More On The Meaning of “Human,” But This Time As To Cute Little Fuzzballs; Little Fuzzy, by H. Beam Piper

About four years ago I sat down and started compiling a list of 3,000 SF stories that wanted to read, or in some cases reread, to include on an SF book review blog I had asked my brother to help me create. To make that list I went through several dozen “best of” lists of SF that I found on the internet. While I was putting that list together I came across an author that I had virtually no experience with: H. Beam Piper. The story that I found was a linguistics story called Omnilingual, which was the only story I had ever read by the author. I remember being moderately impressed with that story when I read it decades ago, so I wound up including it on the list. A few years later – actually back in December of 2008 – I got the idea to do this blog, so I searched out SF stories with legal content, again on the internet. Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper was one of the first hits I got. It took me some time to find a copy – fortunately Wildside Press has reissued a POD of this book. It’s got quite a bit of legal content in it, and some of it is really well done. It is also a charming juvenile book about some adorable little creatures, and it’s frequently credited as the source of inspiration for certain SF fans who enjoy the “furry” lifestyle, which entails dressing up and going to conventions (and if you believe certain “tell all” books, orgies) in anthropomorphic animal costumes.

Little Fuzzy is at its heart a colony story with a strong anthropological bent. The colony in this case is a human colony on an Earth-clone world named Zarathrustra. The Zarathrustra colony has been extant for about twenty-five years. The population of the colony has swelled to over one million people, all of whom are employed by one big corporation, called simply “The Company.” Zarathrustra is a true paradise; more Earth-like than Earth itself, especially since Earth was recovering from a moderately destructive nuclear war. Since Zarathrustra had no indigenous, intelligent life, it was declared to be a Class One planet, which meant that those who were given charge of the planet could pretty much do what they wanted. And The Company did just that: They were in the process of ruining Zarathrustra’s environment so that Earth could be supplied with all kinds of products, most of which it probably needed desperately. One million citizens, all of whom were engaged in production, could do quite a bit of damage. Because of human intervention, weather patterns of Zarathrustra started to change.

Zarathrustra may have been devoid of intelligent life, but it was rich with all manner of animal and plant life. One of these creatures was called a land prawn. Land prawns were shrimp-like creatures that hatched from eggs placed in borrows by females at the end of their one-year life cycle. They inhabited the lowlands of the primary continent which flooded yearly with spring thaws from the enormous mountain ranges that surrounded the continent. Despite their names, land prawns were not acquatic creatures, so when the spring floods came most of them drowned in their burrows. Not all of course, but their populations were kept in check by the rains. As Zarathrustrian weather patterns changed however, smaller and smaller amounts of snow fell on the mountaintops during the winter. One year virtually no floods came at all to the lowlands, so the country was overrun with prawns. As it turned out the land prawns were the primary source of food for one particular race of creatures that man had not yet encountered. Ecological changes in the highlands, where these creatures normally dwelled, pushed them into contact with manking.

Despite the immense industrial base on Zarathrustra, there was some low-tech industry. Jack Holloway was an elderly prospector in the hills of the primary continent who strip-mined with explosives and a mech-suit for Ishtar gems, which were the fossilized remains of a gelatinous creature. One day while Jack was fixing himself dinner after a hard day in his mine he was greeted by a wide-eyes, hairy, diminutive and curious creature, whom he later named “Little Fuzzy.” Little Fuzzy was very sweet-natured and spent a lot of time with Jack. At first Jack thought that the uncommunicative creature was a wild animal that had wandered down from the largely unexplored mountains, but before that first day was over Little Fuzzy had amazed Jack with its capacity for intelligence and social behaviors. The creature hunted prawns with a wooden tool that it used to skewer, then de-shell and cut up the prawns for food. It also learned a few human words, and though it couldn’t speak, it behaved as if it understood context. It understood trade, and in fact traded its wooden tool for a metal one that Jack made. It also demonstrated abstract thought – after being shown how a nut and bolt worked it applied the same actions to a screw-top bottle. Eventually Little Fuzzy brought several more of its tribe down to Jack’s home. Jack was so moved with the little creature’s capacity for affection as well as their obvious intelligence that he sent word back to the main city of his discovery. The powers that be immediately became concerned for their economic interests. The colonial governments were all regulated by a planetary governing body. If that body learned that there may be intelligent life on Zarathrustra they would not hesitate to yank the Company’s charter while they investigated, and if they concluded that the Fuzzys were intelligent they would re-designate Zarathrustra so that all exploitation would have to stop permanently. In other words, if the Fuzzys were intelligent, the gig was up, and the Company’s entire investment would be lost.

