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Orson Scott Card praises Firefly & fans

Thursday 1 March 2007, by Webmaster

When I first became a science fiction writer, I was vaguely aware that there was such a thing as a World Science Fiction Convention that presented the annual Hugo Awards. But it was only after I was published and started getting invited to the conventions that I learned what they were: An extraordinarily tolerant society very smart but sometimes socially ill-adapted people who at one time or another were devoted to one or another work of science fiction.

Whenever a convention is held in a particular locality, the TV cameras love them, because they can find people who seem to be getting ready to perform the funny auditions for American Idol. There are the people in Star Trek or Star Wars or StarGate or Dr. Who costumes. There are the pontificating people who look like Napoleon Dynamite and seem unable to grasp the idea that warp drives and "the Force" are fictional.

What the camera turns away from, because it doesn’t make for a funny spot on the evening news, are the earnest discussions among highly intelligent people. For it is within science fiction fandom that an entirely new system of critical thought emerged, and even though nowadays the ludicrously inappropriate university-born critical theories are being force-fit onto science fiction, the fact remains that science fiction grew up as a genre in a vibrant critical community consisting of the convention-going, fanzine-publishing readers who shaped the many views of what made this story good and that one bad.

Largely ignored by nonparticipants, science fiction fandom became a self-aware literary community that was far more adaptive, effective, and creative than the one that ossified in the universities during the same period.

Unfortunately, science fiction’s own success has broken the community apart. It was the films that did it. Throwbacks to the old forms of sci-fi, contemptuous of anything that had been learned or achieved in the field since, say, 1937, Star Trek and Star Wars stole away the fan base. The book-based conventions limp along, but they are aging, while the awards are being taken over by the people who want to promote only the books that will be respected by university professors — in other words, the books least like science fiction.

The result is predictable — science fiction shows many signs of withering as a productive, innovative literary genre. Which is both inevitable and perfectly acceptable — it is dying in part because it won. Any writer can now use most of the tropes and techniques of science fiction without readers batting an eye. The boundaries are gone along with the serious critical community, and most of the writers seem to be imitative ... or they’re writing fantasy, instead.

Into this situation there dropped the television series Firefly. It only lasted a few episodes, mostly because it couldn’t compete with the cheesy reality shows that were taking over Fox — why put money into a fairly expensive sci-fi show when you can put some morons on the camera with a minimal script and a tasteless premise, and get bigger numbers for a far lower investment?

The fans of Firefly, however, were outraged. Here was television sci-fi that was smart, funny, heroic, realistic, moving, innovative, yet keenly aware of the whole tradition of science fiction and of television? It was the smartest thing on tv, period. And it was gone before most people had a chance to know it was even on the air.

At least the original Star Trek ran for three seasons — enough for it to be stripped into syndication. You can’t do that with a dozen episodes — local stations would blow through them in less than three weeks of weekday showings, and then what do they put on?

Fortunately, we are now in the age of the DVD, and Firefly went to direct sales, where it found more and more fans after it was canceled than it ever had when it was on the air.

And those fans, who began to organize on the traditional sci-fi-fandom model, calling themselves "Browncoats," set to work to promote the return of Firefly to the airwaves — or its development as a feature film.

It helped that Joss Whedon, other producers and creative people, and the actors themselves all believed in this show, knowing they had been part of something rare and wonderful. So they met with the fans, encouraging them to believe they were all working together. And when Whedon got funding to shoot the feature film, he rewarded those fans by giving showings of the finished film for months before the theatrical release, helping promote Serenity.

I’ve already written that I thought Serenity was the best movie of the year it came out, and in my opinion the best sci-fi film ever.

But what I want to tell you about now is a fascinating documentary on DVD called Done the Impossible: The Fans’ Tale of Firefly and Serenity. I know about it in part because I’m one of the people they interviewed in the making of the film. But I loved watching the whole thing.

This well-edited film tells the whole story that I’ve scantily described above, bringing together the voices (and faces) of the stars of the TV show, including Joss Whedon; the sharply intelligent critics; and the geekiest of the fans. The surprising thing is the almost complete overlap between the last two groups. At first it’s easy to look at these often-socially-inappropriate people and mock them.

Until you realize that they’re not just passionate, they’re usually also very smart. They’re the kind of people who decide something should happen and then take action to make it so — the kind of people you wish were more prevalent in businesses and government agencies when you want them to accomplish something important to you.

You don’t have to be a fan of Firefly and Serenity to enjoy this DVD (though of course if you are, you probably will). You can view this documentary as an anthropological adventure, moving you into a culture that is more influential in American life than you think, yet which remains largely invisible — and is ridiculed whenever it surfaces in the local news.

Think of it as a freelance "special features" DVD and you’ll recognize it as one of the best every created. Think of it as National Geographic doing a special on one of America’s most fascinating tribes, and it’ll be even better.

The DVD and CD soundtrack are available at DoneTheImpossible.com and at Amazon.com.

Meanwhile, though, if you haven’t seen Firefly and Serenity because they’re "sci-fi," you’re functioning at about the level of those who haven’t seen the Emma Thompson Sense & Sensibility because it’s a "chick flick" or who won’t see the latest two Harry Potter films because they "promote Satanism." Get over your biases, open your minds, and inject yourself with some of the best, most intelligent, and most emotionally compelling storytelling there is.