Monday, January 19, 2009

Cut 'em Off at the Horsehead Nebula! (Part One)

Author's Note: This piece was first published in Serenity Found: More Unauthorized Essays on Joss Whedon's Firefly Universe, published in 2007 by BenBella Books.

So we're sitting in the rec room, watching Serenity on the big screen with the surround sound cranked. Only we can never simply watch a movie: there's just one degree of separation between us and the folks who did Mystery Science Theater 3000, and I'm afraid that all too often, it's audible.

For example, right now Larry the Astronomer is in hog heaven, trying to work out the celestial mechanics of the Firefly universe in his head. ("Maybe if we start with a couple of super-Jovian worlds orbiting the blue-white primary in a Sirius-type binary system, and most of these so-called worlds are actually terraformed moons...") But John the Screenwriter is having some trouble understanding why I'm so excited about a movie based on a TV series that was canceled halfway through the first season. I briefly consider dragging out the DVD boxed set and forcing him to watch at least the two-hour series premiere, but there's not enough time for that, so I settle for, "John, think of this as the anti-Trek."

That's a good opening gambit. We've long since agreed that Star Trek's Federation is some kind of intrusive and heavily militarized police state. Now we only argue over whether it's a socialist or fascist utopia.

"Firefly" I continue, "is set some five centuries in the future, and six years after the end of a failed war for independence against the Alliance: the oppressive central government. Now, Mal here—"

John interrupts. "—is Han Solo with an actual backstory. I get that. He's Rick Blaine with a spaceship instead of a nightclub. He's a classic lost paladin; an embittered losing-side war vet with a junk freighter, struggling to eke out a living on the fringes of civilization and the law. But underneath that rough exterior he's still got his honor, his pride, and that sense of justice that forces him to get involved and become a big damn hero, from time to time. I get that about him. I like him. And the blond guy—"


"He's a classic comic-relief sidekick, who gets to have all the emotional reactions that the paladin can never show. Now, this tough chick—"


"She served with Mal in the war, didn't she? Because she's got the whole calls-him-'sir'-even-when-she-doesn't-say-it-out-loud thing going, which is done very nicely. I also think it's really nice to see a woman in the role of the engine room grease-monkey, because she reminds me of my first ex-wife and her intimate relationship with her Jaguar XJ6.

"But the doctor—Simon?—there's obviously some bad blood between him and Mal, so I'd have to guess he has a little black bag full of patent medicines that save the day on a regular basis and make him worth putting up with, while his sister, Buffy—"


"—is obviously the ninety-pound pixie who can toss around men three times her size when she gets mad, and I suspect she's the focus of the entire plot. But the one character here I'm really having trouble getting a fix on is him." John points at the screen.


"Yeah, him. I mean, clearly, he's big and tough, none too bright, obsessed with weapons, and probably worth his weight in gold in a fight. But Jane? What kind of name is that? Is this like, 'A Boy Named Sue'? Is that why he's so surly?"

"No," I say. "J-A-Y-N-"

"Oh," John says, as understanding dawns. "Jayne. As in, John Wayne. Okay, I get it now. So how soon do we meet the PTP and the HHG?"

It's my turn to be confused. "The what and the what?"

"The Preacher with a Troubled Past and the Hooker with a Heart of Gold. They must be in this story. it just wouldn't be the same without them."

I start to tell John about Shepherd Book and Inara, but then decide to keep him in the dark a little longer. "What makes you say that?"

"Because," he says, "you're wrong, Bruce. This is not the anti-Trek.

"This is Stagecoach in Space."

You must understand: in the world of science fiction, there is no deadlier insult than to call something "a Western set in space." As a science fiction writer you're permitted to lift freely from any other period in history and any other body of world folklore except the American Old West. Authors have made entire careers out of recycling Asian, African, and Amerindian folk tales in the guise of science fiction stories, and the entire genre of fantasy can fairly be described as one endless series of Christianity-free repackagings of Celtic, Nordic, and Germanic fairy tales and heroic myths. Even the most successful science fiction franchise of all time, Star Wars, has been described quite accurately as being simply an anthology of Japanese samurai stories (mostly notably The Tale of Heike) gussied up in sci-fi drag and trotted out onstage to near-unanimous critical approval and worldwide commercial success.

But put your hero on horseback without also giving him a sword or a lance—give him a Winchester laser rifle, a Colt proton blaster, or a broad-brimmed Stetson hat to protect his skin from the searing UV radiation of the local main sequence star—write a story that in any way reflects the actual experience and well-documented history of the American Civil War and the subsequent exploration and settling of the lands between the Mississippi River and the Pacific coast—and sooner or later some fool critic will accuse you of "calling the jackrabbit a smeerp" and "writing a Western set in space," and after that there's nothing left to do but build up a thick skin, because the law frowns on calling out fool critics and gunning them down in the street. There is even a special pejorative term reserved for a science fiction story that has been identified ex post facto as being a latent Western: it's called a Bat Durston.


Why, in a genre that routinely pays tribute to space pioneers, is there this special antipathy for the Western? Why, in a form where the space colony revolt is a standard summer-stock set-piece, is the American Civil War and its aftermath strictly off-limits? Why, with all of human history and all of known literature to draw on for source material, is this one particular historical period and one body of folklore so rigorously forbidden?

Why, in science fiction's critical/literary/academic/pretentious circles, is Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels considered an important antecedent to modern speculative fiction, while Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court is not?

To understand the answer to this question, we must travel back to the beginning...

No, not back to Verne and Wells. If you were to hop into your Wayback Machine and travel back in time to discuss science fiction with Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, you'd overshoot your temporal destination and they wouldn't know what you were talking about anyway. Jules Verne considered himself simply an adventure story writer, and while he's best remembered today for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, he also wrote mysteries and satires, and it was the stage performance rights for Around the World in 80 Days that made him rich in his lifetime. Similarly, H.G. Wells called his early stories and novels "scientific romances," and while he did enjoy his initial success, he eventually abandoned the field in order to write what he considered more important work, now largely forgotten mainstream novels such as Tono-Bungay and The History of Mr. Polly.

No, the real history of science fiction begins, not in Europe in the late nineteenth century, but in the United States in the early twentieth, and it's mostly the story of three men: Hugo Gernsback, John W. Campbell, and H.L. Gold.

To be continued...