I was surrounded by science fiction fans. You could tell by the way they talked with a sort of theatrical gravity about obscure topics, their references to chemical compounds and Ken MacLeod novels equally precise. A few were dressed as characters from Joss Whedon's cult-fave TV show Firefly, but most were in jeans and T-shirts. Some were even celebs, or at least connected to celebs: I glimpsed members of the experimental laptop band Sagan and chatted briefly with fantasy author Peter S. Beagle's business manager.
No, it wasn't real life -- not really. I was at the San Francisco press screening for Serenity, the long-awaited Firefly movie spin-off, where nearly 200 fans had been granted entry alongside the usual handful of curmudgeonly movie reviewers with their light-up pens and notepads. The event had been advertised just days before on e-mail lists for two local Firefly fan groups. Known as Browncoats, these fans had cut out of work early and spent hours in line just for a chance to see their favorite characters light up the screen a few weeks before the movie's release.
The fierce devotion of Firefly fans -- and I count myself in their number -- is spectacular to see. When Fox canceled the show three years ago, thousands wrote letters in protest. There was even an online activism rescue campaign called "Firefly: Immediate Assistance," which was aimed at convincing another network to pick it up midseason. Many believe these grassroots fanactivism efforts were what convinced Universal to let writer-director Whedon make Serenity, despite the fact that the show it's based on was canceled after 11 episodes.
What is it about Firefly that inspires people to become fanactivists? Few TV shows generate such intense feelings. After all, only Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons petitioned to bring back Herman's Head after it was canceled. And Night Court was on for umpteen years, but its eventual cancellation didn't inspire people to create slavishly detailed Web sites devoted to keeping memories of the sitcom alive.
I think Firefly has a strong fan base because, quite simply, it begs us to use our imaginations. Its premise -- that the far future will look like the Wild West set in space, complete with interplanetary cattle rustling -- is peculiar and yet rings true. It's easy to obsess over a show that breaks with sci-fi convention, particularly when its well-written main characters possess backstories so mysterious and rich that you can spin hundreds of possible episodes out of them.
The Firefly crew, a band of ragtag political rebels, mercenaries, and fugitives, are also a generous reflection of the fans themselves. Too rebellious and free-thinking for the rest of the universe, they live by their wits in an improvised "family" whose home is the "Firefly class" spaceship Serenity.
No smart geek can resist a show whose characters include a female engineering nerd (Kaylee) who explains difficult technical problems by saying "it's just broke," a pilot (Wash) whose flight console is decorated with plastic dinosaur toys, and a passenger (Inara) whose aristocratic job as a "companion" means she's a highly trained prostitute. Our captain (Mal) and his first officer (Zoe) were once leaders in a rebel army that tried to resist rule by the imperialistic, wealthy Alliance planets. Still mistrustful of the creepy mind-control programs and brutal law enforcement of a sinister "Parliament," they live by taking odd smuggling jobs and robbing rich Alliance types.
Fans of the show -- who will adore Serenity if my own reaction is any indication -- are the cultural equivalent of political progressives. They live in a world where social improvement means social control, and where free expression is under siege. They're fighting for Firefly, and celebrating the release of Serenity, for the same reason many of us fight for freedom of the press. We want alternatives. We want stories that reflect the things we dream about; we want news that goes beyond jingoism.
Just as progressives in the United States clamor for news media that are critical of the party line coming out of the White House, fans of Firefly clamor for fantasies that are critical of the status quo pabulum coming from the likes of Roland Emmerich and George Lucas. We become fanactivists because sometimes, nonconformist fantasies are as important as politics when it comes to changing the world.