The set up in Little Zuzzy was pretty big, but after the first third of the book was done the story turned into one corporate dirty trick after another, most of which, but not all, occurred in the courtroom. Naturally some tension developed here between Jack Holloway and his friends, which in the end included the military and the local police, and the Company managers of Zarathrustra. At one point a posse of Company men came to Jack’s land to set up a station to “test” the Fuzzys to see if they were intelligent. Jack was tipped off that those men on his land were really just trying to find out where the Fuzzys were coming from so that they could wipe them out. Earth was a solid year away – six months for a message to get there, then another six months for a light-speed craft to arrive – even by the fastest ship, and the Company knew that if they could exterminate the Fuzzys before the government investigators arrived at Zarathrustra their “problem” would go away and they would get to keep their colony. Once Jack learned of this he threw the men off of his land, which was on some sort of land grant that gave him the right to do that on an otherwise Company-owned world. During that confrontation a Company manager named Kellogg crushed a Fuzzy under his heel. He said that the creature was trying to bite him – it wasn’t though. Angered, Jack pulled a gun and before it was over a man was dead. When the police showed up Kellogg had Jack arrested on a charge of murder. Furious at Kellogg Jack did the same same thing to him – he accused Kellogg of killing an intelligent creature, which under colonial government law was the standard for murder. This set the stage for the action of the story: If the Fuzzy was intelligent, then Kellogg was a murderer. It also meant that Holloway, who was beign threatened by the man with a gun, was justified in his killing of Kellogg’s man. Incidentally, after the Fuzzy female was crushed the other Fuzzys came and buried her and gave her funeral rites.

The legal elements of this story have to do with how the facts of the killing applied to the test for intelligence, because the killing was not a murder unless the Fuzzy female was intelligent. At the time there was a test (more of a rule of thumb, actually), called the “talks and builds a fire” rule. Courts of the day used it as a general test of intelligence in any new races that they found where intelligence was not obvious. Since the Fuzzys did not communicate verbally and lived a Paleolithic lifestyle the company argued that they did not meet the test and thus were not intelligent.

Unfortunately the rule was not without faults. If it was required that a victim know how to talk and build a fire in order to be deemed an intelligent creature, how could murdered babies ever get justice? The corollary to the rule, of course, was that lack of the required evidence did not meet the standard for proof of non-sentience. This fact changed the tenor of the story from pure courtroom drama to a more meaningful story where the inadequacy of the law was tested in the face of an entirely new kind of factual circumstances. What made this story a true joy to read was that everyone from who had a dog in the fight over the standard for murder, with the exception of the parties, of course, who had strong feelings, treated the debate as a purely philosophical one, and left their prejudices at the door. It was the most refreshing legal fiction I have read in a long time.

Despite the competent way that Piper handled some of the legal issues in this story, there was also quite a bit of legal ineptitude, most of which was properly done to increase the drama, but would never have happened in a million years in the real world. At one point the attorney representing the Company offered to drop all charges against Holloway. The attorney, Leslie Coombs, was actually pissed off at Kellogg for escalating the situation; not because he failed to stop the killing, but because he pressed charges against Holloway in the first place. That forced Holloway to press charges in retaliation, and brought the issue of the sentience level of the Fuzzys before the court. Without that it would have just been an unfortunate occurrence.

Everything would have worked out perfectly if Kellogg had only kept his head and avoided collision with Holloway. Why, even the killing of the Fuzzy and the shooting of Borch, inexcusable as that had been, wouldn’t have been so bad if it hadn’t been for that asinine murder complaint. That was what had provoked Holloway’s counter-complaint, which was what had done the damage. And, now that he thought of it, it had been one of Kellogg’s people, van Riebeek, who had touched off the explosion in the first place. He didn’t know van Riebeek himself, but Kellogg should have, and he had handled him the wrong way. He should have known what van Riebeek would go along with and what he wouldn’t.

