Monday , June 24 2024
A new collection of essays on Joss Whedon's Firefly struggles to explain what made the show great.

Book Review: ‘Serenity Found,’ Edited by Jane Espenson

When I first saw Firefly, I was as charmed as anyone else. The show seemed to have it all: fun, interesting characters, great humor and vivacious wit, interesting plots, that irreverence for clichés particular to Joss Whedon, space, and that glorious spaceship, Serenity. But after the charm of the pretty ship and the cool one-liners had worn off, I looked for more. It seemed like there’d be more –  it just felt like there was so much more beneath the surface. Unfortunately, I’ve since come to feel that Firefly has a lot more flair than it does substance, and I plunged into Serenity Found, a collection of essays on the show and movie, in the hope that I could be convinced otherwise.

Unfortunately, I was not convinced otherwise. This collection suffers from the flaw that it’s much more interested in talking about how Firefly is so original, amazing, great, magnificent, unique, and fun that it forgets to explain why exactly it’s so great. It’s less interested in doing the actual intellectual work to showcase the supposed brilliance of ideas and writing within the series; it happily eschews compelling arguments in favor of grandiose claims. In particular, the first few essays in the collection suffer from this chronic tendency to glorify Firefly and Serenity through generalizations, exaggerations, and bashing everything that isn’t Firefly – almost as if they were worried that Firefly couldn’t hold its own if everything else wasn’t put down first. Though the second half of the collection is a marked improvement, and is certainly more cerebral, the general theme that seems to run through this collection is the problematic belief that Firefly’s way to tell stories or do sci-fi is the only way. Essay by essay, I plowed through, looking for something meaningful to be said rather than something grandiose, and essay by essay, I was disappointed.

The very first essay is by Orson Scott Card, and, renowned science fiction novelist though he may be, I cannot accept his essay as anything but, honestly, tripe. There’s probably reviewer guidelines somewhere that insist that I phrase my criticisms politely, but I honestly don’t know how to politely say that I don’t think I’ve ever read such trash in my life.

Card’s general thesis is that Firefly is better than any television or film science fiction ever, because it lives up to the glorious, superior, and completely arbitrary standard of print science fiction. In fact, Card revels in spending the majority of his piece criticizing every single piece of sci-fi film and television that’s existed previous to Firefly (that includes all of Star Trek and Star Wars. Because none of those have any merit. At all). I would happily provide some counterarguments as to why he’s wrong, but Card doesn’t offer any arguments; instead, he happily tramples through the past half-a-century of science fiction in the media before joyfully placing Firefly on the pedestal of the only work of television science fiction to contain characterization, plot, science, and important issues (all things that, apparently, print sci-fi has never had any problems with). Setting aside his completely irrational preference for one medium over another, Card’s essay also suffers from a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of science fiction – which comes in infinite variety, with its plots and scientific inaccuracies varying to the needs of the ideas it approaches. Firefly follows a long and venerable line of film and television sci-fi, and however one phrases one’s criticisms of what preceded it, they’re untenable.

Card’s essay sets the tone for much of what’s to come, and the essay following his continues particularly strongly in that same vein. It begins with the bold, desperately-attempting-to-be-catchy, unfounded generalization: “Science fiction is broken.” Maggie Burns’ problems with it: it’s self-referential, disconnected from “everything else, so that only initiates can find any value in it,” tiny, and “irrelevant.” Following Orson Scott Card’s spectacular excuse for a piece of writing, this essay gets second place as the biggest piece of trash in the entire collection. There’s a plethora of issues with this, too, but mostly they boil down to the same problem as the previous essay: attempting to present Firefly as the solution to all of science fiction’s problems – problems that the genre doesn’t actually have in the first place – and in doing so, bashing everything that exists. By definition, any genre is self-referential: authors are going to be inspired by and dialogue with the ideas and styles of other authors. That is how fiction and narratives work. Science fiction is hardly tiny, as the size of Star Trek conventions and the viewership of Doctor Who during Christmas must testify. And as for relevance – any meaningful work of fiction will be as relevant as its viewers allow it to be, and science fiction was meaningful long before Firefly came along. In short: Firefly doesn’t get a big, shiny prize for doing (or trying to do) that which has been science fiction’s purview since…well, ever. This, of course, makes the rest of Burn’s essay pretty pointless, since it hinge precisely on this idea that Firefly’s fixing a problem that doesn’t exist. It’s also most certainly not the first work of sci-fi to portray fictional people as normal, realistic, and flawed, and presenting “human” characters rather than idealizations also doesn’t happen to equate to relevance.

