Fuzzyology

Here are the Fuzzy books by H. Beam Piper, Little Fuzzy (1962) and Fuzzy Sapiens (1964), re-issued in the 70s with gorgeous Michael Whelan covers to be purchased by me, then in my earliest teens. In the 80s, the publisher commissioned William Tuning to provide a third novel, Fuzzy Bones, possibly due to that decade’s fetish for trilogies, but then, also, the long-rumored manuscript of Piper’s third novel was discovered and eventually released under his title Fuzzies and Other People. A number of others have followed since in the production of a minor franchise. This post follows directly from my previous one Little thinks.

I have only read the Piper books, whose story centers on one specific thing: humans’ discovery of indigenous people on a planet initially under the control of a private corporation, leading to their recognition as legal people, and the subsequent events of policy and governing. In this future setting, corporations seem to conduct most discovery, development, and business regarding new planets, but there is also a Terran government with military bases scattered all over, which enforces general law. One such law concerns indigenous peoples: if they can “talk and build a fire,” then they’re people, and the planet falls under Terran rather than corporate jurisdiction.

The first novel is all about how the executives and company-scientists of the Chartered Zarathustra Corportation are dismayed at the discovery of indigenous little people, the extraordinarily cute two-foot-tall Fuzzies. If by “dismayed” you mean desperate, vicious, and ruthless, because the corporate development and profits of the planet, including the insanely valuable sunstone gemes, are well under way by the time the Fuzzies are found. Fortunately the Fuzzies are defended by some fringe-y types, a tough old prospector, an activist-ecologist, and a young biologist who quits the Company, and they manage to get the issue into the judiciary and the military spheres before the Company’s machinations can quell it.

The ensuing events call out the sapience-benchmark as frontier practicality; highlight the academic difficulty with “sapience” and fortunately stay right on target. The core issue is not whether Fuzzies are (in the language of the book) sapient or scientific precision thereof, but what to do with the situation when it’s clear they are. Or better, when at first glance they seem neither to talk nor to build fires – as it happens, it’s revealed they do the former but not the latter, again, forcing the policy to be re-evaluated.

It’s important that the Fuzzies are not humans’ first alien-persons contact, but merely the first which call the rule of thumb into question in legal terms, and also for which circumstances exacerbate the problem because the Company is entrenched, thus throwing the local military into a risky policy-making position. It would have been different if either had been completely in control of the Fuzzy narrative from the start, forcing policy via fait accompli, but the events put it all on the knife-edge. Furthermore, the heroes and soon, their powerful allies, are determined that the Fuzzies will not be shoved into cheap labor or exile-on-their-own-planet status, which is apparently the usual fate of the alien/natives who get recognized as people.

I hope you can see that this is a damned intelligent premise, yielding genuine social science fiction which highlights real-world ethical and political problems – the very opposite of “escape.” The question of whether Fuzzies are “sapient” isn’t the conflict of the story at all, because although the term is never adequately defined (and there’s some implication that it cannot be), that they are properly considered people is not in doubt. The conflict concerns policy, specifically, how conflicts of interest concerning considerable power and wealth determine what happens. [it also represents a political spectrum from the late 50s-early 60s U.S. which doesn’t exist today, which is totally important but not my topic here]

Everyone in the story takes the concept of sapience seriously even as they debate it, and even as one person revealingly exclaims, he cannot provide evidence to show anyone that he is himself conscious. It’s not too hard to take the term as a given reality and enjoy the story from there, and I don’t claim to know Piper’s actual position on the matter. I am saying the text never provides either an evidence-based or principles-based definition – even in the crowning speech of the first book, which boils down to, “Little Fuzzy [the primary Fuzzy character] is a person and we welcome him into legal recognition, period.”

It’s full of really interesting, discussable individual case studies of grappling with it. On the one hand, there’s excellent example of the Company intellectuals convincing themselves that the pro-Fuzzy people are knowingly or unknowingly instigating a hoax, and they’re doing this knowingly – and soon, via cognitive dissonance, unknowingly – in order to perpetrate a hoax. On the other hand, a lot of the dialogue implies and in a couple of cases mentions that “nonsapients” are pretty damn dumb, reacting in the moment and moved to complex or directed action by magical instincts. Remember, you can’t have an elevated Man without a distinctly incompetent and dumb Beast.

