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Is Firefly Good Sci-Fi?

Onelowerlight, a “thoughtful Mormon blogger”, explains why Firefly is not good science fiction. The bottom line: the scientific flaws and the preachiness. Oh, and the sex.

So, in short, the things that (IMO) made Firefly bad sci fi were: too much sex, not balancing sex with other aspects of human relationships, failure to address the classic problems of the genre (such as FTL travel and terraforming), too much preachiness (for gay rights and for a “naturalistic” worldview, ie atheism), and clumsy treatment of the role of religion in human interactions and the big unanswerable questions. There were a lot of other things I didn’t like about Firefly in general, but these here were the big things that mad it a poor piece of sci fi.

I might also direct your attention to some of the essays in Finding Serenity.

For now: discuss.

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.

23 Comments on Is Firefly Good Sci-Fi?

  1. [To be fair to Tim, the post was originally titled “Is Firefly Sci-Fi?” – John]

    Too much sex??? Right, that is exactly what makes the difference between SF and non-SF. I am sorry that he found it non-SF but “good” SF does not have to explain the items that are being marked as negatives. It is about telling a story and I think they did a fine job. My feeling is that Onelowerlight didn’t like the show for a myriad of reasons and those seem to conflict with some of his beliefs. I mean honestly – it was quite possible that Joss Whedon would cover all the items in question (save the sex since its just sex – and I will point out that he had no issues with Mal kicking the guy into the engine mind you), but the brilliance over at Fox had the show cancelled. Now if you will excuse me, I am off to my bunk!!!

  2. Well, I won’t deny that I hold views on morality that conflict with the way sex is treated on Firefly. However, it wasn’t the sex by itself that made me judge Firefly as low quality sci fi. It was that I felt that the show focused so much on the sex that the relationships became the sex, instead of the sex being one aspect of the relationships. To my mind, that’s very shallow and one dimensional.

    I can admire good science fiction as science fiction, even if it has more sex in it than I’d prefer. But the sex in this show seemed overdone to the point that other aspects of the characters’ relationships with each other were neglected. Serenity, on the other hand, didn’t have that problem, and I thought that Serenity did an excellent job with the character development. I don’t consider Serenity to be bad sci fi at all–in fact, it’s one of the best sci fi movies I’ve seen.

    Also, to speak in my defense, I never questioned whether Firefly was sci fi–I just questioned whether it was good sci fi.

  3. Thanks for the clarification, Onelowerlight. I’ve updated the Post.

  4. Oh good, a chance to get a morning rant out before starting work…:D

    I’m not sure how sex fits into the SF equation, but then, I don’t really agree with onelowerlight’s interpretation of relationships in Firefly. Yes, sex was a big part of the show. In fact, the professional courtesean part was one of the most SF elements of the show. I mean, how a future society would meet its sexual needs is classic speculative fiction (to use the other ‘S’). Secondly, we’re on a ship in space with a limited number of people, so yes, sexual tension could be kinda high. Thirdly, there were plenty of examples of relationships not based on sex. Wash and Zoe had a very realistic loving relationship, well realistic within the parameters of the show. We saw Mal and Inara in a classic love-but-can’t-have relationship based on something more than just sex.

    Yes, Jayne and Kaylee often made references to being horny and lonely. But how is that unrealistic? It wasn’t the focus of the show, but used as comic relief. But then Kaylee was seen frequently pining for Simon. Simon, however, was conflicted by his attraction for Kaylee and his need to protect his sister. My point is that the show had some fine dramatic — and realistic — depictions of relationships, both sexual and romantic.

    As for the science…well, Whedon got around it, mostly, by ignoring it, which is also legitimate. He set a stage for, yes, a space western, but also some very SF concepts. Besides, doesn’t the movie essentially show humans leaving Earth in massive ships before getting to the new mega-solar system, perhaps they were multi-generational, we don’t know. For that matter, shows with far worse premises are considered SF: Space:1999 and the Orig. Galactica (no FTL whatsoever) come to mind.

