Jack Holloway is a Sunstone prospector on the Zarathustra planet on behalf of the Zarathustra Company. During his work, he comes across small creatures he names Little Fuzzies and soon realizes that they show signs of intelligence, an event that can dramatically change the planet’s status.
The Zarathustra Company has a charter on the planet based on the fact that it’s not inhabited by sapient creatures, if the level of intelligence of the Little Fuzzies got recognized the corporation would lose part of the control of the planet’s resources. The decision becomes the subject of a harsh legal battle in the form of a murder trial.
“Little Fuzzy” is set in a future where humans have expanded into space colonizing various planets. Some of them get exploited for their resources, in the case of Zarathustra especially the precious sunstones. It’s a frontier place that in many respects reminds of the Earth’s old West.
H. Beam Piper set a good part of his works in the same fictional universe building up his future history. The calendar of that future measures the years of the Atomic Age starting from 1942, the year in which the first fission reactor was built, of the old calendar. “Little Fuzzy” is set in the year 654 of the Atomic Age.
In this future there’s a big corporation that we could call multiplanetary, the Zarathustra Company, which gets huge revenues on a planet thanks to a charter based on the fact that there are no sapient creatures. H. Beam Piper prefers to use this term rather than sentient and this choice is part of the discussion of the Little Fuzzies’ mental skills.
The discovery of that native species can dramatically change the situation on the planet and in particular how the Zarathustra Company can exploit its resources. “Little Fuzzy” is considered a juvenile novel but especially in the second part the arguments regarding the definitions of sapient creature and if the Little Fuzzies are sapient make it interesting for grown-up readers as well.
At the time, “Little Fuzzy” was named for the Hugo Award as the best novel of the year, so it was obviously considered sophisticated enough to compete for the award. Some characteristics make it a juvenile, beginning with the presence of the Little Fuzzies, very cute and nice beings.
The plot is very simple and straightforward, though with a few twists for a novel that is short for today’s standards. H. Beam Piper worked at a time when science-fiction writers published their works mostly in their sector’s magazines with their length limits, and “Little Fuzzy” is also a product of the time.
Today, “Little Fuzzy” may seem naïve in some ways because there’s a big corporation that has enormous economic interests on a planet and they can be severely limited in a short time by a judge’s decision. From this point of view, the difference not only with the dystopian stories that lately are very trendy but also with our reality is huge.
The characters are functional to the plot and not particularly developed, with the use of various stereotypes inspired by the stories of the Earth’s old West. The novel remains interesting for the arguments about the Little Fuzzies mental skills and on what characteristics make a species sapient.
All that part is based on psychological foundations that concern communication, problem solving and interaction skills. In the following decades there have been many developments not only in the field of psychology but also in neuroscience and the attempts to create artificial intelligence led to new ideas about what it means to be a sapient or sentient creature. However, I think that under this point of view “Little Fuzzy” is still good.
It0s for this reason that in my opinion it may still be worth reading “Little Fuzzy”. The novel has its end so you can read it and then decide if you want to look for its sequels and is independent from other works that are part of the future history written by H. Beam Piper.