Fuzzy Sapiens (1964) is less of a sequel than a direct continuance. The issues become complicated by Fuzzies’ need for a human-provided dietary supplement in order to reproduce, and by a windfall of sunstones on territory which had just been declared pure and un-exploitable Fuzzy property. Therefore the Fuzzies need humans, and their supporters have to decide how to do this without turning them into total dependents.

The main policy issue is the rapprochement between the Company and the new activist-y humanist government, based on the Company’s leader becoming pro-Fuzzy. It ties into political and psychological distinctions which are very important throughout the story, which posits two independent variables: the establishment vs. rugged/marginal, and individualism vs. company man. The hero of the first novel, Jack Halloway, is a marginal individualist, but when he and Victor Grego, the hero of the second book, an establishment individualist, become friends, they’re a powerful force which can overcome prejudices and limitations of view among each one’s respective close allies. The far ends of these variables in conflict appear in microcosm across a wide number of pairings. Their common enemy becomes organized crime, especially now that it’s free to thrive in its natural environment of elections, populist fear, and ruthlessness toward the trusting Fuzzies.

Fuzzies and Other People (as mentioned above, discoverd and published 20 years after Piper’s death) makes me a bit suspicious about its integrity as a text. There are two plot streams which don’t manage to jibe at all. One is specifically about Fuzzies’ inability to lie, and how that throws their testimony in court into turmoil, because obviously, the veridicator is only valid regarding someone who can lie. This is related to the established feature in the previous books that no Fuzzy ever displays evidence of mental dysfunction, and to one disturbing situation in which a Fuzzy, whom some well-meaning people are trying to teach to lie, is briefly induced to regard what is true as false and vice versa, which is as far as they can get.

This strikes me as the stronger of the two plot streams, especially in implying that humans may cause the Fuzzies to fall from grace, i.e., their fortunate general state of happiness and emotional stability, in order to cope with the exigencies of human society.

The other concerns a group of Fuzzies out in the forest, whose their leader simply and inexplicably learns to lie and thereby convinces them to make contact with the Big Ones (as they call humans). Any consequences or moral point about this is simply dropped as this plot stream ends in an action sequence and a fairly Disney set of events concerning Little Fuzzy in danger. Obviously these two chains of events are conceptually incompatible and I can’t help but suspect they were drafts.

Now I want to talk about difficulties in the novels regarding this “sapience” thing – the plot elements which muddy the issue rather than give it edge.

First, there’s a totally bogus device which solves way too many problems in the story: the veridicator, which glows red when a person lies and knows he or she is doing it. Like all science fiction, these books are full of nonsense premises, like the stuff about how mammals – chemically identical to Earth mammals – can be found on this or any planet – but I don’t care about that, it’s there simply so we can exaggerate real-world stuff into highly charged form. However, a device like the veridicator is different – it’s a Plot Weapon, allowing bypasses of genuine conflict, in this case, to force the bad guys to admit they’re lying when they otherwise wouldn’t do it.

Second, and related to the veridicator because it’s also about the fictional legal system, one character presents the very personification of “independent judiciary,” combining both utter personal integrity with, evidently, a completely effective enforcement and/or social acceptance thereof. I’m kind of confused about how that can be, considering that the planet has until this point no government except for what the Company felt like supporting, and that every aspect of local society implies that it’s kind of a Wild West on a corporate-colonial resource-planet. But without him and his personal control over who gets veridicated, there’s no way the Fuzzies could have won recognition. There’s a bit more related plot weakness with this, in that the Terran military kind of swoops in and Gordian knots the whole problem, armed with, evidently, unswerving integrity and moral insight.

Third, and I submit the most interesting one – because it’s a feature, not a weakness – is Fuzzies’ astonishing cuteness, personal integrity, general niceness, good sense, enjoyable blend of curiosity and humor (much like Curious George), and decency. They are incredibly lovable and more than once lead a human character to question his or her own belief in human decency, as we obviously fall considerably short in comparison. It’s a testament to Piper’s exceptional writing skill that they never come off as cloying.

