Kenneth J. Newquist brings us a review of Jane Espenson’s unauthorized anthology of essays based on Joss Whedon’s Firefly ’verse. — ed, N.E. Lilly
Finding Serenity Review
by Kenneth J. Newquist © 2007; previously published in Nuketown
For a TV series that died an unspectacular, mostly-unnoticed death at the hands of brain-dead Fox TV executives, Firefly is proving to have a remarkably lively corpse. First it sold millions of copies as a 13-episode DVD collection, then this show of interest prompted Universal to back a movie based on the series. Another sign Firefly’s undeath is Finding Serenity, a collection of essays deconstructing the series’ complex heroes, intriguing plot lines and philosophical foundation.
The soft-cover book consists of 22 essays compiled by editor Jane Espenson, who wrote the episode “Shindig” and contributed to Whedon’s earlier Buffy the Vampire Hunter series for five years. Most of the essays in this book focus on analysis, figuring out what made Firefly work, as well as speculations on what didn’t work. This later elevates the book above a mere collection of love letters to Whedon, and it’s refreshing to hear the occasional disparaging words, even if I don’t agree with them.
The first of these essays Larry Dixon’s “The Reward, the Details, the Devils, the Due”, which explains that it was the little things — from the richly detailed set to how Whedon used this set to establish the tone of various scenes to the comfortable, easy-going dialogue that makes folks feel like they just came home.
“The Heirs of Swaney Beane” speculates on the nature of one of Firefly’s most disturbing — and rarely seen — villains: the monstrous barbarians known as the Reavers. Author Lawrence Watt-Evans compares the Reavers to the urban legend of Swaney Bean, who allegedly founded an extended clan of cannibals in the 1700s. His ruminations on how the Reavers — which as barbarians shouldn’t be able to maintain a space-faring culture — provide plenty of food for thought. Of course, with Serenity’s release we learned much about how the Reavers were able to become and maintain a space fairing society, but having the answers doesn’t lesson the essay’s impact.
“We’re All Just Floating in Space” by Lyle Zynda explains the existentialist thinking behind the surreal episode “Objects in Space”, which revolves around objects and their meaning as River battles a bounty hunter sent to capture her. While I’m not partial to that particular philosophy, this essay did help place the episode firmly in context.
Space Hookers and Female Warriors
As I worked my way through the book, I found the analysis pieces revealing as much about Whedon fandom as they did about Firefly. Scratch that; they definitely reveal more about the followers of the Jossian Way, because prior to reading this book, I had no idea that Whedon’s Buffy and Angel were so popular in feminist circles.
This isn’t particularly problematic, but many off the essays seem to assume that a) you understand the terminology and pre-existing arguments being used and b) you’re versed in the feminist interpretations of Buffy and Angel. The essays are certainly readable without that understanding, but those with that background would probably find them easier to digest.
Six essays that focus on genre roles, of which five are written from an explicitly mainstream feminist perspective. “More Than a Marriage of Convenience” presents an analysis of why Wash and Zoe’s marriage works, looking at how the geek pilot Wash’s pilot and the soldier-turned-mercenary Zoe compliment one another.
“Re-imagining the Female Warrior” argues that Zoe’s the only female warrior on TV who isn’t neutered or objectified in that role; she just is. I take issue with some of her analysis — I don’t think the only sort of women that 18-30 year olds want to see is big-breasted, scantily clad superheroes (though that’s certainly what Hollywood thinks we want to see), and I don’t think that Dana Scully’s character represents an androgenize female hero — but all in all it’s a good essay.
“Whores and Goddesess” explores the sexual archtypes surrounding Serenity’s companion, Inara, delving deep into Earth’s cultural history to do so. It’s a fascinating read, all the more so because it’s written by someone who can relate to Inara’s role: Joy Davidson, Ph.D. and certified sex therapist/marriage therapist. “I Want Your Sex” analyzes the balance of gender power in the Firefly universe, and finds it lacking. This essay is the one most deeply steeped in feminist thought and rhetoric, as well as the entirety of the Whedon universe mythology. It’s an interesting read, because it is so deeply immersed in its own viewpoint, and because I found myself often mentally arguing with its premises.
These essays may reach divergent conclusions; but all come at the issues from feminist perspectives. There is one essay that attempts to offer a different view — “Just Shove Him in the Engine”, which discusses the nature of chivalry (or rather, the improper implementation of it) — but it reads almost like the obligatory right-wing, traditionalist essay thrown in as a token nod toward balance, and the editor clearly disliked it. I can’t blame her too much — I disagreed with some of the writer’s arguments as well — but as an attempt at balance, it fails miserably. An essay by someone like someone like Wendy McElroy of iFeminists, who approaches feminist issues from an individualist prospective and often challenges the standard dogma — would have truly expanded the book’s perspective.
The book breaks up its more intense and philosophical parts with humorous essays, some of which work, some of which don’t. “The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of Firefly” by Glenn Yeffeth unfolds as a series of mock memos that trick and explain the thinking behind the Fox execs that killed the series. It’s amusing, but only just so. “Firefly vs. The Tick” by Don Debrandt is a humorous comparison of Firefly and The Tick animated series, and again, its amusing, but not fall-down funny. Several other comedic essays — including one in which the Serenity crew crosses over into the Star Trek universe, are included, but none of them felt particularly needed.
They serve as a decent buffer between more serious subject matter, but it’s a buffer I would happily have done with out, particularly if that space had been allocated to patching the book most glaring hole: politics.
In direct contradiction of Star Trek’s benevolent federation, Firefly introduced the Alliance, a massive governmental superpower that on its most benevolent days is a smothering, conformist nanny state. And on its worst, it uses its power to perform horrible experiments on its own subjects, while forcibly subjugating those who don’t buy into its collectivist vision. This, as much as anything else, was one of the defining aspects of Firefly: it’s distrust of the state and its motives. Now that can be interpreted in a variety of ways — I can see (and have heard) heartfelt arguments about what this means from liberal, conservative and libertarian perspectives, but none of these are addressed in the book.
Instead, we get jokes about Fox executives’ obsession with T&A.
I would have loved some essays penned by contributors to the various mainstream political magazines, and while their absence here does not cripple the book, it certainly diminishes it.
Finding Serenity offers plenty of thoughtful examinations of a science fiction series many of us have come to love. While it has its flaws, it’s still a good read and a worthwhile addition to any Firefly fan’s library.