    The mega solar system is a bit of stretch, but we don’t know if there is only one sun in this system. Maybe it is a cluster? We don’t know the timeframe between when people left Earth and when this solar system was built or founded. Did people move planets? Was it all coincidence? I don’t know. (Of course, some uber-fan might be able to correct me on all of this, I haven’t rewatched the show in ages. Here’s a link with some fan’s evidence for supporting the star cluster theory:

    I think the term SF is broad enough to encompass this show and movie. Surely, it isn’t a sterling example, but there are many worse. What they did suceed in doing was creating an interesting future and measuring the effects of conditions of that future on humans, which is what “good” SF does, in my opinion.

    Is it a stretch for cattle to be more expensive than starship fuel? Perhaps…and perhaps not. I’d imagine they didn’t haul many cows from Earth the first time out and we don’t know how the ships are powered to judge.

    It feels good to get into a nice geeky rumble before work. Off (well, oof) to the grind!

  5. Too much sex? There wasn’t enough sex in the show!

    As for the science; it was no better or worse than any number of other shows. Space: 1999? (the Moon travels at hyperspeed from star to star, but then slows down for an encounter in Yet Another Solar System, plus the Eagles do impossible maneuvers while there is sound in space). Star Trek? (take your pick on which series; sure, there was “real science”, but as time went by more and more fake science and fake science that contradicted previous fake science). Stargate? Space: Above and Beyond? X-Files? Lone Gunmen? Battlestar Galactica (any series)? Heck, even Babylon 5 was not “scientific”.

    That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy them. Firefly/Serenity had a lot of “bad science”, but to me, more importantly, it used it’s background fairly consistently and logically within the framework of its universe.

    I think a bigger failing is when a show or a successor to an earlier show ignores previous set “canon”. Hello? Star Trek?


  6. Also, as far as the preachiness. Well, so be it. I think it is safe to say that Whedon and his colleagues do not have the same worldview as onelowerlight, and that’s fine. Like the sex issue, it has little to do with whether it is good SF and a lot do with how writers approach the show.

    A lot is left out about the nature of Shepherd Book and his religion. Deliberately, I guess. My understanding is that Whedon wanted to present a big ‘verse and leave it to be explored in future episodes (which were sadly never made). Aside from River’s impromptu Bible editing, which said more about River’s mental state than Shepherd, the characters are all very respectful of ol’ Shep, although not all agree with him. Hell, we don’t even know what a “Shepherd” is or how it refers to Christianity. Shame they had to kill him off in the movie.

    Sometimes, onelowerlight, people are actually politely disdainful of religion, like Mal. Again, the more I think about it, the more puzzled I am with your criteria for “good” SF. Still, it made good fodder for thought.

  7. Firefly is a lot harder SF than most shows that graced the small screen.

    Could it be that our thoughtful Mormon friend has a problem with the main character’s disdain for organized religion, and God in particular? I don’t think we need to look any farther to understand the rant, truth be known.

    Sex is also a touchy subject with them that’s got religion, so it’s no surprise it fills out the bulk of the individual complaints.

  8. Yeah, I respectfully disagree as well. Firefly was great Sci-Fi in my opinion and it felt more “real” to me in the relationship aspect that most Sci-fi I have seen. In fact, the only TV Sci-fi I hold in higher regard than Firefly is Babylon 5 which also was heavy on the sex. What can I say, I like Sci-Fi, and I really like sex. 😀

    Space is vast and lonely, I find it very realistic that if you are couped up in a ship for that long you are going to have planetary sized sexual tension pent up. Especially when you are on a ship of hot chicks. Especially Kaylee who I though was the prettiest even though she was portrayed as the “homely” one. 😉

    If anything, the sex aspect probably brought more women to the show than a Sci-fi show would normally get. Both my wife and daughter thought Firefly was the best Sci-Fi TV they had ever seen.

  9. Too much sex? The only time I thought there was too much sex in FIREFLY was one scene where the cute little engineer was whoring around (excuse me, of course I mean, ‘Companionizing’) the other engineering candidate in the pilot. It seemed out of character for her–in a Western, a nice girl would get married first, and I assume the same is true for a space Western.

    Indeed, the fact that Wash and Zoe were happily married was one of the more delightful aspect of the show. The relationship there was quirky and perfectly normal at the same time: there was no hint of any extramarital affairs or Robert Heinlein-style alternate lifestyles.

