Bounty Hunters and Space Cowboys: Comparing Killjoys and Firefly

Killjoys and Firefly entered my repository of favourite TV shows in much the same manner. In both cases, I saw a few posters and heard snippets of plot. Judging from this incontrovertible evidence, I dismissed both shows—who had ever heard of a space cowboy anyway?

In both cases, however, I ended up grudgingly watching a mid-season episode at the behest of family members. I immediately realized the error of my ways, and feverishly watched the entirety of the first season.

Though I greatly enjoyed Killjoys, I couldn’t help noticing that my introduction to the series was not the only thing tying it to Firefly. Airing just over a decade after the unfortunate demise of the Joss Whedon classic, Killjoys shares many of Firefly’s characteristics. The premises are generally convergent—both follow a small cast of mercenary characters who take on any and all jobs (provided they’re paid well), up to and including smuggling bobble head geisha dolls.

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Mal arguing with Inara, Firefly

Both also make use of a space western vibe, featuring settings such as arid locales, small run-down bars that have hints of futuristic technology, and rural communities on backwater worlds. They have a similar political dynamic—a large interplanetary government oppresses and mistreats its rebellious citizens and colonists  (The Company and The Alliance).

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The Company, Killjoys The Alliance, Firefly

There is also a marked economic dichotomy between the citizens of rich, central worlds and the pioneer-like border worlds where the crew spends most of their time. With a few exceptions, both shows feature a very similar cast of characters. Because Killjoys has a smaller central cast, some its characters encapsulate more than one of the roles taken up by characters from Firefly.

There’s the unorthodox gunslinger captain with a traumatic past (Dutch and Mal).

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Dutch, Killjoys

Mal, Firefly

The loveable mechanic who can fix most anything (Johnny and Kaylee).

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Johnny, Killjoys

Kaylee, Firefly

The less intellectually-endowed soldier type (D’avin and Jayne).

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D’avin, Killjoys

Jayne, Firefly

There’s a character who has been neurologically altered by a shadowy government agency to be a nearly invincible killing machine when cued (D’avin and River).

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D’avin, Killjoys

River, Firefly

The humanized sex worker (N’oa and Inara).

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N’oa, Killjoys

Inara, Firefly

The devout priest who’s more than he seems (Alvis and Book).

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Alvis, Killjoys

Shepherd Book, Firefly

There’s the doctor who gave up a cushy life on a rich world (Pawter and Simon).

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Pawter, Killjoys

Simon, Firefly

The female action hero (Dutch and Zoe).

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Dutch, Killjoys

Zoe, Firefly

And lastly there’s the covert assassin who likes stabbing people and is a little bit weird (Khylen and Early).

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Khylen, Killjoys

Early, Firefly

Even some of the episode plots are congruent. This is especially remarkable because there were only fourteen Firefly episodes and Killjoys’s first season contained only ten episodes. Both feature episodes where the heroes are hired to protect a pregnant woman and her companions, who are looked upon unfavourably by their respective societies (a safe house of surrogates in Killjoys and a group of sex workers in Firefly). These companions turn out to be more capable of handling their own defense than either crew anticipated.

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Episode: “Vessel,” Killjoys

Episode: “Heart of Gold,” Firefly

There’s also the episode wherein the crew attempts a salvage mission on what appears to be an empty transport, only to encounter a gruesome surprise (“A Glitch in the System” and “Bushwhacked”).

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Episode: “A Glitch in the System,” Killjoys

Episode: “Bushwhacked,” Firefly

However, Killjoys and Firefly differ in one rather important aspect. Firefly was cancelled after less than a season, spawning a legion of disaffected fans. Killjoys, on the other hand, has been renewed for a second season. Both shows did not garner very impressive viewership numbers in their first seasons—Firefly, in fact, had a larger average audience by a significant margin. Given the shows’ multitude of similarities, the obvious question is, why has Killjoys been more successful?

The channels on which the series aired may have something to do with it. Firefly aired on the more mainstream Fox, while Killjoys plays on sci-fi specialist Space, which would (you’d assume) be mainly the domain of viewers who enjoy series such as Killjoys. Further, since Space does not depend on ads for revenue, lower viewership numbers are less of a problem. However, I think there are deeper reasons for the difference in success. Despite their similarities, Firefly and Killjoys differ in tone and in the relative importance of their characters to the world they inhabit.

