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Overt plagiarism done better than the original?
on 14 March 2013
I came at Fuzzy Nation as a writer interested in how a published writer would rework an old classic and reboot it for a modern audience. I have to say on finishing that I have a certain sympathy for both sides of the controversy this reboot has caused.
So I started this book by reading the original, Little Fuzzy by H Beam Piper. I'm grateful to Scalzi for somewhat backhandedly recommending me a really great book, that I devoured in a day or two and really enjoyed. The sentience question is dealt with well, but overall the book seemed to miss out on a few of the better legal related things it could have done with the plot. Fantastic concept, of which the closest comparison I can think of is Avatar.
I started Fuzzy Nation eager to see what Scalzi would do with this fantastic source material. But apart from Carl the dog's antics I didn't warm to it. I wondered why Scalzi had bothered. But then I started to appreciate the things he was doing better than Piper, the ex-lawyer was a better fit, the high range audio infused throughout the story, the smaller cast. Reading the books the way I did you couldn't help but compare. I spent more than two thirds of the novel slowly liking it more and more.
And by the end it was clear that Scalzi had taken source material of a charming but slightly flawed novel, and made it into a fantastic novel. By this point I was full of appreciation for just how clever and intricate and downright satisfying this book is throughout. I love it, I unreservedly love it. I rarely give out the perfect score for a story. I think I've done it maybe 10-15 times in more than 500 books. I didn't get there with Old Man's War (although `The Last Colony' wasn't far off) but this is something else. Taken on its merits alone, I'm tempted to actually give it a 10.
But then I come to my sympathy for the other side. As a writer, the fact that this book is not original is a big deal. Nothing is really original in science fiction, or at least very little. Everyone steals little things and big things from everywhere, and have done for the last 40 years. But to do it like this so obviously! An author, a good author, is not just a hack. They make up the plot, dialogue and characters and one other rather important thing - the concept. Scalzi didn't make up the thing that in my opinion is the hardest to get down as perfectly as Piper did - the concept. Fuzzies on an exploited colony planet, sf courtroom drama for their very sentience. It's perfect. But it's Piper's not Scalzi's. Maybe this doesn't matter to some, but I wonder about stories I've written and how I'd feel if someone had the audacity to redo it, whether they could do better or not.
In the end I have to remain honest to my gut reaction, rather than my intellectual property rights brain. Fuzzy Nation outdoes Little Fuzzy in almost every respect and to an incredible and honed standard. It has something only the very best stories have - that self-contained world, tiny cast, pitch perfect prose and up-all-night plot. And Holloway. Scalzi's new Holloway is quite possibly the most interesting character I've read in months. Holloway is a wonderfully flawed lead, with more facets and motives to his character than most authors manage from their entire cast. Even when his morals and motives are exposed I still think there were reasons and motives underneath.
I can't recommend it enough and it so off the beaten track with respect to the bulk of the current SF shelf.
And yes, I really am going to give it a 10. As a writer I dream of concept as perfect as this and then pulling it off even better than the original author is an incredible achievement.