Saturday, January 24, 2009

Final Afterthoughts

As the astute reader is no doubt by now asking, what the heck does any of this have to do with science fiction in general or with Firefly in particular? In the previous two posts I was trying to help you to understand the zeitgeist of the 1930s: the milieu, the Weltanschauung, the Weltschmerz, the raging theodicy, the incipient anomie, the je ne sais quoi, the all those words I paid good money to learn in college and have never had an excuse to use since so I'm going to try to use them up now that informed the shared consciousness of that small circle of would-be Weltentwicklers who created and defined this thing we call science fiction, back in the 1930s and 1940s. For in many respects science fiction today is still stuck in a sort of temporal loop, Groundhog Day-style, perpetually cycling back and forth between 1935 and 1955. As Orson Scott Card posits in Serenity Found: More Unauthorized Essays on Joss Whedon's Firefly Universe (BenBella Books, 2007, a bargain at only $17.95), while cinematically and visually the Star Wars movies are great, storywise, they're straight outa 1935.

In 1935, everybody—well, everybody in New York whose opinion mattered, anyway—everybody knew that capitalism, individualism, and libertarian democracy had failed, and it was time to try something radically new. Bellamy's steaming heap of a novel experienced a resurgence in popularity (and given that it describes life in the socialist paradise that is America in the year 2000, it is perhaps to be hoped that it won't happen again). God was if not dead then at least unemployed, and probably standing in a soup line somewhere. The Common Man, despite all the paeans and fanfares written to his nominal glory, was considered to be a proven moron, who could no more be entrusted with real freedom than with fully automatic weapons and who needed to be managed by the state cradle-to-grave for his own good. (On the face of it, this argument does make a sort of sense. After all, if you believe in the rigorous scientific accuracy and predictive validity of IQ tests, then 50% of all people are by definition of below-average intelligence.)

Remember, in the 1930s there were John Reed Clubs in cities all over America, and in 1936 and 1937 American and British intellectuals were flocking to Spain to fight on the communist side in the Spanish Civil War.
[Sidebar: By now at least a few of you are wondering what my problem is with socialism and communism. We've been through this before and I really don't have the time or patience to go through it again, so go back and read Scaling Socialism. After you've done so, I still won't feel like talking about it.]
There is a reason why there is only one science fiction publisher today known for releasing libertarian-leaning titles, and why that same publisher is regarded as a pariah whose hard SF offerings are routinely denounced by all properly thinking peoples as "war porn," "gun porn," "crypto-fascist wet dreams," and so on. There is a prevailing orthodoxy in the science fiction publishing world, and it's been firmly in place for the past 75 years.

And then there's Firefly.

Understand, by the late 1950s, Campbellian science fiction had pretty much shot its bolt. Campbell himself had become an authentic nutcase, who apparently actually believed he had psi powers, was up to his elbows in the founding of Cyantolligy and the pseudo-science behind it, and who had taken to telling people he had not flunked out of MIT back in the 1930s but rather had been kicked out, because his ideas were too threatening to scientific orthodoxy. By the late 1950s even Heinlein was on record as saying he would rather not sell at story at all than have to deal with Campbell, and also by the late 1950s, many of the magazine and book markets for original science fiction were dead or dying.

And then came Sputnik. The Space Race. The Mercury program, the Gemini program, and capping it all, Star Trek. Suddenly science fiction was a hot market category again, and the publishers all rushed to cash in, many of them by reissuing old titles they still owned all rights to but some by publishing new and original work. Concurrent with this came the New Wave of science fiction writers, whose central argument was that Campbellian science fiction was too conservative, and SF could only be rescued by tacking even more sharply to the left. Imagining themselves to be pushing the market, they got drawn along in the Space Race's cavitation, and ultimately produced a body of fictional works that were more about their personal emotional, sexual, and pharmaceutical issues than anything else.

Fifteen years later, by the 1970s, the market for print science fiction was coughing blood again. Star Trek had been canceled, although it lived on in UHF reruns. The world was suffering from a massive Vietnam War hangover, and all things even slightly militaristic were regarded with suspicion and contempt. The last few Apollo missions to the Moon were canceled, because of low ratings, lack of interest, and funding cutbacks.