Though the main cast of Killjoys is often shown as being at the mercy of the higher ups of both their own bounty hunter organization, the Reclamation Agency Coalition (RAC), and the ominous anonymity of the Company, they also often wield a surprising amount of power. Dutch is easily able to negotiate a cancellation of the Company’s kill warrant for D’avin; she is also cleared of a number of charges on multiple occasions by both superiors at the RAC and a member of the Nine (the conglomerate of families which rule the central world, Q’resh) with whom she is in frequent contact. Dutch (and later D’avin) are also later marked out for a special RAC program involving human enhancement techniques.

The crew of Firefly’s Serenity, by comparison, were called “a bunch of nobodies” who are “squashed by policy” by managers at Fox. This was intentional—using the US’s civil war as a model, Joss Whedon constructed the crew to be a relic of a vast galactic civil war, wherein the Browncoats (synonymous with the grey uniformed Southerners of the American Civil War) were routed by the Alliance. This arrangement allowed the show to examine the psychological effects of the end of such a war upon the members of the losing side, and their subsequent search for new lives in their changed world. Given their defeated status, the cast has very little political pull (the latter events of the movie Serenity aside); the plot frequently revolves around the crew slipping through Alliance patrols, with the understanding that capture would lead to inescapable imprisonment.

The economic and legal status of the crews in both series are also at odds—every main character in Firefly (with the possible exception of Inara) is either dead-broke or wanted (as well as broke). The crew of the Serenity are also acknowledged criminals. Though they take on some legal employment, the vast majority of their jobs involve illegal activity. The threat of bankruptcy grounding the Serenity is constant (the fact that one episode is entitled “Out of Gas” is rather telling).

The Killjoys, in contrast, though complicit in some illegal activity, are legal employees of the RAC. According to Johnny and Dutch, Killjoys are paid quite well, and have relatively comfortable lifestyles when compared to the average citizen of the Quad.

These differences also manifest in the shows’ tones and central problems. Killjoys is generally a light, sci-fi action show. Though most episodes are loosely centered around a particular warrant, Dutch’s relationship to powerful and shadowy forces that are seeking to control the Quad underlies many of the events of the series. Dutch and her crew are involved in important events that alter the future of the entire system (e.g. the assassination of one of the Nine families and the bombing of Oldtown) and are presumed to play an important role in the political future of the Quad.

Firefly, though frequently comedic, has a darker tone (this was, if you’re wondering, also something Fox had a problem with—the network pressured Joss Whedon to make Mal “more jolly”). The crew’s main problems are related to money and/or personal, small-scale problems. Though Mal and company can be said to have altered the future of their galaxy in the Serenity movie, their potential for causing radical change is non-existent—the Alliance’s control is absolute—and they are generally uninvolved with larger political issues.

Overall, these differences are responsible for the success of Killjoys and the cancellation of Firefly. At least in the boardroom, Killjoys is a less risky, more mainstream type of show. Though it occasionally deals with contemporary issues (e.g. environmental damage and drug use), it is generally filled with mindless action, predictable plot sequences, and idealized characters who have secretly been groomed for a leadership role. Firefly deviated from this traditional structure to focus on unusual content (rebels who lost their cause and have no ability to nor intention of renewing the fight). Everything that made it one the best television shows of all time—everyday problems and ordinary characters who lack the predestination common in many speculative shows—made it unpalatable to the Fox brass.

-Contributed by Christopher Boccia

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More Societal Quirks of Widespread Cryonics and its Contemporary Status

*Scroll down/ click here to read part 1 of this blog*

Lois McMaster Bujold’s novel Cryoburn discusses a number of social issues that arise in a society in which cryogenic preservation is commonplace.

While driving around Kibou-daini, the planet on which the novel takes place, one of Miles’s retainers notices a discomfiting sign that advertises a gated community in a rather novel way. It asks, “Did you die 100–150 years ago?” His local guide explains that some of the small number of people cryo-revived are not fans of modern Kibou-daini, and try to form enclaves of their age class to maintain isolation from the younger generations. This seems to be a satire of one of the common reasons for undergoing cryonics: the desire to see what sort of future humanity has made for itself. Since we typically associate the progression of centuries with positive social and technological change, one would assume that the future one wakes up into would be an improvement upon the past, but there is no guarantee of this; as Bujold points out, what happens if you don’t like the future? In another instance of wry humour, Bujold also states that some unfrozen customers choose to go back into cryosleep, hoping that they will one day be woken up in a society more to their liking.

Bujold identifies another issue, something often glossed over by a number of sci-fi authors: what happens if the technology, like all human technology, is prone to problems? Upon agreeing to cryonic preservation, prospective clients need to have a lot of trust in their company, since if something goes wrong with the procedure, the clients will never find out.

