What Color Hat Does Your Universe Wear? :

The role your setting plays

A friend of mine recently made a comment on the TV series Firefly, that one of the things that made the series work so well was that the characters were “casually heroic” in the face of a very hostile universe. I had read that a novel’s setting could be almost a character in the story, but I hadn’t realized just how that worked until I analyzed the way it works in Firefly.

First, if you haven’t seen this series go out and find a friend who owns the DVDs—if you know SF people, this shouldn’t be hard—then watch all 14 episodes and enjoy the heck out of them. But after that do some analysis, because I think my friend is right. The people in Firefly are a long way from Dudley Do-right. In fact, most of them are petty criminals, more or less on the run from the law. What makes them such appealing characters (aside from Josh Whedon’s snappy, humorous dialog, and magnificent character development) is the fact that they live in a universe that is pretty damn dark. The inanimate part of the universe includes a ship that’s likely to break down when you need it most, and nature that… well, let’s face it, the vacuum of space is a dangerous environment.

But it’s really with humanity that the most interesting part of any universe begins. The government in Firefly is indifferent at best, and often actively hostile. Your fellow criminals are more likely to cheat you or shoot you than deal honestly, and the hardworking, honest people are almost as likely to scam you as the criminals—when they’re not trying to burn you at the stake. Yet enmeshed in this hostile world are a set of people who manage to survive with humor and panache, to care deeply about each other—and sometimes even to care about strangers. When you look at it from the right distance, the crew of Serenity appear as a fragile bubble of courage and warmth in a very cold, dark world—which is a large part of the reason why their audience is so firmly on their side.

An even darker universe appears in the musical Chicago. (I’ve only seen the movie, not the play.) But in Chicago‘s universe the only survivors are viciously selfish people, and anyone who is good or innocent meets a horrible fate. The only reason this movie succeeds is because the universe is so harsh—if they were facing lesser odds, the corrupt protagonists would be completely unlikable. But in the context of a universe that holds no mercy at all, the audience can get behind their energetic struggle to survive and prosper.

So should your universe always wear a black hat? Not necessarily. As a reader, most of the books I prefer have universes that hold a possibility of justice, and a majority of the people in them have good intentions. (Of course there are also those whose intentions aren’t good, or it would be harder to have a plot, but the majority….) My own universes tend to be more or less balanced; justice and goodness are possible if the protagonists fight for them. And as a reader, I avoid books where the world is as dark as Chicago‘s—I don’t like depressing fiction. But looking closely at Firefly, I have to acknowledge that the darker your universe, the brighter your protagonist’s courage and caring will shine.

Summer 2005