Saturday, September 17, 2011

Fuzzy Nation

Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi

The first line of dialog in the book is "I can't believe we have to go through this again". I concur. In the end this seems one of the more aggressively pointless works, largely due to its reboot qualiteis. In the introduction to the piece Scalzi tries to present it as all things to all people--it's a new version of the story to bring the main themes up to date, it's an autonomous story that happens to use some of the same characters, it's an homage to the original that can bring more attention and readers to a past classic. The result is to make me quite unsure on why Scalzi actually settled on this project.

My own connection to the original franchise is minimal, I've heard it mentioned a few places and read the last volume a long time ago. I don't feel that it's a betrayal to revive it again, and am not as critical as if it were, say, another butchering of the Foundation Universe. I don't much like the practice of taking over abandoned genre sand-boxes, and it's hard to fight the impression that Scalzi is doing this as a way of provoking more discussion and a sense of newness over his writing while at the same time is explicitly becoming less original.

All that aside, what emerges from the story is quite generic, even if it were rebranded enough to have no relation to the original series I'd still feel safe calling it heavily derivative. There's dynamics of colonization, alien contact, a bit of corporate intrigue, and a protracted high-impact legal battle. The story isn't terrible, but it doesn't do very much with any of these elements, or do more than slightly warm over the stock SF narrative of past decades. Scalzi has in the past brought a lot more humor and energy to proceedings that can push through his employment of cliches, here the plot is slow enough and the dialog labored such that it settles into mediocrity early, and only pushes past that in brief flashes across the book. For all that we were laboriously told about the impact of the proceedings on the planetary ecology, on the characters' finances and ideals, on indeed on the larger colonial economy, it was very hard to feel that there were real stakes at any point. I've read worse books from 2011, and even books less distinguished, but this had a sense of controlled mediocrity that felt particularly frustrating, like Scalzi was consistently hitting safe groundballs to push forward his story, and in the process draining it of real interest.

I gobbled down the Old Man War trilogy, a fun ride with a fair bit of substance below the surface, particularly in worldbuilding. Since then I've felt a deep sense of diminishing returns, Scalzi's contribution to the 2008 Hugo Shortlist meltdown with the breezy, inconsequential tie-in Zoe's Tale, the deeply inert God Engines, and in the 'real world' his own insistence on defending fandom against the whiners and critics--which is to say defending it as a zero-challenge exercise in mediocrity, among other things. I guess given that it shows an avoidance of hypocrisy to carry that into his own writing, in which the very reboot format declares his intention to boldly chart a story of change and revolution in an echo of past forms, staying strongly within a particular box. Which isn't the worst thing in the world, and I'm sure a lot of people will be pleased by Fuzzy Nation, but I'm not pleased by the way things seem to have gone. I think I'll add Scalzi to the category of Dropped Authors (with Stross, Sawyer, Martin, Bear and Haldeman) authors that I had followed pretty regularly, but are not delivering at a level to reward that attention, whom I'll avoid in the future unless I encounter a review or other reason to suggest things have significantly changed.

Grade: C-

Similar to and better than: God Engines by John Scalzi

Similar to and worse than: Newton's Wake by Ken Macleod

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