Review by C.J. Bunce
The seventh Firefly novel has arrived at last, this time from a newer voice in the sci-fi genre, M.K. England, author of the great Guardians of the Galaxy: No Guts, No Glory (reviewed here), one of the more humorous and faithful tie-ins we’ve covered lately. England’s latest is Firefly: What Makes Us Mighty, the latest episode in novel form of the short-lived Firefly series, which takes the crew of Serenity on another job, another cargo run, to another planet with quirky folk whose lifestyle mirrors something from Earth of the Past. As with some of the better novels in the series, this story revisits the best of what Browncoats loved about the show. It also does something much needed after all these years: It finally allows characters some room for expansion and growth. England delivers a steady, slower paced journey, but it has all that space Western charm of Joss Whedon’s series, with Whedon back as consulting editor.
As I mentioned earlier this week in my review of Strange New Worlds, if your fanbase knows the ending, the challenge for the writer is creating a good story with stakes that keep the reader jumping for the next chapter. The biggest challenge of Firefly seems to be making Zoe more interesting–she’s both shackled to a husband who, for all the audience/readers can tell, shares little on-screen/on-page chemistry, and she’s shackled to playing second fiddle to a captain who rarely listens to her instincts. Despite a plot in this seventh novel that had some openings for Zoe to break through that wall, it remains a challenge for future writers in the series.
At the same time What Makes Us Mighty opens the door for another character: England writes River to be that same ethereal ticking time bomb she always has been, here as she dances away at a regal palace with an actual suitor willing to “get on with it already.” But River finally gets to act on her knowledge, her instincts, and her supernatural or (ultra-scientific/biological?) awareness of the world around her. And that’s the most fun of all here, in a story that feels exactly like the next good episode of the TV series.
The story also includes many nuances by way of crew relationships. Despite a season and a movie of sexual tension, Mal and Inara are destined to be apart, and instead of hinting at something bringing them closer together, the author leans into their actions that would indicate they are not meant for each other. Another major beloved character, Jayne often is a one-note entry, but England chooses to lean into his flaws this round–with a big caveat. That caveat is common among the entire crew, and what separates this Firefly novel from its predecessors. The crew is usually willing to take on any job, “but just not that job.” What moral question rises to the level of getting the crew to agree to skip the next job? (You’ll need to read it to find out).
The crew has common issues to that found with that bounty hunter anti-hero of The Mandalorian, who was willing to break a code to rescue a youngling. Mal Reynolds seems to pride himself on not getting involved in local politics, yet getting involved so many times now defines him, as it did Han Solo, as it frequently did and does the time lord of Doctor Who, and as it did Captain Kirk and his successors. What is the spacefarer code, and how do these sci-fi franchise characters adapt their code to the changing times? Is the answer to break the rules of society to follow their personal theories of justice and fairness?
Firefly: What Makes Us Mighty asks questions and mixes bits of moral dilemmas broached in sci-fi tropes ranging from those found in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Most Toys,” to Star Trek: Insurrection, to even The Stepford Wives.
From the standpoint of getting pure enjoyment of cruising with a fun group of pals in space, which Cowboy Bebop delivered as a great continuation of that Firefly spirit for its familiar one-and-done season, the Firefly novels continue to provide that next fix for the franchise’s fans. But they also continue to find new ways to approach the concept that goes back to our real-world Monroe Doctrine–a common theme found in Star Trek’s Prime Directive episodes so many times: When is the right time to act, and what elements factor into the decisions of making the final decision to act? It’s refreshing to see the kind of solidarity in decision making for the Serenity crew in this latest installment of space jockeying, reminiscent of that brand of female empowerment Whedon once brought to his Buffy the Vampire Slayer heroine.
A quibble: The novel has another solid contribution by cover artist Natasha Mackenzie, but as with prior entries this story is not centered on the characters on the cover (it’s actually distributed across the entire crew).