Loading the Canon
Canon (kan en) – a general law, rule, principle, or criterion by which something is judged; a collection or list of sacred works accepted as genuine.
Black cloud: The Firefly series getting cancelled during the creation of the first season.
Silver lining: There’s a lot of the Verse left to create. And we all get to do it.
Hang around anywhere Firefly fan fiction is being created (that’s a lot of places – Browncoats are a creative bunch) and you’ll soon see folks asking for details about the Verse, or initiating discussions and conjecture about details in the Verse, or offering up something they’ve created for feedback, or just generally trying to figure out how the Verse works.
Some of this discussion is out of politeness so that folks don’t step on each other’s toes, but mainly it’s because there just isn’t a whole lot of detail out there and folks are looking for help finding what there is.
Oh, there have been some noble efforts by fans and game creators to provide details; when people ask questions they are likely to be pointed to The Verse In Numbers, or the data sheets for board or role-playing games, or the Verse wiki. But there is very little official data. In fact, compared to some other franchises, official Firefly canon is almost non-existent.
The Star Trek Technical Manual (1975) set the tone for how offical canon is presented: highly detailed, with backstory and rationalizations for the technologies. It was followed by dozens of works that detail not only how the nuts and bolts fit together, but how the Federation works as a whole.
But I’m a librarian and for my money it is Star Wars that wins the ribbon for the most-detailed and thoroughly-worked-out fictional universe of all time. If you want to spend hours looking over well-considered details track down some of the “Visual Guide” series for the Star Wars universe; you’ll find them in the juvenile section of your bookstore or library because they’re aimed at young people, but aren’t we all kids when it come to Star Wars?
Of course, each of those examples comes from a franchise with lots of material to draw from (many episodes and movies, novelizations) and merchandise to create and market, so there were resources and money available to support the considerable effort of generating detailed backstory information. While Firefly begat a followup film, it never had the chance to generate enough mainstream interest to justify the expenditures to fill in the details of the Verse. (A Firefly novelization series, calling for story treatments around the time of the movie, was cancelled after the publisher decided that sales projections didn’t warrant the effort.)
The paucity of official Firefly materials can be frustrating for those creating stories or pursuing games set in the Verse. But the flip side of that lack of details is that the Verse is a very big mostly-blank canvas. Which means –
We can create the canon, as we go.
That having been said: while it is free to all, it should not be a free-for-all. Existing canon should be recognized, out of respect for what the Mutant Enemies have wrought but also for the very basic reason that if you were to add too many outside-of-the-established things to the Verse it would no longer be the Verse but rather some distorted and ultimately unsatisfying Verselike place. (Recognition of this is why so many Firefly fans offer up ideas for other fans to comment upon, in search of judgment from the group mind as to whether or not the feel of Firefly is being respected.)
Each fictional universe has its basic elements – Star Trek has warp drive and the transporter, Star Wars has an evil empire and the Force, Harry Potter has good vs. evil and magic – but also limitations which keep that universe from spinning up out of control. Star Trek has alien empires to keep the goody-two-shoes Federation challenged. Star Wars has science and magic – but the magic can only be wielded by a few. And Harry Potter does not carry a wand and a gun – he is, after all, a minor. The limits are as important in defining a fictional universe as are the tools.
The creators of the Firefly Online game have made it clear that they are respecters of canon in the Verse: “We are not going to do anything to violate the canon as created by Joss Whedon”. So, no FTL (faster-than-light) spacedrives, no aliens, no popping back to Earth-that-was to see how things are going there.
And why would they do any of that anyway? There is no need – the Verse is already a huge and mostly-untouched sandbox, with stories aplenty. There is no need to willy-nilly insert any of that out-of-canon stuff. The Verse is so big that we can all spend a very long time exploring it, unveiling the things that are distinctively Firefly, before ever having to consider how the Verse might interface with other universes.
To continue the wordplay begun in the title of this article: in the Firefly universe, cannon are not canon. A tramp freighter like Serenity is no more likely to have heavy weapons than a semi truck hauling oranges along I-10 is likely to sport mounted machine guns. Similarly, you won’t see a renegade wizard faction trying to crowd out Badger’s crime network. (Mind-reading genius girls-made-weapons, sure. And maybe even blue-gloved augmented-with-strange-technology agents. But not wizards.)
