Odd taste thing with me: I love Gothic literature, but am mostly ambivalent about sci-fi*. The Handmaid’s Tale drove me nuts (in a bad way). I’m the kid who had to start “Harrison Bergeron” about five times before I made it through all five pages. I enjoyed Blade Runner and Akira and The Matrix, but none of them added any shattering revelation to my life. Dune = yawn. I know this is painful for many of my friends to hear, but for the most part, I parted ways with science fiction when Lovecraft left us.
The only reason I can offer for this is pretty crude — sci-fi often feels just too crowded with ideas for the story to work any magic on me. I find myself distractedly theorizing about the statement the fiction is making about our world, which tends to ruin my immersion in the world the fiction depicts. The stories work for me as essays, but not often as literature.
But of course, given that Joss Whedon’s my hero, I had to give Firefly a try. The show’s big sell for many fans was the way it played with the conventions of sci-fi, but of course, that didn’t work on me. What interested me was how the show played with the conventions of Whedon, treating religion, to take one example, with a completely different approach than Buffy or Angel did. Unlike his earlier shows, Firefly dealt less with allegory and much more with pure story, plot and character. It imparted the sense that Joss wasn’t driving towards one uber-climactic crowning moment, but had simply released these beloved figures into this space, as fascinated as we were with the narrative fractals their fictive lives produced.
I was sad to see it come to an end. But I was thrilled to hear Joss would be able to sink an enormous (compared to TV) amount of time and money into a two-hour masterwork.
Serenity didn’t add any shattering revelation to my life either. I didn’t expect it to; too many of its references went over my sci-fi-impoverished head. But I haven’t felt as happy to slip into the world of a film since the Lord of the Rings trilogy ended. The movie feels otherworldly in an organic way much of science fiction doesn’t. Aside from some pretty rudimentary politics, Joss seems not to be making much of a statement about our world, as much as he’s just letting this wacky new one exist on its own terms.
And at the same time, he rarely ever falls into the sci-fi trap of gleefully pointing out all the wicked-looking little gizmos and organisms he’s thought up (with the exception of the dialogue, which is beyond awesome for most of the film, but sometimes overdone). The best part about the world of Firefly is that although it feels so much like its own creation, it feels incredibly ordinary at the same time.
So that’s my plug for Serenity. I’d love to revisit this world yet again. Go buy a ticket.
*Note: I understand I’m painting a big-ass genre with a very broad brush here. There are works of inarguable science fiction to which most of this post doesn’t apply, like 2046. And folks could levy most of the same criticisms at the Gothic that I heap upon sci-fi in this post. A lot of Gothic works are pretty heavy-handed with their ideas as well. The difference for me is that the constant essay-like sense of precision that seems to characterize sci-fi just doesn’t work in the Gothic. Gothic stories are almost always way too unruly to be constrained by any high-falutin’ ideas their authors might have started out with (see, for example, Dracula). They get very, very out-of-hand in a way sci-fi stories never do, and I love that.
But of course, I live to be proven wrong. Give me some awesome, unruly sci-fi stories, and we’ll revisit all this.