Meta & Background: The 'Verse of Firefly & Serenity

Joss Whedon's Television Legend Firefly, the movie Serenity, and the 'Verse

  When Joss Whedon and Tim Minear conceived of and wrote Firefly, which first ran in 2002, they envisioned a setting where science fiction melded with the spaghetti western. If there is one image that gives a taste of this universe, it's in the opening sequence where the space ship, Serenity, makes a low pass flyby over a herd of wild running horses.  

Both the television run and the consolation movie, Serenity, are first about characters and second about the plot of living on the "raggedy edge". But the universe itself was so compelling to people such as myself.   I remember the movie Toy Story in which the main character, Woody, is a cloth and wood cowboy toy who gets displaced by the other main character, Buzz Lightyear, a plastic and LED mechanical "space ranger" mirroring the American popular cultural imagination as the spaghetti western was replaced by science fiction. The Toy Story movies seemed to lament this a little, and its conclusion regarding the toys was to have them coexist without one displacing the other. Whedon and Minear seemed to take that to heart and say, why not actually meld the two genres. It was a compelling idea for me and countless other Browncoats.   This combination of extremely interesting characters and plot was completed with an amazing universe or the 'Verse, as it was referred. It was as fully a Western as it was science fiction. Lasers and space ships right next to herds of cattle and folks with cowboy hats speakin' all manner a' colorful wurds. Horses and hovercraft. Bounty hunters in space suits. Train robberies and high tech medical heists. Chinese Star Wars and Amercian post-Civil War. This was the most fascinating combination where all of these three parts were in perfect alignment.

I look out for me and mine. That don't include you 'less I conjure it does. Now you stuck a thorn in the Alliance's paw. That tickles me a bit. But it also means I got to step twice as fast to avoid them and that means turning down plenty of jobs. Even honest ones. Put this crew together with the promise of work, which the Alliance makes harder every year. Come a day there won’t be room for naughty men like us to slip about at all. This job goes south, there well may not be another. So here is us, on the raggedy edge. Don't push me, and I won't push you.
— Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds to Simon, Serenity [movie]

Colorful commentary
And then Fox had to go spoil the whole gorram thing by showing the episodes out of order and then cancelling it first season in. I still blame all of the world's woes on that—threw the whole universe out of whack.

Is Worldbuilding Important?

  Whedon and Minear certainly built the 'Verse. Worldbuilding itself isn't simply the names of characters or places, but is a huge web. Jane Espenson's contributions, in particular, built the 'Verse in substantive ways. And it is an evolutionary process. Thus building a world is not only one of continual development, but collaboration. In fact, a wide diversity of contributors working under a common vision can really make a universe rich and even more inviting. There does have to be a balance, but if several collaborators actually cooperate under a common vision and flavor, great things can be done.   That being said, what does bother me about the 'Verse of Firefly is that while the creators gave great attention to the Western flavor, they were woefully lacking in basic astronomy. If Joss would have reached out to his fan base, or even just to someone with a fundamental knowledge of building solar systems, I think there could have been a lot of understanding leading to better immersion rather than treating the astronomical system as an unimportant part. Given that a lot of science fiction focuses on the spaceships and rubber-headed aliens with too much attention to the point of cliché (think Star Trek, but also Star Wars), the Firefly franchise paid a lot of necessary attention to the Western flavor and social structure. But it did so at the expense of some basic astronomy that a simple nerd such as myself and many others could have constructed with little effort.   This is part of the reason why the 'Verse is being written here, not just as fan fiction in this amazing universe, but also to help correct the errors that even RPG content organizations like Quantum Mechanix made with solar system mechanics.  

Space Cowboys? What about Space Indians?

  Yet, the 'Verse also has a dark side, literally and figuratively. The season has a strong post-American Civil War vibe to it, yet the issue of slavery is, at most, only hinted at. Perhaps future seasons would have worked with that, or maybe it is just too touchy a subject for large corporate television company to entertain. Instead, the libertarian myth of the Big Bad government versus individual choice and freedom is one of the main subjects (particularly in the post-cancellation consolation movie, Serenity).   But another issue not fully explored was the potential diversity of the 'Verse. At first, this seems like a shocking statement. The eclectic explosion of culture in the huge crowd of Eavesdown Docks as shown in the (real) pilot of Firefly, seems to indicate otherwise. The prolific use of Asian and, particularly Chinese language, fashion, culture, and other details is everywhere. The main characters use chopsticks with such ease, you believe they've always been eating with them. Cantonese warnings about the ship's main systems failing alternate with English. Red silk is as pervasive as rawhide cowboy hats. The creators envisioned a world dominated by this Chinese-Anglo fusion. And yet...   With the exception of Gina Torres as Zoe Washburne and Ron Glass as Derrial Book, the main characters are mostly White Anglos. And even those characters operate in an Anglo culture. (Morena Baccarin is Brazillian-American, born in Rio, but her character, Inara also represents a Sino-Anglo fusion and not Brazillian culture.)   Yet, the darkest hint of all is one I noticed. In this post-Civil War setting, obviously using the American Wild West flavor, where are the indigenous peoples? In other science fiction settings, they are aliens, which the protagonists either eliminate, struggle against, or sometimes befriend as noble savages or aloof mystic beings. But in this universe where there are no rubber-masked aliens, who are the natives? Reavers. Just as the European settlers moved into the North American West fearing the bogey-men who were rumored to eat and torture these invaders, so we viewers are introduced to men (maybe women, we are never told) who looked out into the blackness of space and, seeing nothing, went mad. Or were the products of government meddling. Regardless, just as so many white male science-fiction writers have done to the genre, the villains are really projections of our own darkness, even if we attempt to pave over this darkness.  

