Because Firefly mixes traditional western and science fiction elements to tell an adventure story, the essays collected in Finding Serenity are an examination of the nature of genre storytelling. But the writers appear to have been told to write whatever they wanted, so that examination is accidental. It comes from confusion: Is Firefly more science fiction or more western? Is it sexist? What is freedom, and how do power structures work? The collection is not a scholarly examination of a piece of art. It’s a group of fans praising and griping about a show that they clearly love as much as I do. And therefore the examination of genre is often superficial, but occasionally brilliant.
The collection’s greatest weakness is that none of the people who examine Firefly‘s western elements know much about the American West in legend or history. Discussing the show’s use of Asians, Leigh Adams Wright asks, “Who ever heard of a belly dancer in the Wild West?” Well, there was Little Egypt, who toured the country and made “bellydancing” famous. 19th century Europeans were fascinated by “the Orient.” At the time of the O.K. Corral gunfight, a saloon in Tombstone was called the Oriental. The multiculturalism in Firefly is very true to the historical west.
Ginjer Buchanan, talking about the history of science fiction TV, asks, “But where has the western been during this time?” She doesn’t watch TNT or the Western Channel. The western hasn’t died. Firefly would still be running if it’d been sold to Ted Turner.
Nancy Holder states, “The western hero is a ‘knight with honor in a savage land’ (to quote the theme song from Have Gun, Will Travel). . . .” She has the line wrong. It’s a “knight without armor in a savage land.” She writes, “(Whedon) made (Firefly) exotic SF by blending seemingly anachronistic historical western details with Chinese/Asian details.” But the Chinese were an integral part of the West, where they mined, built railroads, washed clothes, and ran restaurants. Paladin, the star of the show she mentions, had a Chinese servant.
She concludes her piece by saying, “I’m sure no one forced Joss to set his next show in what is arguably the least flexible of all the genres, the western, which celebrates the way things used to be.” Many people are fooled by the trappings of a genre: they assume historical fiction must be about the past and science fiction must be about the future. But all fiction is about the present. Historical fiction is just one form of exotic fiction, set in locales that the reader is not expected to know. Sometimes the details of exotic fiction are accurate, and sometimes they’re not, but ultimately, the story is more important than the world that the author has created, whether that world is the author’s idea of New York City today or a border planet in the Firefly ‘verse. The western is about the frontier, not the past. In Firefly, Whedon is using the tropes of the western in a science fiction show about frontiers. It’s a standard approach for TV science fiction: Star Trek and Babylon 5 are the cavalry in space, and Battlestar Galactica is a wagon train fleeing cybernetic redskins. Whedon’s show only changes the focus: it’s about the bandits, whores, and wrongly accused people on the run.
John C. Wright may be the fellow who loves westerns most, which may explain why his view of them is the most limited. Firefly fails to meet his requirements for a western. He says, “. . . showing men of honor who abide by a Code of the West is a natural and graceful element of the western. The code is typically American, rugged and unrefined but recognizably frontier chivalry, so to speak.” He goes on to say, “Chivalry is a concept unique to the Christian era. It is the notion that those who are terrifying and ferocious in battle should be honorable even with their foes as well as courteous, mild and humble toward those they protect: women and children and old men.” He cites Galahad, the embodiment of Christian mythic chivalry. Wright’s idea of westerns and chivalry would exclude two great movies in which John Wayne plays extremely unchivalrous men, Red River and The Searchers. His idea of chivalry would exclude a Muslim warrior like Saladin, whose “chivalry” was celebrated by his Crusader opponents. When a great samurai movie, Seven Samurai, was transformed into a great western, The Magnificent Seven, the underlying code was bushido, not chivalry. The reason westerns are popular in so many cultures is that the underlying themes of honor and loyalty are not Christian or American. They’re human.
The “code of the west” was created by western mythmakers. Gene Autry, King of the Cowboys, gives the best version in his Cowboy code:
- The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage.
- He must never go back on his word, or a trust confided in him.
- He must always tell the truth.
- He must be gentle with children, the elderly, and animals.
- He must not advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant ideas.
- He must help people in distress.
- He must be a good worker.
- He must keep himself clean in thought, speech, action, and personal habits.
- He must respect women, parents, and his nation’s laws.
- The Cowboy is a patriot.
The cast and crew of Firefly do surprisingly well on that scale. Points 4 through 8 and half of 9 fit them all, except Jayne. They do about as well as the protagonists of most great westerns. One of the greatest westerns, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, comments on the tricky relationship between necessity and honor. A newspaper man discovers that a heroic gunfight didn’t occur quite the way people think. When he asks his boss what to print, the boss says, “This is the west, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
Wright compares Firefly with High Noon, the most dishonest western ever made. Communities don’t abandon individuals. The honest version of High Noon would be a very short movie: Word would come that the bad guys want to kill the sheriff, the townspeople would form what you may call a posse or a mob as you prefer, and the bad guys would choose to keep riding through town. Firefly is much truer to the historical west than High Noon: the band sticks together.
The book’s writers do better on other aspects of Firefly. Nancy Holder, Tanya Huff, and Michelle Sagara West say things about marriage, sexism, and warrior women that inspired a post for my blog, “Humans are humans, or the three stages of activism in art and life.” Lawrence Watt-Evans says smart things about the nature of monsters, and David Gerrold’s subjects include a fine examination of terraforming. Roxanne Longstreet Conrad made me laugh in “Mirror/Mirror/A Parody.” You can learn more about the use of Chinese in the show from Kevin M. Sullivan. Jewel Staite’s favorite moments from the show are all favorites of mine. A number of the essays exist simply to remind you that, yep, this was a great show, and that’s a fine goal for a fannish essay.
This reviewer’s advice? If you’re a Firefly completist, buy it. If you’re not, take a look at it in your library or bookstore. If your library doesn’t have it, nudge them: the need to discuss Firefly will only grow after the first movie opens.