    The idea that a future society might pay as much respect to whores as we pay to, for example, actors and singers, is a perfectly cromulent use of SF. It also led to amusing scenes where the cops were afraid of the hooker instead of the hooker afraid of the cops. I do not think the human relationship between Mal and Inara was unrealistic or unaffected by her loathsome profession: the two of them could not get close to each other because he disapproved of her work and she was emotionally crippled as a result of that same work.

    The question about terraforming and FTL is answered in movie–the whole verse is one solar system where every single planet and moon has been terraformed–rendered habitable by artificial means. That most of the outer system planets looked like Arizona is not any more unrealistic a conceit than that the planets could all be terraformed.

    Joss Whedon’s preachiness, I think, was kept to a minimum, and will not disturb anyone who is not too sensitive to it. Merely the fact that a preacher was included in the crew at all, and the preacher was not portrayed as an ax murderer or something, is a large-hearted gesture, coming from Hollywood, after all. He could have just as easily pulled a Pullman, and made the main badguys the Uber-Church instead of making the badguys the Union.

    No: I have to respectfully disagree with this criticism. FIREFLY and the movie SERENITY were both good space opera and good horse opera. IN my humble opinion, Mal was a more interesting character than either Buffy or Angel, Whedon’s two other famous creations. He can portray thugs like Jayne and doctors and preachers and whores with the same sympathy and humanity–it is simply one of the better shows that has been on TV for the last ten years. Rush out right now and buy the DVD collection.

  10. While I agree that the science (or lack thereof) was not explained in Firefly/Serenity, that’s true of many so-called Sci-Fi classics (lightsabres? X-Wing fighters diving in space where there is no air to dive through? Wookies?). Most sci-fi assumes faster than light travel, or gets around it by inventing a wormhole.

    The question really becomes: does the believability (or lack thereof) of the science get in the way of the story? This is something all writers (myself included) have to struggle with…you need “something” to happen: you either spend precious words explaining it, or you decide that your previous words have justified the leap of faith for your readers and plug ahead.

    As far as Firefly/Serenity, the main story was the interactions of the group of people as it was/is in all of Whedon’s creations. The vampires and space/western/post-war are just the settings he’s locating them in. And I enjoyed the interactions, personally didn’t find it to preachy, and still wonder what it was in the Preacher’s past (besides Barney Miller) that made him who he was.

    Who’s up for Serenity 2?

  11. After reading the entire post, both here and over there I have to also respectfully disagree. I can respect a person not liking the sexual portrayals in the show. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with a person having their own scruples regarding sex, religion, whatever. Not liking that aspect of the show in no way qualifies as a reason to classify its science fiction qualities, however.

    Not explaining the science is also not a quality that describes good or bad science fiction. Hell, unless the science actually does exist for real, all descriptions of space travel, etc. are at best theories, and in reality just plain old fiction…some just right their fiction better and more convincingly than others. Not being able to enjoy Firefly because you weren’t told the science behind the show is frankly a level of nerdiness (and I consider myself a nerd) that I do not want to get to.

    And don’t we all tire of this ‘its not sci fi, it is a western set in space’ argument? It has people flying around in space ships between planets in a future several hundred years ahead of ours. I am sorry, but that is ‘science fiction’ as far as the definition of classifying television shows goes. Yes it has alot of Western elements, but it is still one of those wacky sci fi shows will all kinda spaceships flyin’ all over creation.

    The poster would have been better served by simply saying, “I didn’t like Firefly and here is why:” vs. proposing the argument that Firefly isn’t good science fiction and then not bothering to include any points relevant to that argument.

    Of course then he wouldn’t be getting this attention, would he?


  12. Excellent use of the word cromulent!

    John C. Wright, btw, briefly refers to the topic of his essay in Finding Serenity, “Just Shove Him in the Engine, or, The Role of Chivalry in Joss Whedon’s Firefly”, which talks about chivalry in sf and westerns.

    Any chance of posting that essay on your blog, John?

  13. I think the argument that there was too much sex in Firefly to make it good Sci-Fi is strange. To me that’s like saying ‘this wasn’t a good Western because there was too much water in it’.