Personally, I love that quote. It’s got really meaty, subtlety-stated legal and business management connotations, and it just rings true for me. Returning to my point, Coombs did not want the issue to go before a judge because he suspected, rightly as it turns out, that the court would rule that the Fuzzys were sentient. Despite the serious risk to Holloway’s freedom, he declined to allow the charges against him to be dropped; he wanted to be a hero and help the Fuzzys by having the court rule in their favor. First off, it is a common misconception that individual citizens may “press charges” in any case. The only party who may press criminal charges against others is the state itself. Of course the victim of a crime may become a primary witness against the accused. And police, district attorneys and judges are free to elect to dismiss charges when the victim asks for it, but the decision is not up to anyone but the state and the judge. It’s ludicrous to think that Holloway could have decided to continue being a criminal defendant. And by the way, any attorney who let a defendant do that should be disbarred. Once that offer is made – the offer to expunge any record and drop all charges – there is nothing left to litigate, and the defendant should just go home, thanking God with every step that any risk to personal freedom has been quashed.

The trial process in this novel was a bit unusual, however I have a feeling that too was to heighten the drama and to ease understanding, and in one part to work in a different perspective than the English/U.S. system that most of his readers would have been familiar with. One of the most interesting things about his book is that virtually everyone and every entity save for the Company was trying to do the right thing here. For example, the police got involved early. They came out to Holloway’s place on a routine patrol before everything went south and found out about the Fuzzys. Holloway was friends with the sheriff so he gave them a few Fuzzys to keep in the station. Suffice it to say that the cops fell in love with the little creatures too. In any other number of books the police would have been voiceless, faceless peons of the Company who were included in the story to serve as jack-booted thugs or as guards. But not in Little Fuzzy. Here they were sympathetic investigators who had consciences and morals. The military also got involved, but much later on. By the time they came into the story most of the scientific study had already been done and most agreed that the Fuzzys were intelligent. They also arrived in time to see many of the dirty tricks that the Company tried to “fix” the problem. These included taking the Fuzzys from Holloway under an evidence order and giving them to Kellogg’s main scientist for “safe keeping,” and publicizing a bounty of $50 each for Fuzzy pelts, fabricating stories of Fuzzy attacks to justify “Dead-or-Alive” rewards, and hiding relevant evidence, including certain Fuzzys. Irritated with corporate hubris the military assigned their best physician (they had no anthropologists handy) to study the Fuzzys.

When the time for the trial came the navy doctor served the court as an amicus. An “amicus curiae,” is literally a “friend of the court.” The purpose of an amicus is to remain neutral and advise the court as requested. This is usually accomplished through an amicus brief and rarely is an amicus called as an expert, though it does happen sometimes. In this case though the judge turned to the amicus during the case-in-chief and asked him to explain why he thought the Fuzzys were intelligent. The doctor saved the day (unfortunately with a deus-ex-machina type of resolution) by showing the court that the Fuzzys were fully intelligent, and that they communicated verbally on a sub-sonic level, but he did it by giving narrative testimony, without cross examination or even direct. He just kind of got up and started talking and the judge took what he said and ruled without allowing any cross examination or other testimony at all. It was worse then a Perry Mason Moment (search the blog for this; I’ve already described it). I think though that Piper may have modeled trial procedure in Little Fuzzy on the continental European system where amici are allowed to testify in this way. The physical arrangement of the parties tables, with the witness directly in front of the judge and the parties to either side, is reminiscent of the European way.

