has now chosen to reprint in one volume the three original Piper novels, and the result is an endearing flashback to a different brand of science fiction. By modern standards, the plot is extremely fast-moving: Piper packs three complete novels, with no lack of strongly drawn characters and plenty of action, in what would be hardly enough room for one of the modern behemoths swollen by the advent of word processors. No creaking subplots here, just a weaving together of different stories that move like greased lightning.

On the newly colonized planet of Zarathustra, crusty old sunstone prospector Jack Holloway meets one day a small and hairy humanoid. He is quickly won over by the charming little biped. However, if his new-found friend is sapient, the planet is officially inhabited and the Chartered Zarathustra Company must yield its rights to the native inhabitants. Victor Grego, head of the company, is determined to do everything that he can to prevent such an outcome and he will not hesitate to countenance some rather dirty tricks by his underlings. Soon, the matter of the sapience or non-sapience of the Fuzzies, as the native Zarathustrans are dubbed by Holloway, becomes the turning point of a court case.

Since the Fuzzies build simple tools, but appear to lack a language or the ability to make fire, demonstrating that they are people requires a rethinking of what is sapience. Mere cuteness is not enough, unfortunately... Are they a borderline case or a missing link?

If Piper's trio of novels have stuck in the memory of SF readers, it is due not only to their deft plotting and engaging characters, but also to the author's willingness to tackle thought-provoking questions. In some respects, the court case at the heart of Little Fuzzy recalls the central conundrum of the French SF novel Les Animaux dénaturés written by Vercors in 1952 (and translated into English as You Shall Know Them in 1953), where a ruling on the intelligence of a borderline sapient species also turns on a murder accusation.

The second installment of the Fuzzy novels strays from pure philosophical inquiry to deal more with the place of the Fuzzies in both the natural ecology of Zarathustra and the social ecology of their new-found niche in Galactic society. Piper sets up a scientific puzzle and then solves it to the satisfaction of all concerned on Zarathustra. Piper was a master of the intellectual puzzle in SF stories; though the solution may appear obvious to modern readers, its ingenuity cannot be denied.

The final installment in the saga features unfinished business from the first two books. At issue is what will happen to Fuzzies who have to share their planet with human settlers. The fate of their reservation ends up being entwined with the question of their ability to lie.

Ironically, the absolute truthfulness of the Fuzzies means that their veracity cannot be tested by the veridicators of the Federation courts. But once again, Jack Holloway and his friends pull through, ensuring a happy future for the Fuzzies of Zarathustra.

Parallels between the story of Piper's Fuzzies and the painful record of race relations in the USA are perhaps most overt in the third book. The threat to the Fuzzy reservation is compared to the successive land grabs of Native American territories. Furthermore, the insistance on the childlike nature of the aliens, who need the wiser tutelage of the humans, lends itself to darker readings, in the U.S. context of the early 60s. On the other hand, the final pages of the saga mostly emphasize the need for affection of the Fuzzies and the last line expresses Jack Holloway's yearning to be a Fuzzy. And this hint of self-identification with a need for affection, coming so close to the author's suicide, is a rather troubling note.

In fact, the Fuzzy trilogy is clearly an artifact of its era, even more dated in its details than some of Heinlein's novels: the portrayal of male and female roles in this far future (Grego has female secretaries galore), the social rituals such as cocktail hours, the prevalence of smoking, the paternalism shown towards a primitive race, all reflect the attitudes of Piper's lifetime. Nevertheless, I believe the three novels taken together remain as compelling a read as they come. After all, they boast Piper's wry sense of humour, great theatre (two of the novels hinge on trials, which lend themselves well to high drama), neat puzzle solving, interesting reflections on sapience, and an utterly winsome alien race. (I believe it's been suggested the Star Wars Ewoks may owe something to Piper's Fuzzies, at least in broad inspiration...)

This new one-volume compilation is marred by a few typographical oddities and mistakes, proving once more that proofreading is a lost art, but I'm sure it's going to be a must-buy for all fans of Piper's Fuzzies.

Copyright © 1999 by Jean-Louis Trudel

Jean-Louis Trudel is a busy, bilingual writer from Canada, with two novels and fourteen young adult books to his credit in French. He's also a moderately prolific reviewer and short story writer.

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