Fantasy was doing well, in large part thanks to the bootleg paperback edition of The Lord of The Rings that Donald Wollheim (remember him?) put out in 1965 that was very successful with the college student hippie set and resulted in the little notice you used to see on the back of the later Ballantine edition:
"This paperback edition, and no other, has been published with my consent and co-operation. Those who approve of courtesy (at least) to living authors will purchase it, and no other."

J. R. R. Tolkien

Catering to the growing fantasy market, the publishers reissued everything they had in back inventory, and Robert E. Howard's old Conan The Barbarian stories, written back in the late 1920s and early 1930s, proved surprisingly popular. For a time it seemed the challenge was to find a new or reissued book in the SF/Fantasy section that did not have cover art featuring a bare-chested guy wearing a fur-lined jockstrap and holding an impossibly large broadsword. If Fabio had been around then he could have made a fortune posing for cover art.

And then came Star Wars. And suddenly it was 1957 all over again, and there was a vast inrush of superheated money into the sci-fi print publishing business, as many attempted to catch a piece of Lucas's coattails. And once again there was a generation of new writers who came along—my generation, this time, and there was a name they called some of us that I will not repeat, but some of our less charitable critics called us the New & Improved Wave—and once again we imagined it was our brilliance and originality that was driving the market, never realizing we were merely being drawn along in the Millennium Falcon's cavitation.

Fifteen years later, by the 1990s, the market for print science fiction was coughing blood again...

I'm sorry; I drift. It must be the cold medication. Or maybe it's just being stuck inside on this high winter afternoon, watching the long winter sunlight slant through the bare trees while the smoke from the neighbor's chimney rises slowly into the still, clear, subzero air. I meant to be making my final points about Firefly in this post. My points are these.

First, that Firefly during its brief run had some of the best and most original stories I have seen in forty-plus years of watching television and movie science fiction. It was truly a unique take on the spacefaring sci-fi future, and I still feel the loss of those stories that could have been told, had the series survived. On the great scale of things it's only a trivial loss—after all, it was just a TV series—but still, it was sad to see such a promising start blighted before it ever really got off the ground.

But secondly, and more seriously, whether by design or accident, the script for Serenity really gets it.

I used to be amused by Utopians. With life experience, I have grown to fear them. The great failing of Utopians is that they can never accept that someone else might not want to be a part of their utopian vision. Like ill-mannered tourists, they assume that if you don't agree with them, it must be because they're not explaining it simply enough, or often enough, or loudly enough, or ultimately, because you're stupid. Utopians always think achieving Utopia is simply a matter of education—and then re-education—and then coercion, legislation, litigation medication conditioning threats book-burnings eugenics surgical modifications hunting down the counter-revolutionaries killing the reactionaries genetic engineering—and ultimately all Utopians, no matter how nobly they begin, always end up at the same conclusion: that the only thing that keeps Man from building a secular heaven here on Earth is the nature of Man, therefore we must build a New and Better Man.

And for most of the history of orthodox, Campbellian and post-Campbellian science fiction, the science fiction community has largely agreed with and embraced this finding.

Utopians always begin with the best of intentions. But they always end by building their Utopia on a firm and level foundation composed of the crushed skulls of those who disagreed. And again, what I like best about the entire Firefly/Serenity creative enterprise is that, whether by accident or design, it really understands this truth and tells it.

Then, sadly, it punks out at the very end, by veering off into sheer fantasy. In the final scenes of Serenity the Operative is forced to watch the video from Miranda, and see the horror that the utopian vision he serves has unleashed. As a result, he has a change of heart, repents, and tries to make amends.

No true Utopian would ever be so weak, of course. In our world the Operative would go to his grave screaming, "We didn't use enough G-23 Paxilon Hydrochlorate! We didn't use it long enough! We didn't try it in its pure form! WE NEED TO KEEP TRYING UNTIL WE GET IT RIGHT!"

Here endeth the lesson.