Serenity 'Verse Fireflies in the Face of Economics
by Ari Armstrong, November 2, 2005
By now I've established my credentials as a fan of Joss Whedon's Firefly (TV show) and Serenity (feature film that extends the same story). My wife and I even offered a limited money-back guarantee to generate additional publicity for the film. I have praised the film here and for Boulder Weekly.
And yet I am not blinded by my fanaticism. As the film winds down its final days in the theaters and preps for its DVD flight, I thought I'd explore some of the problems with the film and with the Firefly universe. My goal is not to undercut a work that I regard as generally excellent, but rather to subject it to criticism with a view toward better understanding and appreciating it.
Before I get to the Big Issues, I want to spent a few lines criticizing the studio, Universal. I am forever grateful to the studio for funding Whedon's directorial debut. Universal hosted an excellent web page for the movie, and it's been great to the fans. But the studio also made a couple of mistakes that, I think, hampered the ability of the movie to pull in more viewers and dollars. As of November 1, Serenity had pulled in just under $25 million in the domestic market. That's not terrible, but neither is it great.
One big problem is that the studio barely advertised the movie, and the advertising it created lacked luster. Even though the Rotten Tomatoes rating settled at a very fresh 81 percent, not a single print ad that I saw quoted the top reviewers. Usually I assume that, whenever a movie ad fails to quote top reviewers, it's because the movie bombed with them. So the studio failed to use its advertising to greatest effect. And then the studio totally pulled all advertising for the last half of October as far as I could tell, even though it could have played up the Reaver aspect of the movie for Halloween. However, The Signal reported a rumor about a pre-Christmas release of the DVD -- a rumor substantiated by DVDAnswers -- so apparently the studio is banking on the video release. I think the DVDs will sell very well, but I think the studio largely failed to cash in on the theatrical release. All that said, I hope that Universal will fund at least two more Serenity movies, as popularity of the franchise will only continue to increase. The movie was made. It exists. It's great. And it will make money for the studio despite some missteps.
Now on to the work itself. One of the things I love about the Serenity universe is that it is almost completely believable. As segments on The Signal have pointed out, the Firefly/Serenity universe doesn't rely on faster-than-light, time travel, aliens, or most of the other goofy devices so common in usual sci-fi fare. It really is possible to terraform planets and moons and build spaceships. And the politics is also compelling.
There are a couple of minor flaws with the science, as The Signal has pointed out. First, River is a psychic. However, there is no scientific basis for psychics in our world, nor is there any reasonable explanation for why there might be psychics in the future. At least her psychic powers, to gain full strength, required some mysterious pseudo-scientific manipulations of her brain. Obviously, the main reason Whedon made River a psychic is that he likes superheroes and he needed some device to create one in the "real" world, outside the supernatural concoctions of the Buffy/Angel universe. So the fact that River is a psychic within the Firefly/Serenity 'verse is a pardonable sin.
And then there is artificial gravity. As The Signal points out, filming a gravity-free ship that's really at full Earth-G is a tricky business. And so there's some sort of artificial gravity device aboard Serenity, even though there's no scientific basis for one. Even more problematic is how to make all sorts of planets and moons Earth-gravity normal. The Signal points out ways this could actually be accomplished, but they're all exotic. In reality, the only good bet for artificial gravity is to spin something in space, and that doesn't work for a planet or moon.
A minor point: one web page humorously refers to one of the Operative's fight moves as the "Secret Vulcan Hip Pinch."
But the greater problem with Serenity is that its 'verse seems to be partly based on faulty economics. Firefly contains multiple references to "Earth that Was." The idea is that Earth is no longer. And everybody lives within the same solar system, a new solar system with "dozens of planets and hundreds of moons." Here's part of the explanation from the beginning of the movie: "Earth-That-Was could no longer sustain our numbers, we were so many. We found a new solar system: dozens of planets and hundreds of moons -- each one terraformed, a process taking decades, to support human life. To be new Earths."
And here's what the introduction to the comic books says: "After the Earth was used up, we found a new solar system and hundreds of new Earths were terra-formed and colonized."
There are actually two competing claims, then, for why people left Earth. 1) Earth was "used up." 2) Earth "could no longer sustain our numbers." The DVD is supposed to include a featurette titled, "Future History: The Story of Earth That Was." Perhaps that will fill in some of the details. (It may even require me to modify my critique.)
Especially given current demographic trends, it seems highly unlikely that Earth will get so crowded that people will have to leave. Populations among the First World have stabilized or even declined. It seems to be the trend that, as nations develop, population explodes, but as nations grow rich, population stabilizes. Malthus was wrong.
