BOOK REVIEW: The Fuzzy Papers, by H. Beam Piper

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.
  • An Omnibus edition of Little Fuzzy and Fuzzy Sapiens
  • Published by Futura
  • Omnibus first published in 1979
  • A classic social SF adventure
  • 409 pages

Zarathustra belongs to the Company, whose charter dictates they can do as they please with its resources. But when a native being shows signs of sapience, the inevitable question is brought before the courts. Who really owns Zarathustra . . ?

In spite of having a dozen novels to his name, H. Beam Piper is a name rarely heard these days. His Terro-Human Future History series feels in many ways to be a bridge between the more uptight science fiction of yesteryear and the action-packed space operas we see today. That series has even been expanded by numerous spin-offs authorised by Piper’s literary estate, yet I have seen precisely one other person mention these novels in the fifteen-odd years I’ve known about them. Piper’s suicide at a fairly young age means that his legacy is far smaller than it could (and I would argue should) have been. Yet there is one book that does have a following. Little Fuzzy is a book so well-loved that John Scalzi was able to successfully publish a rewrite of it some fifty years after the original, in a rare case of a literary reboot. Little Fuzzy was the first of three novels in a series that doesn’t really have a proper name, but does slot loosely into the Terro-Human Future History (don’t worry about tangled continuity, the link doesn’t go beyond the dating system, and references to a handful of planets). The Fuzzy Papers gathers the first two of these short novels in one volume.

As an aside here, this omnibus has a truly unique page numbering system, or at least one I’ve never seen before. Rather than a single sequence of numbers, the page count resets after the end of the first book. I have to admit, it’s weird being halfway through a four hundred page book and seeing a 60 at the foot of the page.

Given that my previous experience of Piper is reading about rugged heroes of dubious morality solving their problems through the means of wits and firepower, I was surprised by how gentle Little Fuzzy is. Yes, the human protagonist is a retired gunslinger who just wants to live out his senior years digging for precious gems in his back yard, but most of the book has him playing caretaker to the Fuzzies of the title – a group of simian-esque aliens who are more intelligent than they first appear. There is one rather violent scene later on involving a child Fuzzy, but the rest of the book is incredibly tame. The real action takes place in the court room, which is the focus of both halves of this omnibus.

Little Fuzzy is the classic here, so it’s not surprising it’s the stronger of the two books. Fuzzy Sapiens re-treads much of the same ground, though does offer more insights into the world of the Fuzzies. Considering that they are largely nonverbal, and when they do speak it is in a babbling baby talk, Piper does a good job of characterising his aliens. Fuzzies and Other People may elude me at present, but it’s just moved up the list of books I want to read.

The Fuzzy Papers is science fiction at its most classic. The central question is a debate of the sapience of an alien race, and what rights they should be granted. And while the Company is a colonial power, Piper impressively avoids the usual allegorical nature of these tales. Yes, you could interpret the story in terms of how humans have historically treated one another, but that’s not what the story is about. It’s about how humans reconcile the fact that we have to share a planet with someone else.

It’s easy to see why this of all Piper’s work is the one that he will likely be best remembered for. And while I prefer the more space operatic approach of his other novels, The Fuzzy Papers stands as proof of his versatility as a writer. If you haven’t already read H. beam Piper, that’s an oversight I recommend you correct at your earliest convenience.

If you enjoyed this book, you might also like:
New Earth, by Ben Bova
Planetfall, by Scott G. Gier
Space Viking, by H. Beam Piper

Published by Alex Hormann

I'm a writer, reader, and farmer, with an interest in all things speculative.

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