Colonising the Verse: Genre, Imperialism and Frontier Violence in Firefly and Serenity

“They Aim to Misbehave”. Painted by Danielle “Elle” Babin-Sather, 2013.

This post is the first in a roundtable co-edited by Marc-William Palen and Rachel Herrmann on science fiction and imperial history. You can read our call for posts here. Posts will run twice a week between now and the second week in July. We look forward to hearing your thoughts on these posts!

Joel Barnes
University of Melbourne

Five hundred years in the future, humanity has left earth and expanded into a new solar system. New planets have been terraformed and colonised. Life at the centre of this system is luxurious, sophisticated, civilised. On the outer fringes, existence is more precarious, eking out a living a more dangerous game. This is the world of Joss Whedon’s regrettably short-lived television series Firefly (2002) and its feature film follow-up Serenity (2005). Both follow the rag-tag crew of the spaceship Serenity, led by captain Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), as they struggle to make ends meet by means legal and otherwise on the rough outer edges of this fictional universe, known in the show’s jargon as “the Verse.”

The Verse is cast in the mode of not one but two genres—the space opera and the western—that dramatise life on the frontier, and much of its humour and interest lies in the productive tension between their respective visions of that setting. According to Whedon, Firefly’s genesis lay in his reading of The Killer Angels (1974), Michael Shaara’s historical novel about the Battle of Gettysburg. He afterwards became “obsessed with the idea of life on the frontier, and that of course [made him] think of the Millennium Falcon.”[1] In imagining the space opera as an adapted western that shifted nineteenth-century imperial tropes into an extraterrestrial future, Whedon was merely making explicit long-standing undercurrents within the genre. (Gene Roddenberry’s working title for Star Trek—a constant intertextual counterpoint in Firefly—had been Wagon Train to the Stars.[2] Its trademark incantation of “space, the final frontier” was not incidental.) Continue reading “Colonising the Verse: Genre, Imperialism and Frontier Violence in Firefly and Serenity

The Costs of Empire: Native Americans and the Origins of the Stamp Act


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Michael A. McDonnell
University of Sydney
Follow on Twitter @HstyMattersSyd

This month, 250 years ago, the British Parliament in London met to consider the vehement colonial response to the hated Stamp Act. The tax had been introduced in 1764 to raise revenue from the colonies in North America. But as most Americans know, colonial protests forced Parliament to back down, and in doing so, set off the fuse that would eventually ignite the American Revolution. Yet few Americans know why this legislation was passed in the first place.

In part, it was to recover some of the tremendous costs of Britain’s imperial wars. In 1763, Britain emerged victorious from the Seven Years’ War, a conflict that began on the frontiers of its North American colonies but which quickly became global in scope. Britain bested its rival France in India, the Caribbean, and North America, but only after pouring hundreds of thousands of pounds into its navy and army.

Though the war had been tremendously costly, it quickly led to another imperial war that gets less attention – this time with Native Americans – in a conflict we often now call “Pontiac’s War.” At the end of the Seven Years’ War, Native Americans insisted the British had only conquered the French, and not them. But British military officers, with their confidence brimming from their previous successes, acted imperiously and ignored native claims to sovereignty and their land. Continue reading “The Costs of Empire: Native Americans and the Origins of the Stamp Act”