Moreover, as a region becomes more crowded, real estate becomes more expensive. If you simply cannot afford to purchase or rent more than a small space, you're unlikely to have many children. Thus, as a place gets more crowded, children become more expensive, which in turn reduces population growth (perhaps even to negative numbers). More wealth also translates into reliable access to birth control.
But it is possible that, in the future, the Earth might become more crowded than some people might like. What happens in Serenity is that everybody -- apparently -- moves at once to a totally new solar system. (The trip may have been multi-generational.) But that would never happen. First people will move to Mars, the Moon, and to space stations. There's a lot of room in our own solar system. It will take many more than five centuries (when Firefly is projected) to seriously populate our own solar system. People may well start to travel to other solar systems earlier, but certainly not because our own Earth or solar system is remotely close to being crowded.
So it's simply not credible that people will leave our Earth or solar system simply because it's too crowded. And, even if it were the case that Earth were too crowded, that would offer no explanation as to why everyone might leave or why Earth might turn into a dead planet.
What about the other claim, that, in the future, the Earth will be "used up?" That scenario is even more ridiculous.
Consider the enormous resources and energy it would require to terraform "dozens of planets and hundreds of moons." Even if we dismiss the unrealistic requirement that these bodies be made the same gravitationally as Earth, we're talking about a tremendous achievement that would require the use of raw materials and energy at a scale that would dwarf the total consumption of everyone on modern Earth for decades, if not centuries.
But if people ever get to the point when they can command such vast resources -- and I hope they do -- why couldn't they also fix up the Earth? Surely, no matter how bad the Earth got -- and all signs point to improving conditions on the Earth as far as human life is concerned -- if people could terraform hundreds of other bodies, they could also fix the problems on Earth.
What might it even mean for the Earth to be "used up?" If we lacked specific raw materials on Earth, we could import them from elsewhere in the solar system. The very notion that the Earth might be "used up" is merely a prejudice of the most antiscientific strains of environmentalism. According to that view, there is a limited stock of resources, and, once we use that stock, that's it. The reality is that people increase access to resources through economic activity, and the stock of raw materials available to us is practically unlimited. In Serenity, the fact that people can terraform hundreds of bodies precludes the possibility of "using up" the Earth.
George Reisman describes the reality of natural resources in his book Capitalism (page 63). He writes, "The potential for economic progress is in no way limited by any fundamental lack of natural resources. Despite the claims so often made that we are in danger of running out of natural resources, the fact is that the world is made out of natural resources -- out of solidly packed natural resources, extending from the upper limits of its atmosphere to its very center, four thousand miles down. This is so because the entire mass of the earth is made of nothing but chemical elements, all of which are natural resources... Nor is there a single element that does not exist in the earth in millions of times larger quantities than has ever been mined... What is true of the earth is equally true of every other planetary body in the universe. Insofar as the universe consists of matter, it consists of nothing but chemical elements, and thus of nothing but natural resources. Nor is there any fundamental scarcity of energy in the world. More energy is discharged in a single thunderstorm than mankind produces in an entire year. Nor is the supply of energy in the world reduced in any way by virtue of the energy man captures from nature. Heat from the sun provides a constantly renewed supply that is billions of times greater than the energy consumed by man... From a strictly physical-chemical point of view, natural resources are one and the same with the supply of matter and energy that exists in the world and, indeed, in the universe... The problem of natural resources is strictly one of useability, accessibility, and economy."
That part of the Firefly/Serenity universe that allows for the terraforming of hundreds of massive bodies is the part that's consistent with Reisman's insights. The part of the 'verse that alleges the Earth might be "used up" is the part that departs from reality.
And yet never has the story of Earth's future demise been told in much detail (though we'll see how the DVD handles the matter). If Earth can't be destroyed by overpopulation or by its resources being "used up," then what might offer a more realistic explanation? A large-scale war might conceivably result in the destruction of Earth. If getting "used up" can be expanded to cover such scenarios, it remains possible that the back-story of "Earth that Was" can be placed on firm economic ground. I suppose it's also possible that Earth still is, only nobody in the Firefly/Serenity solar system knows about it. Perhaps a massive war prompted a mass exodus to the new solar system, but the people of Earth are busily rebuilding.
Thankfully, what happened on Earth isn't really that important for the events of Firefly/Serenity. Regardless of why people left Earth to populate a new solar system, the new system is the setting for the stories. So far, the faulty (and paltry) explanations for why people left Earth haven't adversely impacted any of the stories of the 'verse. They do, however, require the viewer to mentally patch over the holes. As with the problems with gravity and psychic powers, the economic problems don't undercut the value, heroism, or emotional impact of the stories. They are distractions, however, that slightly detract from the work. The trick of romantic art is to create a plausible world in which heroes thrive. Thankfully, Whedon almost always achieves that with the Firefly/Serenity 'verse.