This very scenario forms a substantial part of Cryoburn’s storyline. Before the events of the novel, one of the largest cryocorps, NewEgypt, developed a bad batch of cryofluid, which, after about thirty years, allowed a set of clients’ bodies to decay until they were unrevivable. Cryofluid, a mixture of various chemicals, is pumped into a person’s blood vessels during preparation for cryonic preservation, which prevents the formation of tissue-damaging ice crystals and assists with the preservation process.

In a move typical of a large corporation, NewEgypt decided to cover up this problem and attempted to sell off the contracts of their unlucky clients. This illustrates not only the problem of allowing corporations to amass vast political power, but also another interesting difficulty with cryogenic technology—humans tend to be short-sighted due to our inherently short life spans. Cryonics, however, operates on the scale of centuries, which makes it a difficult enterprise to maintain, as both the necessary technology and maintenance structures would need to last for an amount of time that is outside the typical human window of understanding.

Bujold also seems to suggest that Kibou-daini’s cryonics may have led to an unhealthy focus on death. Due perhaps in part to the marketing and omnipresence of the cryocorps, Kibou-daini is a world obsessed with cryonics and an ‘afterlife’ so to speak. There is an almost ancient Egyptian fixation with preparing for a future life.

The main antagonist of the story is, fittingly, the NewEgypt cryonics company which preserves its clients in giant pyramids. Even those without the resources to pay for high-quality cryonics try to find some way to get themselves frozen. As Miles notes, “Kibou-daini was a planet so obsessed with cheating death, even the street people managed to scavenge hope” in the form of an unlicensed cryofacility he stumbles upon (Bujold 36). This intense focus on ‘cheating death’ may be responsible for the unfortunate economic conditions of Kibou-daini, as the welfare of the dead seems to be trumping that of the living.

Though her overall picture of a post-cryonic society is quite negative, Bujold does highlight the fascinating possibilities of cryonics to potentially extend lifespans, and likens the cryorevival that she depicts to a technological resurrection. Bujold also suggests that, should cryonics be developed, it will inevitably rise to prominence, due to the human desire for immortality. As Miles also point out, those groups which refuse to undergo cryonics (known on Kibou-daini as the Refusers) will be like religious sects on Earth that practice strict abstinence—by nature of their very beliefs they will cause their own extinction.

How close are we to becoming Kibou-daini? Though cryogenic revival is still very much a technology of the future, cryonic preservation has been going on since 1962. A number of corporations (The Cryonics Institute, Oregon Cryonics, and KrioRus are some of the main ones) offer cryogenic services, and currently around 270 people are being maintained in cryonics facilities. Due to current laws (in America, at least), cryonic preparation can only be started after a person is legally dead. Most cryonics companies offer two types of preservation: head and whole body. Head (or neuropreservation) is the simpler of the two options, as there is less tissue to prepare; however, corpses prepared this way would require technology that could provide a new body for their use.

After a client’s death, all their blood is drained from their body and replaced with specially formulated cryoprotectant fluid containing various anti-freeze chemicals that are intended to reduce ice crystal formation in blood vessels. The client’s body is then gradually frozen and stored at around -196 degrees Celsius. At present, cryonic preparation is quite a complex operation, and requires a team of surgeons. This, combined with the need to wait for legal death, can increase the cost of cryonics, as the client must pay for a team of cryogenic surgeons to be nearby when they are on their deathbed. Preservation typically costs between $12,000 (for neuropreservation only) and $800,000 for full body preservation from a top of the line company. These costs are one-time payments (though one can arrange a yearly plan before one’s death) as yearly payments after death are obviously problematic.

People who undergo cryonic preservation now are banking on the eventual development of a number of theoretical technologies. These include advanced nanobots capable of regenerating body tissue, medical advances in curing diseases, android technology, and mind uploading (a theoretical technique wherein a person’s mind and memories would be scanned and transferred into the medium of computer magnetic memory). Outliving ourselves may not just be the stuff of sci-fi anymore.

-Contributed by Chris Boccia

Politics and Popsicles: The Social Effects of Cryogenic Preservation

Humanity has always been fascinated by the idea of resurrecting the dead. In classics like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, human resurrection moved from the realm of myth to that of science fiction thanks to the advent of electricity and the industrial revolution. One increasingly prevalent method of facilitating resurrection in sci-fi is cryonics. Though a common hallmark of technological advancement in a number of futuristic worlds, few writers have contemplated the larger implications of its addition to the average person’s end of life options. Science fiction author Lois McMaster Bujold, however, has tangled with the social implications and hazards of cryonics—she has in fact written a novel almost entirely dedicated to an exploration of the subject.

