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REVIEW: Finding Serenity edited by Jane Espenson

REVIEW SUMMARY: A great companion to a great show.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Anthology of 21 essays examining the cult (and canceled) TV series Firefly.

PROS: Excellent introspections into a great show; insightful; eye-opening; humorous.
CONS: a brief episode guide would have been helpful; of little or no interest to non-fans.
BOTTOM LINE: A hands-down must-read for any fan of Firefly.

I wish I could say that I was a fan of the now-canceled sf/western TV series Firefly since the beginning (as if that holds some prestige) but the truth is I never watched while it aired on Fox. It wasn’t until after its DVD release and the subsequent buzz that I took notice. My impression of the show today could not be any higher and I very much look forward to the theatrical release of Serenity later this year.

And so it was with great anticipation that I dug in to Finding Serenity, an anthology of twenty-one essays examining the many different aspects of the show. The book is edited by Jane Espenson who wrote Firefly‘s “Shindig” episode. She also has a professional history with Firefly creator Joss Whedon having worked on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Espenson provides brief intros to each essay and would have done well to include a conspicuously missing brief episode guide to summarize the episodes since they are referenced in every essay.

The essays are written by fans of varying professions. (Who else but a sex therapist is qualified to examine Inara?) They are insightful, eye-opening and humorous. Each one focuses in one or another interesting aspect of the show yet they are unique. This is the true appeal of Firefly – it entertains and intrigues on so many levels: characterizations, storytelling, world-building, dialogue, artistic and more. Finding Serenity is the map to this wonderfully detailed universe.

As might be expected, a book targeting such a specific audience as one for a TV show – and a canceled one at that – may be of little value to the uninitiated. However, if post-cancellation DVD sales and the upcoming resurrection to the big screen are any indications, the Firefly fan base is growing. (My secret hope is that Firefly is resurrected after its huge DVD and – hopefully – theatrical success.) For Firefly fans new and old, this book is a must-read as it will to get you thinking about the show in ways you never thought of it before.

Artist Larry Dixon’s essay “The Reward, the Details, the Devil, the Due” examines the details that went into the production of Firefly including camera framing, use of colors and the characters’ – even secondary characters’ – backgrounds. Having brought my attention to all the work that obviously went in to creating each and every element of a scene, I will be watching with a more educated eye on the next repeat viewing. Dixon’s love for the show clearly shows in his descriptions of how Firefly reminds him of events and people in his own life.

Author Lawrence Watt-Evans’ essay title, “The Heirs of Sawney Beane”, is a reference to the Reavers in the Firefly universe, a band of human-descended cannibals who, much like the legend of Sawney Beane, relied on cannibalism as a way to survive. Many questions are posited in the excellent essay (Where do the Reavers get fuel? ) based on data provided throughout the series’ limited run in an effort to fill in the back story of the Reavers’ that viewers like myself so desperately crave. But, as the editor mentions in the essay’s preface, new information is learned about the Reavers in the upcoming Serenity movie – information that raises a whole new set of questions.

The essay by fan Leigh Adams, “Asian Objects in Space”, tries to make an argument that, although artifacts and influences of Asian cultures exist in the Firefly universe, there is a surprising lack of actual Asians. I guess I never noticed since, as Adams points out, there is such a rich blend of culture in just about every aspect of the show.

There are no less than three pointedly humorous essays. “The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of Firefly (the Behind the Scenes Story)” by editor/publisher Glenn Yeffeth would, by its title, lead you to believe that it is the true reasons for Firefly‘s short life. However, this is a fictitious (and hilarious!) set of memos from a Fox executive time-lining the show’s demise. Being a fan of the show myself, I somehow see the portrayal of the Fox executive as a shallow, bigoted, power-hungry, womanizing letch with ever-increasingly stupid ideas for the next big reality show more than fair. The “memos” even explain the decision to nix the pilot in favor the more swashbuckling tale of “The Train Job” episode. I liked the executive’s interpretation of Whedon “going for the Sam and Diane thing with Reynolds and the whore” and later: “Have you considered making all the girls whores? Sort of a Mustang Ranch in Space? Now that would bring ratings!” And the form letter of the show’s cancellation was well done. Funny stuff indeed. In “Mirror/Mirror: A Parody”, author Roxanne Longstreet Conrad proves quite handily why Firelfy knocks the wind out of Enterprise‘s solar sails. She does so through both a mini-script in which the Serenity and Enterprise crews find themselves in each others’ universe and through a blow-by-blow list of reasons why each Firefly character would rule in the wimpier Federation universe (with a handy summary chart at the end). Lastly, and the least effective of the three less serious essays, author Don DeBrandt makes some arbitrary (but still funny) connections between two TV shows in “Firefly vs. The Tick”.