The next couple of essays approach Firefly from a feminist angle. It’s a perfectly valid angle to approach it from: after all, Whedon is renowned for his female characters, and the way that he upends both gender norms and clichés. While that’s something I greatly respect, something about these essays, and the way they approach this issue, feels a little stale. Perhaps, it’s because we’ve heard it all before with Buffy, or perhaps, contrary to this collection’s unanimous opinion, Firefly is not the only work of science fiction that has strong (or real) female characters. Still, Natalie Haynes does make a compelling point about the use of humor in the show – and what it means for the female characters to be funny. The rest of the feminist angles are much less compelling, and Michael Marano’s comparison of the women of the Whedonverse reads as – just that – a bland comparison which would find a much better home in a collection dedicated to Joss Whedon than to Firefly.

Still, the second half of the tome presents a handful of essays that are certainly worth the time spent reading them. P. Gardner Goldsmith highlights the libertarian ideals of the show  – whatever one’s own political opinions, and however far they might tend from libertarianism, this essay is nevertheless excellent at pointing out and exploring the presence of these ideals in the text. Shanna Swendson provides an interesting juxtaposition of Mal Reynolds and Simon, pointing to some parallels I hadn’t remarked upon before. Evelyn Vaughn points to some interesting parallels between the war in Firefly and the Civil War, and, though she hardly delves in depth into the significance of this parallel, I’m certainly convinced of its existence. Alex Beldsoe provides an extremely interesting analysis of Mal by making a distinction between a rebel and a revolutionary – a particularly important topic given the themes of freedom and rebellion within the story. Bruce Bethke provides an excellent and engaging history of science fiction, its pulp and magazine origins, and what exactly that has to do with the genre of the Western.

There’s also a handful of essays that are simply unremarkable, and, when added to the already unimpressive beginning of the collection, do little to raise its overall quality. Ken Wharton’s piece on the Alliance’s war on science certainly points to important, current issues about science in society, but eventually spirals into a generalized sort of moralizing that feels far beyond the scope of what the actual show is interested in delving into. Geoff Klock’s piece on story structure points to the way Firefly plays with said story structure and analyzes the importance of the spaceship itself to the themes of Firefly, but again hardly needs all the space it takes up. Natasha Giardina’s essay attempts to make a point about the importance of Mr. Universe and singing the praises of the geek in a world of technology, but again it feels like an arbitrary projection onto the text than an extrapolation of it. Mr. Universe is certainly important to the plot of Serenity, but the film itself is hardly an ode to his IT skills – or, at least, I’m going to need more convincing.

Finally, there’s a handful of essays that are not strictly analytical in nature, but provide some nice refreshment from many of the failed attempts at intellectual analysis within the collection. The centerpiece of these is, of course, Nathan Fillion’s short contribution, “I, Malcolm.” A brief recollection of his memories of filming Firefly – and of how fictional life bled into real life – it’s a lovely infusion of heart and soul into the volume. Corey Bridge’s provides an interesting introduction to MMORPGs (online roleplaying games) with a slight nod to Firefly and why it’s a good fit for one of those. Lani Diane Rich provides a playful piece about “Things My Husband and I Have Argued About While Watching Firefly” – a personal, humorous, and engaging piece about how Firefly’s affected the lives of two people, and certainly one of the few contributions with any real feeling to it.

Still, as I flip through the read-volume, I’m missing that sense of finality I often have when finishing a good book. There’s just no sense of having consumed a piece of writing that, being inside me, has somehow changed me mentally. Looking back at the cover page of the tome now, the proclamation catches my eye that the editor was Jane Espenson – one of the writers of Firefly and of Buffy, who’s made quite a name for herself in television.  I can’t help but be feel another twinge of disappointment: her participation in this collection, as well as the fact that it was produced by the publisher of an excellent series of books on popular culture, SmartPop, had led me to expect so much more. Somehow, in all of its two-hundred-page content, I found myself scavenging for interesting ideas and tidbits as I would for crumbs, and finding a few gems along the way. I console myself with the thought that not only is there more sci-fi out there, there’s also more SmartPop books on it, both having the likelihood of being much more engaging.

About Anastasia Klimchynskaya

My mind rebels at stagnation. Find the rebellious thoughts of that constantly racing mind at my blog, Monitoring the Media.

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