Histories of the Future
A science fiction writer can link diverse stories by setting them in a common “history of the future”—an imagined future that might run anywhere from a dozen years to geological eras. A new tale may not be a direct sequel or prequel, but it can appeal to us in somewhat the same way when it shares a background with a story we’ve enjoyed already.
Using a common future history has great advantages for the writer, as well. It’s easier to continue developing an established background than to invent something entirely new. But this approach also has pitfalls. We may find that later stories evolve to conflict with the background we’ve already set up. We saw off the branch we were sitting on.
SF author H. Beam Piper‘s “Fuzzy” series gives us a particularly interesting example of the perils of success.
Piper’s intense interest in history led him to outline a vast scheme of human progress and space exploration, now referred to as his “Terro-Human Future History,” in that it deals mostly with human beings of Terran descent.
Piper believed in a cyclical theory of history, in which similar patterns of events recur in different ways. His Terro-Human Future History is thus full of analogues to actual events: the Sepoy Mutiny (Uller Uprising), the barbarian invasions of the European Middle Ages (Space Viking). Piper’s historical scheme covered 6,000 years’ worth of rises and falls, empires and interregnums.
Late in his career, Piper won a permanent place in the hearts of SF readers with the novel Little Fuzzy (1962). Crusty old prospector Jack Holloway on the colony planet Zarathustra discovers a species of small, golden-furred beings, the first of whom he dubs “Little Fuzzy.” The Fuzzies are primitive hunter-gatherers, perfectly capable of tracking down and killing their food. But they are also smart, fun-loving, lovable, and an endangered species.
The Chartered Zarathustra Corporation, which runs most of the planet (an analogue of the historical East India Company), takes an intense interest in these little creatures—because its charter depends on the assumption that Zarathustra was an uninhabited world. When a CZC employee kills one of the Fuzzies, and a company gunman is in turn killed by Jack, it becomes crucial in the subsequent murder trials to decide whether the Fuzzies are truly intelligent persons, or just animals. The resolution of that issue forms the climax of the story.
Equal parts adventure story, courtroom drama, speculation on the nature of intelligence, and heartwarmer, Little Fuzzy was a hit with readers. (And it seems likely, I’ve always figured, that the Fuzzies are one of the literary ancestors of the Ewoks.)
The subsequent literary history of the Fuzzies is exceedingly complex. Piper published a sequel, Fuzzy Sapiens (or The Other Human Race), two years later. A third Fuzzy novel had been sent to a publisher when, in November 1964, Piper committed suicide. The manuscript of the third book was lost. But reader interest in the Fuzzies led publishers to commission a new Fuzzy sequel by William Tuning, issued in 1981 as Fuzzy Bones. An overlapping prequel taking off from Tuning’s development of the story, Golden Dream, was written by Ardath Mayhar and appeared the following year.
Ironically, no sooner had these continuations come out than the lost manuscript of the third Piper book was found after all. Piper’s Fuzzies and Other People (“F&OP”) appeared in 1984. Unsurprisingly, Piper’s continuation was not consistent with Tuning’s and Mayhar’s, leaving us with two inconsistent, but equally interesting, versions of the Fuzzy mythology.
It’s even worse than that. At least two different reboots or reimaginings of the Fuzzy mythology have been subsequently published. A detailed explanation of the whole mess can be found in a 2007 article by Fred Patten, with further information in a Goodreads review of Fuzzy Bones.
The great charm of the Fuzzy stories lies in their mixture of tough-mindedness and tender-heartedness. “Pappy Jack” and a whole series of other tough, no-nonsense characters develop unexpected softer sides as they succumb to the irresistible cuteness of the Fuzzies. In Tuning’s words, “Like many men who were extremely tough, he turned to goo at the sight of those wide, appealing eyes.”
But the Fuzzies aren’t just cute. Arguably, they are better people than humans. Fuzzies share without hesitation. They help each other. They tell the truth (though this particular trait gets complicated in F&OP). They’re not competitive, but they do aspire to excellence. This inherent virtue has its tough side too: Fuzzies applaud the deserved punishment of evildoers.
More important, for purposes of their long-term effect on human affairs, they aren’t simply an enclave of niceness: they influence people. Almost every human who comes in contact with them becomes a better person as a result. Villains in one story are converted to good guys in the next, once they acquire Fuzzy companions.
One character observes in chapter 12 of F&OP: “we’re hooked. Hooked on Fuzzies.” The Fuzzies are making a permanent difference in the quality of human behavior on Zarathustra—not by force, not by persuasion, but simply by being lovable. It’s not at all the kind of development one would expect from a hardheaded rationalist of Piper’s type.
It’s not what one would have expected of his future history, either. And that’s the twist I want to point out here.
Can Piper’s Future History Survive the Fuzzies?
When the Fuzzies entered Piper’s future history, it was already well under way. Four novels and a number of short stories were already in print, and Piper had plans for more. Many of these stories were set later in time than the events of Little Fuzzy. And the events of this hypothetical future, as noted above, were built on Piper’s view of cyclical history. A fundamental change in human behavior would have thrown the whole sequence into disarray.
But the advent of the Fuzzies represented just such a change. At the end of F&OP, there are plans to take Fuzzies off Zarathustra. “[E]verybody on Terra will be crazy about them.” Indeed. One visualizes Fuzzies spreading throughout the Terran Federation, disseminating goodness and improving human beings wherever they go.
A good thing for those fortunate humans? Undoubtedly. But Piper hadn’t set out to write a Utopia. His later stories depended on the assumption that humans would continue to be the same difficult, ornery creatures they always have been. The innocent-seeming Fuzzies had endangered the whole basis of the Terro-Human Future History.
Piper’s suicide has always been attributed to a certain moodiness combined with financial and personal difficulties. But I’ve sometimes wondered whether the Fuzzy conundrum might have had something to do with it. Piper had built a carefully planned future history. But the more he worked out the implications of the Fuzzy stories, the harder it must have seemed to keep their influence contained in such a way as not to disrupt that careful plan. With all those stories in print, there was no easy way to resolve the internal contradictions.
We’ll never know about Piper’s personal views. But we can take the peculiar saga of the Fuzzies as a reminder of how tricky it can be when different types of stories—even good and well-beloved stories—inhabit the same imagined history.