In “Who Killed Firefly?” editor and fan Ginjer Buchanan examines the reasons for the show’s demise by first exploring the history of both sf and western TV shows. She makes the bold claim that, aside from the obviously weak-kneed Fox executives, that…hold on to your helmets, sf fans…Gene Roddenberry and Joss Whedon himself are to blame – Roddenberry for creating the de facto optimistic and alien-rich future (thus turning potential Firefly viewers off with its contrasting dark vision of human-only space) and Whedon for combining the a niche sf market with the unpopular western genre. Hmmmm…that’s something to contemplate…

For those who do not know the story behind Firefly‘s early episode air dates, Fox thought that the two hour “Serenity” premiere episode lacked enough action so they made writers Joss Whedon and Tim Minear write a “better” premiere and only gave them two days in which to do it. The result was “The Train Job” episode and, if Keith R.A. DeCandido (editor and author of the Serenity movie novelization) has anything to say about it in his essay titled “‘The Train Job’ Didn’t Do the Job: Poor Opening Contributed to Firefly‘s Doom”, this was and episode that was a poor, poor introduction to the series. While DeCandido is a bit harsh on the episode, he cites Fox naiveté as the reason. Personally, I liked “The Train Job” episode, but then again my intro to Firefly was the properly-ordered DVD.

Some of the essays in this collection focus in on individual characters. “Whores and Goddesses: The Archetypal Domain of Inara Serra” by sex therapist Dr. Joy Davidson offers a brief history of prostitution and how the character of Inara must deal with stereotypes. Two insightful essays, both written by professional writers, delve into the character of Zoe. In “More than a Marriage of Convenience”, Michelle Sagara West examines Zoe, Wash and their strong, believable marriage. In “‘Thanks for the Reenactment, Sir’: Zoe: Updating the Woman Warrior”, Tanya Huff explores Zoe as the penultimate warrior woman she is – not stereotypical at all because the character is a realistic portrayal of a strong woman. TV critic and journalist Robert B. Taylor makes a good argument that the women of Serenity are the stronger characters in “The Captain May Wear the Tight Pants, but It’s the Gals Who Make Serenity Soar”.

John C. Wright’s essay “Just Shove Him in the Engine, or, The Role of Chivalry in Joss Whedon’s Firefly” shows how chivalry (the defense of women and children by men) differs between the science fiction and western genres and posits that an extra helping of it might have more successfully blended those genres together. The argument is that science fiction prevented Joss Whedon from doing so and that “delicate modern sensibilities” called for its removal in the western portion of the genre-blend. As a science fiction example, both utopian and dystopian (post-apocalyptic) environments fail when the women are not strong, thus there is no need to be chivalrous. In westerns, Wright says, chivalry is expected but modern culture dictates that women be treated as equals. While this is all politically correct it takes some of the Old West out of the western or, as Wright puts it, the western as a genre is disrespected. (In the essay’s intro, the book’s editor seems to be unhappy – as evidenced by her need to punch the couch and go for a walk after reading this piece – with some hidden, anti-feminist message in this essay that, for the life of me, I just cannot seem to find.) I’m not sure that more chivalry would have made Firefly more appealing to those who did not already find it entertaining, but as always Wright’s writing is clear, logical and fun to read. (Note to self…remember this JCW quote: “Science fiction is about what changes, not about what stays the same.”)

Author David Gerrold, who wrote the Star Trek episode “The Trouble with Tribbles”, explores the subtext of Firefly – all of the unspoken things that we are shown that serve to build the Firefly universe. He raises some interesting questions and some equally compelling conclusions in his essay “Star Truck” – most notably that Shepherd Book is meant to reclaim Mal’s loss of faith.

Have you ever wondered about the Chinese spoken by the Firefly characters? Linguist Kevin M. Sullivan offers “Chinese Words in the ‘Verse” which discusses the use of Chinese, some of the mishaps that have occurred in usage and what it implies about the Firefly universe. As a bonus, Sullivan also offers a glossary at the back of the book which provides an episode-by-episode translation of all the Chinese expressions from the show.

Musician Jennifer Goltz examines the music of Firefly. I was surprised to find out that, often enough, musical signatures are used in certain parts of the show and with certain characters. I’ll be listening more closely.

In “I Want Your Sex: Gender and Power in Joss Whedon’s Dystopian Future World”, author Nancy Holder explores gender issues and compares them with westerns.

Perhaps the weakest offering is “We’re All Just Floating in Space” by philosopher Lyle Zynda, if only because it is heavily steeped in the abstract concepts of existentialism, arbitrariness and absurdity as applied to the later Firefly episode “Objects in Space”. True to the nature of philosophy, it asks more questions than it answers. Not far behind that is Mercedes Lackey’s “Serenity and Bobby McGee: Freedom and the Illusion of Freedom in Joss Whedon’s Firefly” which explores the notions of politics and freedom of the Firefly universe (the so-called ” Fireflyverse”) and its characters. Of course, politics is not one of my favorite topics so your own mileage may vary.

And finally, Kaylee herself offers “Kaylee Speaks: Jewel Staite on Firefly” in which she lists her five favorite parts of each and every episode. There are a few of behind-the-scenes moments squirreled away in here, enough to make it sometimes feel like a written version of a DVD extra.

In summary, Finding Serenity is a hands down must-read for any fan of Firefly. It will enlighten, entertain and amuse. If you’re not a fan of Firefly, then maybe not so much.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.
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