In a weird way, Firefly ending early was a gift. I’ve seen interviews with several of the creative team who’ve stated some version of, “it’s sad that the show was cancelled, but it’s a blessing that it never had a chance to suck. We never had to face the 3rd-season slump – it was our best work, all the time.” This doesn’t mean that everyone doesn’t wish they were still working on the series, seeing where it would go – it’s simply a recognition that what we do have is 10 hours and 57 minutes of wonderfully shiny.
But in and of itself, not complete. As wonderful as the Firefly series is, it represents only the merest peek through the crack of the door opening to let us out into the Verse. It’s the reason we are all wistful that the show only got one season. But it is also the reason Firefly has so many staunch fans; the show is good, but our imaginations are pretty darn good too. We all wonder, and conjecture, and extrapolate, what that big place out there beyond the door holds for us. What adventures might be waiting.
I will argue that as much as we are addicted to Firefly (yeah? not addicted? try going a week without a Firefly reference or a month without watching an episode, Mr. Jones), we are equally addicted to that big empty canvas out there, not just the what-might-have-beens but the what-could-bes. We crave the filling in of the details.
So some of us pore over the existing information (even if it isn’t “official”, knowing that it was created by other fans with a mind to respecting canon). We read/view every interview where Joss discusses Firefly, hoping to glean some more insight into his vision of how the Verse works. We track down interviews with everyone involved in the creation of the show, read all the essays and blogs, pursue anything that even uses the name Firefly.
And it’s still not enough. So, we start creating our own. And, since we are good Browncoats, we start worrying our creations will violate canon.
Here’s the thing: as soon as we create it, it can become canon.
Really. It’s been a decade since the series aired and there has been very little “official” information added. Much of the “canon” being shared has been created by motivated fans.
And this is fitting and right, for the Verse is a very large place and so long as new material respects the spirit and feel of the Verse there is no reason why that material, created by those who spend mental time there, cannot become part of the canon.
This process has actually been going on for some time. And, since people spend so much headtime in the Verse, the mechanism for a groupmind judgment as to whether something fits in the Verse has been building steadily. There’s lots of folks out there eager for anything having to do with the Verse, and chances are some of them will sing out if they think someone has gone too far – firing the cannon guarding the borders of the canon, as it were.
But the voting goes both ways – if something gets created that seems to fit especially well in the Verse, if it is so distinctive as to be memorable, well, that may be loaded into the canon by many hands. If enough people believe that it should be in the Verse, it will be. Consensus reality, applied to an unreality.
And why not? There’s no official arbiter to turn to, no appointed judge to state whether something is correct. There’s just us – a panel made up of every Browncoat in existence. (And those still to come.) We are the judges.
(Though, mind you, don’t be expectin’ folks to swallow unchewed grand tales of your captain’s epic smuggling scores or amazing numbers of Reavers evaded. Reputations can’t just be written, they have to be earned. Chances are folks will enjoy the tall tales anyway, though, if they are told well enough.)
Spider Robinson is often quoted as saying, “Shared pain is reduced. Shared joy, increased.” Browncoats are good at the first part – we’ve been getting together for a decade now, sharing our commiseration. Which means that we have a network in place for practicing the second part; we’ve found the folks we want to share joy with. And with the Verse being as big and mostly empty as it is, that’s the opportunity for a lot of increased joy.
We have the prospect of a shiny new mechanism for exploring and expanding the Verse, in the form of the Firefly Online game. And there is a renewed surge of interest in fans creating stories, characters, and settings – it’s as though the efforts of the game devs have reminded us that there is a whole lot more that can be created. No matter how much new material the game presents there will be room for more; if some of that other new material gets into the group mind of Firefly fans it will become part of the canon, if not actually in FFO then somewhere else in the Verse. Good material gets shared. Great material, remembered. And it takes on a life of its own, and takes up residence. (Me, I’m looking forward to more stories involving Uncle Fun. And then finally running into him, to see if the stories are true.)
So, go ahead. Load that canon. And then fire it out into the Verse – it’s a big place, it can handle it. There’s lots of folks who want to see what you come up with, and to see how it fits in with what everyone else is doing.
Let’s all push that door open a bit wider, so we can get a better look at what’s out there.