Finding Serenity
Anti-Heroes, Lost Shepherds and Space Hookers
in Joss Whedon's Firefly

edited by Jane Espenson
with Glenn Yeffeth

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

BenBella: Dallas, 2004

238 pages September 2005



If you have not read our review of Firefly, please read that first.

Warning: some plot spoilers in the following review,
intended for those who have seen Firefly
but if you are wavering, this may encourage you.

Finding Serenity, the book, really cannot be appreciated
until you've seen Firefly.

Which Firefly — the Shiny or the Flickering?

This is a fine anthology of comment and critique for fans of Firefly. The television series amounts (on DVD) to eleven hours, the equivalent of a half-dozen movies; a lot of subject material when the subject is worth while, and in this case it certainly is. Finding Serenity: Anti-Heroes, Lost Shepherds and Space Hookers in Joss Whedon's Firefly contains 21 essays plus an Introduction by editor Jane Espenson. She herself is author of Firefly's episode four, "Shindig". Her Introduction is short but well worth your attention. Espenson also provides a lead-in to each essay. This is a thought-provoking and entertaining companion to the series; the essays often are fascinating and certainly will enhance your appreciation of Firefly.

Finding Serenity's strengths and weaknesses are inherent in its mixture, which is a good mixture; but I must say at once that some of the learned contributors do not seem to be watching the same Firefly series as I am. Small differences are inevitable concerning a subject of such depth and subtlety, but some of these odd perceptions —

In 1875, ten years after "The Celebrated Jumping Frog" first appeared, Mark Twain printed three versions of his classic story sequentially: "The 'Jumping Frog'. In English. Then in French. Then clawed back into a civilized language once more, by patient, unremunerated toil." Twain's salvaged, re-Englished version is very funny in its own right, but it certainly is an odd "Jumping Frog". I'll trust that not even wilder leaps of perception will devour our Firefly.

Issues in space? Or a condition?

You may be surprised, as I am, that among thoughtful fans of Firefly represented in this anthology, there lurk undertones of political-correctness and overtones of feminist-correctness. Why concerning Firefly, of all things? Chips on shoulders left over from cherished battles? Or floating objects in space, unattached to the Firefly I'm seeing? (For historical and philosophical perspective, see Wendy McElroy's anthology, Liberty for Women.) Herein, I'm mostly going to accentuate the positive, and ignore the dubious.

I'm afraid that there's also occasional sniping at incidental choices made by the Firefly writers. Imagine that some fellow, Attila the Hun, is written as liking blue flowers. A critic can say: why doesn't he prefer yellow flowers? Another critic: enlightened Attila must enjoy all the flowering colors equally. Another critic: Attila should have expressed a preference for wildflowers over garden flowers.

Those who think that Niska as a villian is "over the top", more melodramatic than realistic, have not read the histories I've read.

Of course, sometimes even commentators nod off in clouds of glorious issues. And then there's the possibility of alternate Firefly DVDs in 'verses which I haven't yet seen, swarms of Fireflys like the phantom instrument lights Jayne tries to pluck out of midair. — I'll credit the here-and-now Firefly writers with wonderful writing. To speak exactly: literally wonderful.

Frontier lingo, color palettes

The Finding Serenity essays lead off with Larry Dixon's "The Reward, the Details, the Devils, the Due". This very fine and insightful essay ranges amazingly over personal style and language, country life in Oklahoma, the artistically linear structure of Serenity, the color palettes of Serenity and its crew-folks' spaces and clothes, the physically evocative background details, the warriors' code, the characterizations of Mal and Zoe and Jayne. And some more stuff in between. If you have any curiosity or confusion about how and why Firefly works so well, Dixon's essay alone is worth the price of the book.

Frontier worlds — shiny, or under-imagined?

In "'The Train Job' Didn't Do the Job: Poor Opening Contributed to Firefly's Doom", Keith R.A. DeCandido simultaneously criticizes the two-hour "Serenity" pilot episode for being too long, and the quick-written substitute one-hour pilot, "The Train Job", for telling rather than showing. I think this is wrong on all counts.