Since the early 1920s, cryonic preservation has been one of the most popular technological solutions to the desire for resurrection, and has been featured in a number of science fiction books, television series, and films. For those unfamiliar with the art of making human popsicles, cryonics is the low-temperature preservation of human brain and body tissue after death, with the goal of eventual revival pending technological advances. In a number of futuristic sci-fi pieces, cryonic preservation and resuscitation are routine medical procedures. Some famous recent examples include Interstellar, which featured cryosleep, the suspension of healthy humans to avoid aging; 2001: A Space Odyssey, which proved you should never trust a computer with deep-frozen humans; and the second installment of the Star Trek reboot.

The vast majority of writers tend to use cryonics to place a contemporary person in a futuristic society (in the original Planet of the Apes, for instance) or, in the case of Star Trek, to allow for the speedy revival of the franchise character. Cryonics is thus used only as a vehicle. In some cases it’s used to allow for a connection between contemporary readers and the main character and to simplify exposition (it’s much easier to justify having a narrating character go on for a page about the cool society you’ve written into existence when they have to explain things to a two-hundred-year-old reanimated popsicle). Or, it allows for a main character to be killed off temporarily.

Bujold, however, does a much deeper analysis of cryonics in her Hugo Award-nominated novel, Cryoburn. Set on the planet Kibou-daini, it features her most well-known protagonist, Miles Vorkosigan. In his capacity as Imperial Auditor (a kind of high-level investigator and troubleshooter) of the planetary government of Barrayar, Miles has been tasked with analyzing the business practices of the White Chrysanthemum Cryonics Corporation, which has recently opened a branch on a Barrayar-controlled world.

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In Bujold’s futuristic universe wherein space travel and extensive genetic manipulation are eminently possible, cryonics is also a well-developed field; however, it is mainly used as an emergency medical strategy to stave off brain-death when a person dies in an area where medical help is inaccessible, and is generally short-term. In The Vorkosigan Saga, cryonics is primarily used to attempt to preserve soldiers killed in action for eventual resuscitation.

On Kibou-daini, however, cryonics has become something of a cultural phenomenon. The majority of the planet’s citizens opt for cryopreservation after death, which has led to the proliferation of massive cryonics companies and a number of associated political issues. Kibou-daini can be viewed as the embodiment of a Bujoldian thought-experiment: what would happen in our contemporary society if cryonic technology advanced so as to become both relatively affordable and effective? Bujold also offers her opinions on this thought-experiment via Miles, whose views will determine whether or not his alliance of planets will welcome commercial cryonics.

Centuries of cryonics have deeply altered both the Kibou-daini political and social systems. Cryonic preservation has become more prevalent than life insurance is in their current society, and is viewed as a public service as necessary as healthcare. Like how we pay into retirement plans, most Kibou-danians who can afford it pay yearly fees to cryonics companies, who will preserve them if the worst comes to pass.

This societal setup is not, in of itself, terribly problematic—as one Kibou-daini native notes, the system worked well initially. Kibou’s downfall came when a small number of successful corporations took advantage of the planet’s capitalistic economic system and bought out the majority of the smaller firms. These companies have, correspondingly, grown incredibly powerful as they accumulate both the wealth and influence that comes with caring for the future lives of millions. The resulting corporation-controlled ‘democratic’ political system bears a certain uncanny resemblance to that of modern-day North America. On Kibou-daini, however, the corporations’ political sway is also abetted by a certain legal problem which comes along with advanced cryonics: What constitutes ‘death?’

Under modern definitions, a person is legally dead if their heart stops beating. With technological advances that permit resuscitation of those properly cryofrozen however, this clinical definition of death cannot really be applied. Instead, Kibou-dainians are only considered dead when their brains are so damaged or decomposed that a successful cryo-revival would be impossible. Thus, since they are still technically ‘alive’, cryopreserved Kibou-dainians retain their assets and an important privilege despite their frozen state: their right to vote. As a person in cryonic stasis would have difficulty marking a ballot, their voting proxies (as well as their assets) are kept by their cryonics company. This arrangement is problematic for a number of reasons. Issues of corruption aside, it has also led Kibou-daini into a bizarre situation where, since death rates vastly exceed revival rates, the cryofrozen ‘dead’ can outvote the living via their corporate sponsors.