I ask this as a real question, not rhetorical: thematically, isn’t that stacking the deck? It’s easy to feel bad about, say, the extinction of a cute animal, or in this case, about the legal rights of a cute human-type person. However, a counter-argument might be that the Fuzzies are very easy to objectify and to fail to take seriously, so again, I think it’s a feature to discuss rather than a criticism of the content.

I do think it’s valid to ask what the story would be like if the critters in question did qualify legally for recognition as people, but were strikingly obnoxious or at least, off-message as far as human perceptual bias is concerned. The excellent film District 9 is certainly a good example, and the Fuzzy books even offer their own candidate. If I could go back in time to chat with Piper, I’d ask what he’d do for a novel about the Khoogras, a frequently-mentioned but not-seen species on some other planet, which does have person/sapient legal recognition but is obviously at the utter gutter end of human tolerance – calling someone a “son of a Khoogra” is literally suicidal.

I call attention as well to a book more close in era, if not simultaneous with the Fuzzy novels, which is best summarized by “I gotcher sweet-and-fuzzy humanism right here, asshole” – Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Word for World is Forest, originally published in Harlan Ellison’s collection, Dangerous Visions 2. In this, the native Athsheans are much more like Fuzzies, being physically unthreatening, a meter tall, green-furred, rather sweet, forest-dwelling, and very low-tech [they are apparently much-altered humans actually] … and they are steamrolled, brutalized, fucked over, and ultimately completely and savagely ruined by Earth expansion, resolved only as the Athsheans learn about war and use it most effetively. (As is well known, LeGuin is the daughter of the Kroebers, the anthropologists concerned in the case of Ishi and the Yahi people.)

Putting together my three points above, one may well ask, if it were not for the Plot Weapon manifest in the veridicator, and its use by the curious integrity and power of the judiciary governing body, whether the Fuzzies’ fate would be completely predictable along the lines of the Athsheans, and without certain Athshean advantages, likely to end in some blend of extinction and chattel slavery.

Next: Do the drift

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7 thoughts on “Fuzzyology

  1. I never read either the Fuzzy books or Word for World is Forest, but I was aware of both of them, because I owned a copy of _Spacefarer’s Guide to Alien Races_ by Phoenix Games. It was kind of an amazing book. Every page of it had two columns; a small black and white illustration of an alien at the top, and then a column of very dense text giving a description of that race. The races were mostly taken directly from science fiction of the 60s and 70s, without the names even changed. Fuzzies and Athsheans were among them. The source was not credited directly under the alien description, but a list of all the sources was given in the back — WITHOUT an explanation of which races came from which books. (Though it was sometimes obvious from the title, as with _Little Fuzzy_.)

    Most of these books weren’t in my local library, and we didn’t have a good bookstore in town, so I only knew about these racaes from my reading & re-reading & re-re-reading of the supplement.

    More about the Spacefarer’s Guide: it presented a unified science fiction world, the Second Empire, and tweaked the descriptions of the alien races so that they fit into that world. (The Second Empire is a bit like the Traveller setting but higher tech and with way, way more alien races.) The text is ostensibly written by Professor Starymaples of the University of Zacania, who is apparently himself a small squirrel-like creature.

    Game mechanics are limited to numbers for six stats, Strength, Dex, Constitution, Speed, Psi, and Empathy (Empathy and Psionics are apparently two distinct psychic powers) as well as notes about their home planet type and what kinds of planets they can thrive on. There are notes about converting the stats to Traveller, Space Patrol (from Gamescience), and Space Quest. I had copies of Traveller and Space Patrol and actually played a bit of Space Patrol, but I had never seen nor heard of Space Quest outside of this book, until much later in life when I got a photocopy of it from an Internet friend. I still haven’t read it, unfortunately, because it turned out to be kind of dense and not very interesting, at least on first glance. I should do that someday.

    Unfortunately I lost my copy of the Spacefarer’s Guide long ago and have never been able to locate another physical copy — I would buy one in a heartbeat — but I have been able to console myself with a PDF copy which fell off a truck on the Internet.