The "Serenity" pilot painstakingly sets out the characters, frontier-world, and action background. For instance, DeCandido complains about the lead-in to the meeting with Patience; but without this set-up the Serenity crew-folk would look like fools walking into an ambush rather than risk-takers. In another instance, DeCandido claims the little ship's-galley scene with Kaylee and the strawberry, could have been shortened by half. No, it's just right: not only illustrating Serenity's galley but providing time for anticipation so the audience notices Kaylee's rare enjoyment of the strawberry. Otherwise she's just eating a fruit, we do that all the time; the scene's gone in seconds, no big deal.

As a last-minute Fox-forced substitute, the plot action of "The Train Job" was chosen to be a straightforward train robbery, easily understandable by all, so a whole lot of background material could also be packed into the episode. It does a difficult job surprisingly well.

Candace Haven's Joss Whedon: The Genius Behind Buffy (2003) includes a chapter on Firefly. This points out that initially Whedon pitched a one-hour pilot, which Fox upped to two hours — before they rejected it, and demanded a one-hour pilot. Fox thought the "Serenity" pilot didn't have enough action. That's sure not the episode I see, but maybe in some other 'verse —

"Star Truck", by David Gerrold, discusses in some detail the backstory or world-building that makes Firefly such a rich experience. This is good, although on the point of terraforming worlds or moons I think too little latitude is given. A lot of the terraforming clearly has been minimally-budgeted, resulting in moons just tolerable for life. But as for terrestrial constraints — the Firefly 'verse has artificial gravity as well as terraforming technologies. You could manage a lot of geophysical parameters with artificial gravity.

Ancient Chinese curses

There's a lot of Mandarin cussing in Firefly. This has the advantage for prime-time television of slipping under the censors' radar; presumably censors don't care about the delicate ears of Chinese-speaking American children. More seriously, Joss Whedon's vision of a future dominated by American and Chinese influences is woven nicely into the texture in lots of little ways, of which the incidental swearing is only one strand.

Some observers are surprised that Whedon didn't cast some Chinese-American actors into major roles. I'm sure he took the best acting applicants as he found them for the parts, but he could have found others if he'd wanted. I suspect that he did not envision Serenity's crew to be about ethnic balance: Oh look, he and she look Caucasian, and her and him look Chinese! Ooh, Affirmative Action in space as they fight and make up! No, what he wants viewers to see and appreciate is the culture, the American-Chinese semi-fusion.

Deciphering Jenny Lind's translations spoken in Firefly is fun. For Finding Serenity, Kevin M. Sullivan contributes a thoughtful essay, "Chinese Words in the 'Verse", as well as "An Unofficial Glossary of Firefly Chinese". Not all futuristic curses; there are some very funny lines here.

Freedom and constraints

Speaking of real affirmations of freedom, both the omnipresence of personal weapons, and the absence of racism — neither the presence nor absence, respectively, are "politically correct" today — speak well for freedom in the Whedonverse, five hundred years from now. Of course there are many constraints on living fully free in the 'verse, as Mercedes Lackey points out in "Serenity and Bobby McGee: Freedom and the Illusion of Freedom in Joss Whedon's Firefly". She usefully discusses the web of contingencies in which various characters operate. But I think that she overstates her case: there always are constraints on human action. To require that the realization of human potential inevitably will make everyone a revolutionary, strikes me as more Leninist than liberating. I applaud her optimism; but Mal and Zoe already have been through the fire in Serenity Valley.

"We're All Just Floating in Space", by Lyle Zynda, tangles interestingly with the metaphysics of episode fourteen, "Objects in Space". This episode is a very spacey sort of thing for any kind of writing: television, movie, even printed science fiction. Zynda discusses how Whedon draws on Sartre (who in turn draws on Nietzsche as well as the Greeks). This episode deserves more space than I can give it here.