Piper also included a bit of new technology that really changed the flow of trials as we know them. He included a device called the “versificator,” which glowed different colors, from green to red, based on the witnesses veracity. If they believed that they were telling the truth then the device would glow green or blue, but purple or red if the witness knew that he or she was lying. Its use was interesting, particularly since most of the corporate witnesses, Kellogg included, thought that they were in the right. But the real rub was this: The court could have confidence that the evidence that it was considering was true and accurate, which in turn means that instead of trying to do the best thing for the party that seemed to be the best, the court could now do the right thing. For those of you with little knowledge of how our legal systems work, that is pretty revolutionary. Let’s just say that these days, baby-splitting is the rule of the road in at least half of the courtrooms that I have been in, because most of the time a finder of fact is confused as to exactly what the right thing to do is. Consider this: A typical jury is confronted with two versions of a factual occurrence. If they believe one party, then outcome A is the right thing to do. If they believe the other party, then outcome B is most correct. The most frequent problem is that the jury cannot decide because both parties seem sincere, and there were no witnesses. So what does a jury do when 1/2 of them like the plaintiff and the other 1/2 like the defendant? They split the baby, which in my opinion does more damage to justice than taking a position and being wrong.

In terms of legal analysis Piper kind of missed the boat. This was definitely not a gritty nail-biting legal thriller. Instead it was a gentle story where the good guys won out over the evil corporation and saved the cute little creatures. In it Piper did get into legal theory, analysis and application, but the story did not truly turn on that. It turned on a moral right, not legal correctness, though on the way to its moral conclusion it did a great job of hashing out the legal problems. However, where it succeeded in its discussion of legal thought, it utterly failed in its discussion of legal procedure in a criminal trial. There it descended from on high to trite sophistries and common misconceptions about the law. For me, it was a bit heartbreaking. On a colony world with its own legal procedures these kinds of things may have passed muster. Unfortunately Piper, who obviously knew a thing or two about the law, took no effort to make that point, which leads me to the conclusion that he was attempting to deliver a traditional courtroom battle that was based on the US procedural system. What we got in that regard was a dumbed-down Hollywood version where the pure characters got up and spoke their hearts and won the day, and failed to argue legal principles and apply the facts.

One interesting aspect of law that this whole story invokes is one of takings law. A taking occurs whenever a government takes a property interest from an individual. Under the United States Constitution the citizen whose property rights are so infringed is entitled to “just compensation.” Under any aspect of property law the government would have been liable for a taking here, although I do acknowledge that the planetary land grant here was actually a treaty, and thus not subjecty to the ordinary legal principals unless spelled out in the treaty. Most litigation over takings involves 1) whether the taking was appropriate in the first place; and, 2) if it was, what “just compensation” means. Takings usually are OK with courts, even when its for as something as meaningless as beach access for bathers. Just compensation usually comes in the form of money payments – and is rarely “just” – though the government also has a tool at its disposal called a “TDR,” or “Transfer Development Right.” It works like this: If the government takes a substantial property right from you, then it may repay you by giving you a right to develop some other property you own where the improvement runs afoul of local zoning or other regulatory law, and where it does not substantially affect the rights of others. I’m sure that the drafters of the treaty had the good sense to include a provision where the colonizing party agreed to forgo any compensation claims if intelligent life was later found, but the Company here could have easily gotten a boot to the front of the line for the next colony world. Piper also made a point of saying that this was the only real Earth-clone that had been discovered, but still, the point is that not all was lost for the Company. A million man population, an enormous city and industrial development over the entire face of one colony is a major loss, but it could have been mitigated some.

Piper had a few literary problems too. He rarely told any of the story from the Fuzzy point of view. Once it became obvious that they were intelligent creatures it would have been nice to see what they made of it all. A few other of his characters were flat. Halloway’s attorney, Gustavus, was made out as a drunk who was trying to forget something, but Piper never told us what.

Little Fuzzy is a juvenile SF book, so if you are going to read it, remember that fact. It is a fairly typical juvenile in that the good characters are good and the bad characters are easily identifiable. To say for sure, none of the bad guys wear capes, have pencil thin moustaches, or stand over girls tied to the tracks. But the bad guys do some pretty bad things here just because they are bad, even though they do have adequate motivation. One of the most charming facets of this book also is how so many people care about these little creatures and want to help them: More, that they all want to do the right thing and work hard at it. It is one of the better juvenile SF works out there, comparable in my mind with Heinlein’s best, though not an adventure story.

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