Self-reliance and libertarian ideals on the frontier: Prometheus-winning novelist Travis Corcoran on Joss Whedon’s Serenity, the 2006 Prometheus Special Award winner.

To highlight the Prometheus Awards’ history and make clear why each winner deserves recognition as a notable pro-freedom work, the Libertarian Futurist Society publishes an ongoing Appreciation series of all award-winners.

Here is the Appreciation by Prometheus-winning novelist Travis Corcoran for writer-director Joss Whedon’s film Serenity, which received a Prometheus Special Award in 2006.

By Travis Corcoran

Like almost every science fiction fan, and like almost every libertarian, I was a fan of the TV series Firefly from the first episode of it I saw.

Firefly, and later Serenity, are about several things that are near and dear to the hearts of liberty-lovers: the frontier, voluntary – not coercive – exchange, an uneasy relationship with authority, self-reliance, and the trade-offs that inevitably come from uncompromising moral codes, nonconformism, and a healthy skepticism for the default paths through life.

Genre fiction has the concept of the “Mary Sue” – a character who is an author’s self-insert, who solves all the problems and wins the day. Ideological fiction often falls prey to a related problem that I’ll call the “Memetic Sue”: the world is a broken fallen place, but the author’s pet ideology, by act three, saves the day, heals broken hearts, and turns the gray skies blue.

Whether we’re looking at ecological science fiction, where the green rebels deliver a better sustainable model that heals the planet, left-of-center labor-oriented fiction where the worker’s co-op not only stands up to Big Capital but inspires the proletariat, or any other variety of ideological fiction, it’s common that the Memetic Sue saves the day.

Firefly and Serenity, though, broke this pattern, and did something stunningly brave (in-so-far as we can talk about words on page being “brave”): it ran in the exact opposite direction.

There’s no act three where Mal and the Gang prove that The Alliance – and, in fact, the very idea of government – is corrupt, and the grateful people of
“the Verse” rise up and demand smaller government.

In fact, the opposite is the case: the final battle has already been fought – and been lost.  The ideals that Mal and Zoe fought for have died.  There is no resistance that may yet win against the authoritarians, no ring that can be dropped into lava, and no king under the mountain (folklore motif index D-1960.2).  Firefly, then, is about what happens after the battle has been lost, the standards thrown down and broken, and the cause has died.

When there is no Grand Cause, what is left?

The smaller causes that make up the individual days of life.

… and that’s exactly what Firefly is about.

Firefly and Serenity (which takes place after the events of the final TV episode) are chock full of quotable dialogue, but one line that sticks with me and many others comes from the episode “Train Job”.  Mal and his crew have signed on to steal some supplies from the government, a victimless crime … but then they realize that there are in fact victims, and they hand over their score, putting themselves at considerable personal risk.

When they do, the local sheriff says to Mal: “A man might not look too close at what that job is. But a man learns all the details of a situation, well, then he has a choice.”

And Mal replies: “I don’t believe he does.”

Even though Mal’s dream of liberty-with-a-capital L, political liberty, has died in the bloodbath of Serenity Valley, Mal is still the man who wanted liberty in the first place.
Why do libertarians want liberty?

Some, certainly, live down to all of the worst stereotypes: they’re hedonists and want liberty so that they can sit around in geodesic domes and work the fewest hours possible to buy food and marijuana.  Most, though, want liberty to give them more time and resources to live the good life — to provide for their families, to create art, to plant gardens, to read books, to back artists they enjoy, and to freely associate in communities of their own choosing, whether those are churches, gun clubs, science fiction conventions, or anything else.

Libertarians, for the most part, don’t want Grand Politic Crusades — they engage in politics only reluctantly, and in self-defense, so that they can have the freedom to live well.

Firefly makes this clear: Mal and the Browncoats last the Grand Political Crusade that circumstances forced them into, but the real end goal – living well, providing, and associating in a community of their own choosing – is still something that can be engaged in within the margins left by an overweening and somewhat tyrannical government.

Serenity revisits the topic, forcing Mal and his crew once again, and reluctantly, into a battle they don’t want.

I assert that it’s this — the focus on the end goal of liberty, and the reluctance with which libertarians engage in defensive politics and grand designs — not Joss Whedon’s witty banter, not Tim Minear’s libertarian ethos, not the wonderful world building, not the tremendous chemistry of Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Adam Baldwin, Jewel Staite and all the rest – that make Firefly and Serenity something rare and great.

Joss Whedon at the 2015 San Diego Comic Con (Creative Commons license)

Note: Joss Whedon (1964-   ) is a prolific American film/TV director, producer, screenwriter, composer and comic-book writer.

Whedon’s short-lived space Western Firefly (2002) and sequel film Serenity (2005) have sparked graphic novels, books and other media as the Emmy-winning and Hugo-winning franchise has attained cult status.

Whedon created five other TV series, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), its spinoff Angel (1999-2004), and the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013-2020).

Whedon co-wrote the Pixar animated film Toy Story (2005); co-wrote and produced the horror-comedy film The Cabin in the Woods (2011); wrote, directed and co-produced the Shakespeare film adaptation Much Ado About Nothing (2012); wrote and directed the MCU blockbuster The Avengers (2012) and its sequel Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015); and co-wrote (and directed reshoots for) the DC Extended Universe superhero film Justice League (2017).

Travis Corcoran wins his first Prometheus Award Photo: Courtesy of author

Note: Travis Corcoran, a longtime Firefly and Serenity fan,  is the first author to win the Prometheus Award for Best Novel in two consecutive years – for The Powers of the Earth (in 2018) and for its sequel Causes of Separation (in 2019), both part of his ongoing Aristillus series set in the future on Earth and the Moon.

* Read the introductory essay  about the LFS’ 40th anniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade history.

* Other Prometheus winners: For a full list of winners – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the recently updated and enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website.

* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,” an essay in the June 2020 issue of the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the modern genre.

* Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans. Libertarian futurists believe culture is as vital as politics (and often more fulfilling, positive and productive in the longer run) in sparking positive social change and spreading positive visions of the future and achieving universal individual rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.

Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

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