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  2. I read the first two Fuzzy books, with exactly those covers, and also TWFWIF, although until now I never recognized the similarity/contrast. I am also reminded of the Piggies from Speaker for the Dead, who were perhaps not quite as cute, but still friendly and clearly People.

    This post really takes me back to when I simply read my entire local library’s SF section from one end to the other. I’d kill for that kind of time and focus these days.

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    • SFF fandom takes “sapience” and “sentience” very seriously, and I had thought, preparing to do this post, that the Fuzzy books had contributed to that view lock, stock, and barrel. The characters’ language about it seem, for instance, to go straight into Brin’s Uplift series.

      I still think that the historical influence is real, but now, upon re-reading the Fuzzy books, I found that the texts didn’t quite support the fundamental assumptions as much as I thought. All the characters buy into them, but since the Fuzzies are so thoroughly people, with not even a little ambiguity, their concepts don’t have to struggle about the Fuzzies specifically, only with the legal-policy situation which is more about human power and conflicts of interest. Which is really how the conflict’s resolution is brought about, too; I didn’t mention it in the post, but basically, the Company is forced into defeat not only by the use of the veridicator on one of its stooges, but also and mainly by the gunships of the Terran military.

      With that in mind, I found the dialogues and decisions to illustrate how invalid the concept is, at least insofar as it always boiled down to, how much Fuzzies are like us, period. It’s about social inclusion, not scientific definition. So now I see the writing of the characters’ dialogue about sapience as more sophisticated and provocative toward the reader, instead of taking what they say to be what the text as a whole says.

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      • I remember Speaker for the Dead hitting much harder on the “is communication with X possible?” button as far as its various alien entities were concerned, with the question of sapience/sentience not really coming into it so much as “can we coexist or does one of us have to go extinct”.

        Another quick take on the Company vs. Indigenes plotline is Sentenced to Prism, in which the aliens are silicon based, and the “living technology” is itself the resource the Company wants to exploit. It focuses more on action, but it’s colorful, fun and can be read in one sitting, and there are definite notes of “what does it mean to be human / sapient” not just for the aliens but for the human protagonists as well.

        I kinda want to hit on C.J. Cherryh’s Atevi series now, but as that’s not a First Contact story, it might stray beyond the bounds of the current convo.

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      • “since the Fuzzies are so thoroughly people, with not even a little ambiguity, their concepts don’t have to struggle about the Fuzzies specifically, only with the legal-policy situation which is more about human power and conflicts of interest.”

        The one scenario that I really worked hard to develop for the Alternity sci-fi RPG (an old favorite of mine) tried to get into both aspects of this niche, but I found the “Are these guys sapeint?” question to boil down almost into nonsense the harder I looked at it.

        What I finally decided on was that, for informal gaming purposes, sapience could be equated to System 2 style reasoning (a term borrowed from Kahneman, but apparently used in dual process psychology). It looks like just about every animal has some degree of System 1 style cognition, but System 2 is apparently unique to humans.

        So for these alien dudes that I was kicking around with, their level of cognitive function spiked at dawn and at dusk, and all other times was rather poor. Imagine being half-woken up from a deep slumber and asked a question about your taxes from five years ago: you probably wouldn’t be at your most “sapient” then either.

        To complicate matters, it turns out there’s an invasive lichen that makes these aliens get really high, but in the process, also stimulates their System 2-level thinking, permitting more abstract thought no matter the hour of the day. The aliens’ social structure is thrown into chaos by this, and humans’ interference doesn’t make anything easier.

        Never got to play it.

        But yeah, I don’t know what to do about the concepts. When you look at the Turing Test, it seems to be explicitly the same thing: “When we deal with this thing, can it mimic people so perfectly that we can’t tell the difference? And if we can’t tell the difference, let’s just say there isn’t one and it’s a person.” Phooey to that: fun begins in the uncanny valley, baby.

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        • Good call on the Uncanny Valley, it’s a big part of Ch. 7 in my book. One of my points is that a normal person turns out to be more in the Valley than you think, when you look clearly. It may be that no one is actually over there on the “OK human for sure” side because humanity of that sort doesn’t exist.

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  3. Pingback: So uplifting | Man nor Beast

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