An Injun in Eavesdown


I once saw an inspiring take on Firefly as a show—that it's about nine people who go out into the universe and each sees nine different things. And that was just the main characters. If you think about it, even supporting characters like Badger, YoSafBridge, Jubal Early, Tracy, Niska, the Operative and every other character, whether they had lines or not in the show and movie—they all see their own thing in the 'Verse. And this is where the stories tumble from. This is where my stories tumble from...where all of our stories tumble from in our real lives...whose stories are in perpetual threat of dying and drowning from a real 'Verse sometimes called contemporary modern global culture.

It's about nine people looking into the blackness of space and seeing nine different things.
— Joss Whedon, DVD commentary

  I wanted to contribute another story and a different viewpoint in this compelling universe. Firefly was a challenge to the science fiction television I had grown up with in Montana in the 80's (mostly Star Trek: the Next Generation which had its fair share of stereotyped Native Peoples) where there was one culture, the Federation. Yes, ahead of its time for portraying people of different ethnicities working together (a radical notion in the '60 that was further explored in the '80s), it still just put plastic rubber masks on one culture. Chekhov spoke funny and praised his Russian country, just as Worf kept insisting that he was a warrior Klingon. But in the end, they all adhered to the same values as common sense—that all cultural evolution progressed towards white European liberalist ideals in gleaming harmony, and that it was the job of the Federation to civilize the galaxy towards that end. For the anderoid, Data, becoming human meant becoming a white male. For Worf, it meant putting aside his heritage to serve the Federation's goals, values, and ideals. And even the antagonist known as Q, who constantly challenged the protagonists and criticized their past barbarism still was pointing towards WASP ideals as the measure.   My story, An Injun in Eavesdown, is about Tom Beartooth—a First Nations Plains Cree man—in Joss Whedon's 'Verse, specifically at Eavesdown Docks. In the pilot episode, called Serenity (not the movie of the same title), we see all kinds of people there. Did you see a man wearing traditional indigenous attire and a black leather vest wheeling his grandfather around in a wheelchair? The tongs? Throngs of people. Post-war—one thing I know about war is how racism fostered in it outlasts the final cease fire treaty, particularly among those defeated. So is poverty. I wanted to write what I knew—one of the invisible people of television, relegated to stereotype. I wanted to write his struggles with identity and place not on white man terms, but the terms of his culture, one transformed and displaced by the War, the great diaspora from Earth-That-Was, and this society's mainstream. I wanted to write about someone you don't see in movies and television—like me. Firefly was about the villains of that society. The outcasts. The losers. And, from my viewpoint, people like Tom, who often find themselves one rung down from that.   So the 'Verse in my eyes is still a rough place. Racism and/or culturalism abounds. Poverty struggles among affluence. Everyone is struggling for just a little power in their lives. In the 'Verse, human beings are neither evolving into the fantasy of enlightened civilization, nor descending into chaotic apocalypse. We continue to struggle, as we always have, to live. To survive. To understand and love and believe in something. To find family, friends and allies. It's a tattered quilt, half falling apart, not a melting pot, which is what the Alliance is trying to form it into—which erases cultures into one faceless mass, compliant and happy. Miranda is the Federation. A place without sin. Peaceful. In our global tension between individuality and equality, the Alliance seeks equality through compliance whereas the Independents sought individuality. But both have their price. We don't see the price of individuality in Firefly or Serenity because our protagonists happen to be on the Independents side. An Injun in Eavesdown starts that exploration of tensions in a series of stories I'm calling Reconstruction between these poles in our real globalist circumstances here in the real world.   Tom is on the raggedy edge, but he doesn't even have a boat to call home. He's doing what he can just to survive, but also trying to understand who he is in a world of misunderstandings, clichés, profiling, and corruption. He is not a hero. He most likely will never be. He is one of the billions whose story doesn't change history. (And while I love seeing fan fiction and continuing efforts by others to keep telling the story, it makes me cringe a little that Mal and his gang are emerging from their common-person obscurity towards the roles of pivotal historic figures, but, alas, it is a space opera after all, and that's what operas are about—the kings and queens.) An Injun in Eavesdown takes place after the end of the war, but before Mal is salvaging a derelict vessel in the series pilot. It's not pretty, so mature minds should tread carefully.  


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