Serenity vs. utopia

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The Colorado Freedom

Serenity vs. utopia

by Ari Armstrong

The following article originally appeared at Boulder Weekly on October 20, 2005.

Serenity is a sci-fi "action-adventure movie spiced with romance, scary Reavers, thoughtful themes and plenty of laughs," my wife and I say in a media release titled, "Serenity Fans Offer Money-Back Guarantee" (see for conditions). Yes, we love it that much.

The main themes of the movie are finding values, including love, work and a sense of the heroic, in a world where just getting by can be a struggle. The movie is called Serenity because that's the name of Captain Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds's ship. Mal named his ship in memory of the Battle of Serenity Valley, where his side, the Independents or "Browncoats," lost the war against the oppressive Alliance. Mal protects a pair of fugitives on the run from a ruthless operative of the Alliance.

I turned my friend Ralph Shnelvar onto the Firefly DVD set, from which the Serenity story continues. He enjoyed the show's "treatment of human sexuality." He said, "I find the Firefly universe to be a nearly perfect metaphor for how most people behave in the world today. Keep your head down. Avoid contact with authority when possible. Fight authority when there are no other choices." He added, "Each character is one that I wish I could become friends with. Each person is so very interesting. As an ensemble they make the Firefly crew totally memorable."

I saw Serenity with Ralph and five others on Oct. 7. The harshest critic in the group thought the movie was pretty good. Ralph said, "I loved it. I need to see it again."

I don't know Boulderite Cass Marshall, though we attended the same May 26 pre-screening of Serenity where Jewel Staite appeared and signed posters till 1 a.m. Staite plays Kaylee, the ship's charming mechanic.

Marshall, a grandmother, said she's a fan of all sorts of science fiction and of Joss Whedon's other works, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. Marshall said about Staite, "She was very gracious to the fans and with her time at the opening. It was nice to experience her enthusiasm for this project." Marshall appreciates Whedon's "incredible writing" and the cast's "amazing performances."

Serenity contains some important political themes. And, given I'm mostly a political writer, that's what I'm going to discuss. If you hate politics, still go see the movie, because you'll enjoy it for lots of other reasons, including Whedon's superb, witty and sometimes shocking writing and eminently loveable characters. (If you plan to see the movie soon, you may want to save the rest of this article till after.)

The bad guys are the utopians. They take a brilliant girl named River Tam into an Alliance "academy" -- where she becomes a research subject. Her brother Simon forsakes his future as a surgeon on the central planets, breaks his sister out of the academy, and finds refuge on Serenity. That puts the rest of the crew in plenty of danger.

Throughout the movie, an operative of the Alliance pursues River. Here's how he justifies his brutal tactics and the oppression of the Alliance: "We're creating a better world. All of them, better worlds." Of course, social-engineering to create a "better world" tends to create Hell on Earth instead.

Mal warns his crew about the utopians: "They will try again. Maybe on another world, maybe on this very one stripped clean. A year from now, 10, they'll come back to the belief that they can make people -- better. And I do not hold to that. So no more running. I aim to misbehave."

The best work about utopianism I've read is that of Chris Matthew Sciabarra ( In the introduction to his Marx, Hayek and Utopia, he distinguishes between the good radical and the bad utopian: "[T]he radical is that which seeks to get to the root of social problems, building the realm of the possible out of the conditions that exist. By contrast, the utopian is, by definition, the impossible (the word, strictly translated, means 'no place')."

Sciabarra continues, "[U]topians internalize an abstract, exaggerated sense of human possibility, aiming to create new social formations based on a pretense of knowledge... Even when their social and ethical ends are decidedly progressive, utopians often rely on reactionary means. They manifest an inherent bias toward the statist construction of alternative institutions in their attempts to practically implement their rationalist abstractions."

Utopian schemes paved the way for the atrocities of Hitler, Stalin and Mao. In his talk at the University of Colorado last month, philosopher Andrew Bernstein noted that theocratic oppression led to the burning and imprisonment of scientists and other "heretics." The European theocratic era of 500 to 1500 AD resulted in "crushing poverty." However, Bernstein noted, at least Christians glorify individual salvation and the soul, a concept that has a real-world analogue with the conscious mind. The collectivists, on the other hand, including both the National Socialists (Nazis) and the Communists, sacrificed individuals and their values to the state. But even less-ambitious utopians -- including theocratic right-wingers and socialistic leftists -- deserve our attention and condemnation.

When the utopians gain the upper hand, the only recourse for those who want to live a life worth living is to aim to misbehave.

The Colorado Freedom