Meta & Background: The 'Verse of Firefly & Serenity
Joss Whedon's Television Legend Firefly, the movie Serenity, and the 'VerseWhen 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.
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.