Sunday, February 12, 2012

Whedon's Firefly, Piper's "Terran Federation," Norton's "Free Traders"

For many long-time science fiction readers, the TV series Firefly "clicked" immediately, unlike most television* (and even cinematic) SF.

At least, it did for me, and it was only recently that I realized why. The universe of Firefly is a very familiar one, with deep antecedents in age-of-Campbell SF. H. Beam Piper's Terro-Human Future History neatly brackets the series, with a central government ("Terran Federation" rather than "Alliance" but both including a Parliament) and a war of consolidation (Piper's "System States War" vs. the "Unification War") and the events in Firefly occurring after the war but before The Cosmic Computer.

While Piper's fictional stage-setting includes faster-than-light travel and Whedon's does not, travel times are comparable, as are the range of planetary cultures and their socioeconomic variations, both internal and external.

...But it's not just Piper; the Serenity's own work niche was greatly presaged in Andre Norton's novels of the Free Trader Solar Queen, one of many independent traders operating at the fringes of an interstellar civilization, often in conflict with large, corporate ventures (Blue Sun, anyone?).

Piper and Norton served as a template for many SF works to follow; thus parallels and echoes can be found in the work of C. J. Cherryh, Lois McMaster Bujold, Greg Bear and many others -- a company into which Firefly fits quite comfortably. You cannot say the same of much SF on the large or small screen; Babylon 5 was, in its better moments, Cherryh-esque, but without any dust in the corners or broken pipes.

Whedon, corny-Western dialog and all, managed to tap into a nice corner of SF turf without leaving muddy bootprints; he and his writers may not have realized exactly what they were doing, but they were clever enough to play it as they found it.
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* Star Trek, for example, is very much its own self-contained thing, a TV (and later film) drama that merely happens to take place in a far future framework -- and that's not to fault it, that's what it set out to be; Gene Roddenberry described TOS as "Wagon Train to the stars." But it has weak ties to SF's own history as a result.

16 comments:

Larry said...

Funny that as I am reading this I am also watching my favorite episode of Firefly (Out of Gas) on the Science channel...

mmasse said...

Too bad the show is canceled. Fox has a tendency to kill off good shows and not releasing the rights to other networks.

Robin said...

Babylon 5 was a bit more antiseptic than most of what you refer, but it did have its "Downbelow" and a couple of plot arcs explored it. Incompetely. Babylon 5's problem was that its main protagonist characters were almost all lily white. "Chief Garibaldi" being only a partial exception.

Roberta X said...

Larry: that episode is a remarkable bit of storytelling, one of the best SF tales ever told on the small screen.

Dave H said...

It's nice to run across another Norton fan. I just finished re-reading The Zero Stone and Uncharted Stars for the umpteenth time last weekend.

Settings like that are a great place for those kids of stories (what SF author John Scalzi calls "Campbell Modern") because of the rich opportunities for conflict. A large central government, many smaller system worlds, opportunists of every stripe and economic strata, crime lords, and massive corporations. There are a lot of stories to tell there.

Nathan said...

Ah, if only Piper hadn't decided that he was a used-up old man who couldn't support himself without assistance.

I would love to have read further TFH stories.

I should note that John Carr has done a pretty fair job of continuing the Paratime series.

Blackwing1 said...

Heinlein's "Citizen of the Galaxy" also comes to mind.

I'm happy to see I'm not the only one who goes back and re-reads some of my favorite books from my childhood. Amazing how well the entire genre of "juveniles" holds up against current fiction.

BobG said...

Piper has always been one of my favorites since I was a kid; people like him and Heinlein helped shape a lot of my outlook on life and culture.

Kevin said...

I will defend Star Trek's SF chops by noting that more than a couple of the early season episodes were taken directly from classic short-fiction pieces, and done not-badly.

And dittos for Out of Gas - my favorite of all the Firefly episodes. Just, DAMN.

Drang said...

JMS said he wanted B5 to show the grittier aspects of the future, and did, although not much. And Dr. Franklin was black, and Ivanova was a lesbian, although that was a very minor plot point indeed...
...but, yes, in many ways Firefly was the closest we've come to an SF series on TV that resembles the literary science fiction traditions we grew up with.

Unfortunately, TV and movie production companies don't know from literary traditions, and don't care. The "wagon train to the stars" thing about Trek was simply marketing when Westerns were still big.
So we continue to get "science fiction" that is actually paranormal fantasy, because 1) it sells, 2) the production company doesn't have to worry about whether it is "too technical" for the audience, and 3) we as SF fen will watch and (maybe) enjoy it.
And the "Science Fiction Channel" turns into the Paranormal Channel, just like the History Channel turns into the Conspiracy Channel...

Robin said...

Drang, when I wrote "lily white" I didn't mean race. I meant character. The main protagonists in B5 - Sheridan, Ivanova, Franklin, D'elenn, and most of the time Garibaldi - were always the good guys without a blemish.

The only place where we had sophisticated character development was G'kar and Londo - probably not coincidentally that Andreas Katsulus and Peter Jurasik were the best actors in the cast.

Captain Tightpants said...

Think you hit the nail on the head for one reason so many of us browncoats fell in love at first view. Something in the show said "this is right" - it wasn't the sets, the no-sound-in-space or any of that. Hell, I can even give you a logical sci-fi explanation for why horses make more sense than flying cars on new worlds.

It tapped into the roots - the idea of "if we go to new worlds how will it really be?" The struggles of explorers vs. controllers. All the things we'd read, finally brought to screen with real humans, not idealized heroes.

Angus McThag said...

Some of us backed into this literary tradition from table-top role playing games.

Serenity and crew would fit in nicely in the Spinward Marches of GDW's Traveller universe.

It was interesting to have my players inform me I was stealing material from books I had never read.

Linoge said...

The main protagonists in B5 - Sheridan, Ivanova, Franklin, D'elenn, and most of the time Garibaldi - were always the good guys without a blemish.

In fairness, I was always under the impression that B5 was intended to be an epic, LOTR-ish good-vs.-evil battle, and those kinds of polarizations sometimes develop out of those kinds of stories. Firefly, on the other hand, was not, even though it aspired to be such from time to time. And all of the characters you mention did have their dimmer sides (Sheridan with his wife, Ivanova with her mother, Franklin's drug abuse, and Delenn did have a... vindictive? side), but all of those elements were not explored perhaps as much as they should have been.

I dunno. Given the choice between B5 returning (impossible due to Katsulas sleeping in the light and JMS deciding the story was over) and Firefly returning (unlikely given Whedon's insistence not to), I might almost have to surrender my browncoat.

Don M said...

Oddly, it TOS wasn't a wagon train to the stars. Wagon trains were mostly privately owned, groups of people who self started and self sorted.

TOS was more of a 'Battleship to the Stars', with the predictable interventions in local affairs, conflicts between governments, and assorted government piracy.

Drang said...

"Wagon Train To The Stars" was a marketing ploy Roddenberry used when Desilu said they wanted a show to compete with... Wagon Train and/or Gunsmoke and/or Bonanza.