Bujold thus seems to be critiquing the American capitalistic economy and simultaneously suggesting that, should advanced cryonic technology be developed, its beneficial effects in terms of individual life extension may be offset by negative social effects.

Be sure to check out Part Two of this post! 

-Contributed by Chris Boccia

-Illustrated by Lorna Antoniazzi

Scott Lynch’s The Thorn of Emberlain Slated for Release in September

A mostly official release date has been set for the fourth book in Scott Lynch’s critically acclaimed The Gentleman Bastard Sequence. Note the ‘mostly’ in that sentence—Lynch’s publisher, Gollancz, has posted supposedly accurate release dates before.

The first was in an interview which suggested that The Thorn of Emberlain (ToE) was in an advanced stage of editing and would be out in the fall of 2014, barely a year after the publication of the third book in the series. No one really believed this (as the gap between the second and third books was an agonizing six years), and 2014 ended without a hint of a Gentleman Bastard publication. Gollancz next stated that the book would come out in July of 2015. This seemed more plausible, and there was a release of cover art to bolster fan excitement. This date, however, also turned out to be false (which I discovered to my dismay, since the posting of this article was supposed to be timed appropriately to a July release). Despite Gollancz’s habit of tugging on fans’ heartstrings, the new release date (September 17, 2015) seems to be solid (especially since it has an actual day attached to it, rather than just a month).

I was first introduced to The Gentleman Bastard Sequence by a family member, who insisted that I would like it. I had, at the time, just finished reading Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and was highly skeptical that any fantasy book could follow in the wake of that literary masterpiece without being a disappointment. Nevertheless, I cracked open the first book, entitled The Lies of Locke Lamora. My inner literary snob was immediately dismayed by names like ‘Thiefmaker’ and ‘One-eyed Priest’, which sounded like they had been dredged up from a mediocre D&D game. How, I thought, could this book possibly be good? However, I decided to give it a chance and read onwards.

I was only capable of independent thought a few hours later, sometime past midnight. I had devoured three-quarters of the book, and realized the error of my ways. Scott Lynch had already climbed his way into my shortlist of favourite fantasy authors, and his books have only gotten better since the first. Each one is beautifully crafted—the interweaving of the present and past storylines makes for powerful characterization and moments of symmetry that leave one, as a writer, sighing in despair for not being as good at their craft as Scott Lynch.

Here are a few tidbits about what we can expect in The Thorn of Emberlain (note: Beware of small spoilers if you haven’t yet read the preceding book, The Republic of Thieves).

There is no reason to suspect that Lynch will deviate from his twinned storyline pattern (no complaints here!) in this book.

When a fan asked Lynch if Locke’s on-again off-again love interest Sabetha would be making a reappearance later in the series, Lynch responded with “Hell, yes!”. It’s thus possible that we could see Sabetha in ToE. However, we will likely only see her in the flashback timeline, as she and Locke parted in The Republic of Thieves under less than ideal circumstances.

In ToE, protagonists Locke and Jean will explore the Kingdom of the Seven Marrows (new territory), specifically the canton of Emberlain, which has declared its independence from the rest of the kingdom amid a nasty civil war. Locke and Jean are apparently going to be playing a confidence game involving a fictional mercenary company. Given how fantastically wrong their plans often go, and Locke’s lack of fighting ability, this should be spectacularly entertaining.

If you’ve read this piece, I assume you’d be interested in reading the next book in the series…

Due to an agreement with Lynch’s publishing house (and, if I may be permitted a small immodesty, my own critical reputation) I have been given a number of advanced reading copies of the upcoming fourth book in the series to distribute as I please to reviewers. Given how highly The Thorn of Emberlain is anticipated, I should be able to turn quite a profit.

Since you seem to be such an avid fan, I would love to give you one. There’s only one slight problem—because of a hiccup in international copyright laws, Scott’s publisher cannot ship me the books, which are currently languishing in a Wisconsin warehouse. Being a relatively impoverished student, I don’t have the money for airfare—but, if you’re interested, I have a proposition that could be of mutual benefit to both of us. If you help me get to New Richmond to pick up the books, I’ll give you a free copy, reimburse you, and give you 25% of the proceeds from my salesmanship.

What do you say?

If, by this point and after reading these books, you’re not suspicious and ready to refuse me politely but firmly, you should also consider helping out a friend of mine. Upstanding fellow—a prince in a spot of political trouble…

-Contributed by Chris Boccia