    However in his essay Onelowerlight indicates he believes that the sex has overshadowed all other aspects of a romantic relationship. I respectfully disagree, and found the Zoe/Wash relationship to be extremely refreshing. Perhaps Onelowerlight isn’t married or has forgotten what those first couple of years of marriage is like. To me what they demonstrated was deep, romantic love. Mal’s relationship with Nara was extremely complicated. If you thought it was all about sex I suggest you missed something. They talked about it a lot because it was her profession, but it is the thin vernier above a much deeper reality. Mal’s immaturity regarding relationships is what made him more realistic to me.

    Why exactly isn’t it believable that Nara would take female clients? This happens today (I’m guessing Onelowerlight doesn’t watch Cathouse or he’d know) and there’s no reason to believe it wouldn’t happen in the future. The show demonstrates her emotional reactions, the reactions of the crew, and the reaction of Mal on many occasions. As for not understanding Nara’s reaction to Mal sleeping with her friend – let me give it a try. Let’s say you know this girl and she’s a tour guide. She likes you, and you like her, but you haven’t admitted this to each other yet. You haven’t taken the tour she gives yet, but instead you decide to ride along with one of her co-workers. Now would you be surprised to find the girl upset?

    But as others have said, this is good discourse, keep it up!

  14. Good heavens, not a NATURALISTIC WORLDVIEW!

    Stick to Orson Scott Card if you don’t want to be exposed to different worldviews, dude. Has he written a book about the inhabitants of Kolob yet?

    Firefly is bad SF because there’s utterly no practical science in it, and because the ship looks like a stupid dumpy horse. Putting spaceships in a western doesn’t automatically create science fiction.

    If the show had a particular moral agenda, I couldn’t find it beneath the smarmy, contrived dialogue.

  15. I wouldn’t trust any opinion coming from any Mormon. They’re just another crazy cult with foolish and bigoted beliefs.

  16. Firefly, like Star Wars, is terrible Sci-Fi. It is, however, decent space opera and fantasy.

    Fred, what canon did Star Trek ignore?

  17. “Fred, what canon did Star Trek ignore?”

    During the course of years of TNG, etc., they would sometimes contradict earlier episodes in terms of tech.

    The biggest blunders were between TOS and “Enterprise”. I’m sure you’ll be able to call up a few contradictions between what was “history” in TOS and what happened the “first time” in “Enterprise”.

  18. “Excellent use of the word cromulent!”

    Aw, shucks, I was just trying to embiggen my vocabulary.

    Sorry, gents, but the objection from the Mormon was not that a naturalistic world view was portrayed, his objection (which he spelled out clearly and at length) was that Whedon’s preaching and propagandizing this world view interfered with the basic principle of science fiction story-telling, which is, indeed, to present a world and maybe a worldview different from our current here-and-now.

    I disagree with the objection because I thought the propaganda was unobtrusive: no worse that the socialism is Star Trek or the mysticism in Star Wars, and any fan can love these shows without necessarily buying into, or even noticing, the hidden message.

  19. Sometimes you just have to let the “art” wash over you. You can easily over think an art form. Sci-fi is defiantly an art form that you just have to take at face value. Just an opinion. 😉

  20. Mongol General: Conan! What is CROMULENT in life?

    Conan: To confuse your enemies, to see the irony before you, and to hear the lamentation of the insufferable know-it-all’s!

    Mongol General: That is good! That is good.

  21. David wrote:

    I wouldn’t trust any opinion coming from any Mormon. They’re just another crazy cult with foolish and bigoted beliefs.

    Way to contribute to the dialogue there David! Insightful, succinct and, perhaps most importantly, you have cut straight through the clutter of reason and opinion to uncover the ugly core of the matter. Well done.

    By the way, this is one Mormon who loves Firefly–there is nothing I enjoy more than curling up on the couch with my wives and watching Mal and the gang in their crazy, sex-filled (seriously?) adventures.

  22. A_Z wrote:

    Firefly, like Star Wars, is terrible Sci-Fi. It is, however, decent space opera and fantasy.

    I think that space opera is Sci-Fi, and by the transitive property that would mean that Firefly is “decent” Sci-Fi. 🙂

    And for Trent, nice!!! You can be so witty…

  23. joshua corning // July 7, 2007 at 11:23 pm //

    no robots,

    sound in space,

    and a persistent confusion as to whether they were in a different galaxy or a different solar system.

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