"Anti-heroes — or Big Damn Heroes? Just Shove Him in the Engine, or the Role of Chivalry in Firefly", by John C. Wright, discusses a component of the Western genre that Wright believes does not fit well into science fiction. Wright raises interesting points about codes and styles of behavior, and about the Code of the West versus the Code of the Sky. But as far back as I've been reading science fiction, I've found plenty of chivalry in this genre too, mostly simplistic but some deep. More recently, as Scott Farrell hones his vision of Chivalry Today, I've devoted quite a bit more thought to the concept. I think anyone interested in systems of ethics for the future should consider the breadth of values inherent in chivalry. In specific reply to Wright, see Scott Farrell's essay Seeking Chivalry and Finding Serenity.

Music in space

No, not music in vacuum, musical themes for Firefly! But it is pleasant to hear the silence of space, rather than the rockets' Hollywood roar in vacuum. That kind of filmmakers' deliberate goof is like a space pilot thinking that parsec is a unit of time rather than distance (this is coyly left uncorrected in the upgraded Star Wars).

Greg Edmonson's music for Firefly is very nicely done, beautifully evocative through all the adventures and maladventures. "Listening to Firefly", Jennifer Goltz's fascinating analysis of Edmonson's musical signatures and themes, is an excellent piece of critical writing. Reading Goltz really helps one hear and appreciate the musical richness of the Firefly vision. As she points out, there's a lot of characterization and even storytelling in this music.

Shoot, don't talk

As Tuco memorably says in the great Western movie, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, "When you have to shoot, shoot. Don't talk."

"'Thanks for the reenactment, sir.' Zoe: Updating the Woman Warrior", by Tanya Huff, insightfully delineates Zoe and her relationships with husband Wash and captain Mal — and even Jayne. (Played excellently by Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk, Nathan Fillion, and Adam Baldwin.) Huff so obviously gets Zoe and these relationships that it's a shame that the Fox Television executives couldn't be force-fed this essay as a lecture when they were deciding not to run Firefly's two-hour pilot episode. (They eventually ran it last, after they'd cancelled the series.) Her point-by-point weighting of the choices when Zoe comes to Niska to bail out "her men" in "War Stories" is exactly right. To mention just one more analysis, Huff shows how the who-is-attracted-to-whom scene at the end of "War Stories" works just perfectly among Mal, Zoe, and Wash. And "Jayne got an eyeful and acted like a heavily armed Greek chorus." Perfect! Read it.

"More Than a Marriage of Convenience", by Michelle Sagara West, affectionately points out how the marriage of Zoe and Wash is an adult relationship, in fact an ongoing and effective marriage of real people. Not a "troubled marriage". This is rare on television, and was not understood at Fox. Inara and Mal's difficulties are contrasted with Zoe and Wash's open and straightforward communication. West also describes nicely what "Bushwhacked" and "Our Mrs. Reynolds" tell us about what Wash and Zoe mean to each other as real people interacting successfully with each other.

Space hooker?

Inara Serra (played by Morena Baccarin) is a Registered Companion, rather like a Classical Greek hetaera. (For another rare and successful tour-de-force extended treatment of the hetaera theme, see the novel Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey.) Of all the occupations aboard and around Serenity, this must be the strangest to modern sensibilities. Hence it is a great challenge to do well, and it is a triumph for the Firefly sense of realism that the writing and Baccarin's acting bring this off so beautifully.

"Whores and Goddesses: The Archetypal Domain of Inara Serra" by Joy Davidson is the longest essay in Finding Serenity, partly because Davidson provides quotations from key passages to wrap her points in context. She analyzes some key scenes of Inara's in the light of ancient religious practices alongside modern psychology and sex therapy. She neatly draws upon a history of civic intimacy (as I'll term it) in Greece and the ancient Near East, and later Germany, Italy, and Japan. Courtesans and geishas are only an echo of the old glory of Aphrodite. I'm sure that no small part of Inara's attraction for the war-battered Mal must be that she is a healer, not of body but of psyche. Davidson is insightful — and even funny — with this strange but tradition-deep Classical revival. A summary paragraph:

As much as Inara reflects the past, she is equally a contemporary Everywoman, or, more accurately, Everywhore: liberalism's enterprising dream-girl, radical-feminism's oppressed victim, the conservative right's sinful temptress ... and, let's not forget, popular culture's love-struck, intimacy-phobic, "I-gotta-be-free" girl, too. Inara successfully straddles the juiciest memes of ancient history, the present day and an alarmingly possible future.
Keeping Serenity flying

A unique insider's view is "Kaylee Speaks: Jewel Staite on Firefly". The ship's young engineer, beloved by all the crew of Serenity, is played by Jewel Staite who here skips through all fourteen episodes, briefly discussing five favorite moments from each. She is generous toward her fellow cast members and Joss Whedon, and of course justly so. Staite lovingly picks out points which are variously dramatic, moving, or hilarious — Firefly, oh rare bird, has plenty of each — and shares them. We know she could have filled a book of such moments. Straightforward, heartfelt, and nicely done.

The laughter of the gods

"The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of Firefly (the Behind-the-Scenes Story)", by Glenn Yeffeth, is a fictional series of letters from a supposed Fox Television executive to Joss Whedon. This documents (not for real, this is Hollywood, okay?) how Fox came to encourage, underwrite, mangle, and then cancel the Firefly series. Does Fox deserve some satirical targeting for mangling and cancelling one of the best television series ever? Well, yes. Does this little story explain whether Fox cancelled Firefly through stupidity, through malice, or through sheer lack of artistic taste? Not really. In fact — Anyway, Yeffeth's story is all too believable, and very funny. It begins:

Dear Josh,

Great seeing you at the party last week. My God, does Marty know how to throw a party, or what? My sinuses still hurt! And the idea of bringing in a film crew, inviting a horde of D-list bimbos and pretending we were shooting Who Wants to be a FOX Television Star? Brilliant, just brilliant. Normally we have to pay those girls!

Listen, I've heard good things about you and that Bunny the Vampire show and I'm starting to think you might be ready for the big time ...

"Mirror/Mirror: A Parody", by Roxanne Longstreet Conrad, imagines the crews of Star Trek's ship Enterprise, and Firefly's ship Serenity, falling through a singularity and exchanging places. Each crew tries to figure out how to operate, and live aboard, the other spaceship. If you've ever wondered that science fiction on screen was stuck in low orbit for way too many years, Conrad's wickedly hilarious speculation may tell you why. Wooden ships and iron men is a great old phrase from sea-going warships. Conrad gives us a beautifully pointed contrast between wooden place-holders in steel office buildings in space, versus real men and women living and breathing in a working spaceship. She even provides a side-by-side chart of Serenity's and Enterprise's crews. Very funny, a joy of comparative analysis. And just when you think she can't fit in another hilarious point, there's another — and another.

Lost shepherds?

Some of the commentators in Finding Serenity and elsewhere refer to the Firefly 'verse as a dystopia, meaning a negative utopia. Not to my mind. I think rather that (as far as Firefly itself goes, at least) it is a non-utopia; that is, a projected other place and time, indeed, but one which feels real and reasonable and potential — rather than nowhere.

So no utopia, but where are we? Adrift in space, or have we just lost sight of the city on the hill where our ideals shine? Well, Shepherd Book (played by Ron Glass) is certainly one who seems astray. A strong character of mysterious transitions, even if his Bible mayn't be "broken" as River claims. And Simon and River (played by Sean Maher and Summer Glau) are slighted in these essays, not because they are not fine characters who are vital to the series, but because River's esoteric nature still requires to be brought out in the movie sequel, Serenity.

So how lost need we be, all strangers in a strange land? But all the crew and passengers of Serenity help navigate their tiny community according to their own natures, making it a warm island in the sky of night. And the one who first and last put their ship Serenity aloft for them all, is Captain Malcolm Reynolds, building a truly serene freedom that he could share and keep.

If you are curious about the structure and history of the Firefly series, and the background carried forward into the Serenity movie, Espenson's Finding Serenity is a fine place to start. Shiny, as they say.


© 2005 Robert Wilfred Franson

DHF advised on this.

Musician & music theorist Jennifer Goltz
blogs at EarHorn Orchestra

R. W. Franson's
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