Firefly is not science fiction

I finally vocalised something on Slashdot today which had been nagging me for some time. I've realised why it is, exactly, that the show Firefly doesn't quite satisfy my geek cravings. The reason is: Firefly is not science fiction.

"Wait," you'll say, "it has spaceships and brain experimentation and a futuristic setting and all sorts of cool future stuff!" But I say "No!". Because I am of the opinion that in order to be truly science fiction, the science has to be important. The science has to take the centre stage. Star Trek falls under this category. Stargate does too. I don't know if Battlestar Galactica does. Futurama? Most definitely! But Star Wars doesn't - the technology you see in Star Wars is the backdrop to a story which is actually about glowing swords, magic and redemption. And Firefly isn't science fiction either ("If you start asking me science questions, I'm going to cry." - Joss Whedon). It's about people and their interactions. When Serenity breaks down, the story is not about why it broke down and how the characters go about fixing it. It's about how the characters deal with the reality of being stranded in deep space with negligible hope of rescue.

Does this make it a bad show? No. It succeeds on its own terms. Its lack of hard science doesn't endear itself to those of us who enjoy hard science fiction, but we are a niche market - this lack is precisely what makes the show so appealing to the mainstream.

Nor does science automatically make a show good. I hate it more than anything else when shows TRY to get some accurate scientific content into them and fail miserably, because the writers arbitrarily change reality to suit their plot. Much more important in a sci-fi kind of show is is to lay down ground rules and stick to them; to have a consistent universe. In the case of Firefly, the rules are highly non-scientific - "We have a ship and a universe to trade in. We have to earn money and stay alive". In Futurama, the rules are, "It's a comedy show, basically anything goes within reason". These are flimsy rules in the case of Futurama, but they work! Star Trek, on the other hand, seemingly creates a new rule every episode, every time they create a new particle beam or a new chemical for a cure. They discover a way to travel a billion times faster than before, but they forget about it by the next episode. Inconsistent - unsatisfactory.

So I like Firefly, really. But while it has science (if you equate "spaceships" with "science"), it's not science fiction. More like... futuristic fiction. Space fiction.