(Update: Shortly after this review was originally posted we received an email from Insight Editions with a message from the book’s editor regarding the issue of Mal’s and Zoe’s rank in the Independent Army. Here’s the explanation we received:
“In most of the flashback sequences and supplementary material, we know that Mal and Zoe were officially ranked as Sergeant and Corporal respectively during the Unification War. According to the movie, Serenity, however, Mal’s rank is listed as “Captain, Independent Army” (as seen on the Alliance files shown on the Operative’s screen at 36:38.) The “Criminal Record” on Page 9 directly reflects the Alliance’s files on Mal as shown on-screen.
From what I could piece together, this discrepancy in title was likely due to an unofficial battlefield promotion earned in the thick of it all during the Battle of Serenity Valley, when many of Mal’s superior officers were killed and he had to rise through the ranks and take command of around 2,000 troops. The promotion was one that would never be officially reflected in the Independent Army records (obviously, due to their surrender), but was just official enough to be noted in the Alliance records upon Mal’s post-battle processing. Of course, the fact that the soldiers in the pilot episode of Firefly (“Serenity”) still call Mal “Sergeant” during the Battle of Serenity Valley could also mean that Mal lied to the Alliance about his rank when captured… or that the Alliance later assumed that he was a Captain in the Independent Army based on the fact that he was widely known to be a Captain (of Serenity) after the war. Either way, the choice was made to reflect the on-screen Alliance files accurately in his “Criminal Record” section in this book.
As for Zoe’s rank, all my records seem to show her as Corporal, as reflected in her official Independent Army records on Page 21. So when she states on Page 20 that she was a lieutenant, well, I’m frankly not sure how or why that happened. I would love to say that she received a similar unofficial promotion as Mal in those final battles… but the truth is, as far as I can tell, it seems to have just been an unfortunate error that didn’t get caught along the way. My sincere apologies for the confusion.”
In recent months we’ve seen a number of new Firefly and Serenity products hit the market as 20th Century Fox and Universal Studios have expanded the amount of officially licensed merchandise that is available to fans. One of the benefits has been that there is a new wave of books that are scheduled to hit the shelves featuring brand new stories about our favorite Firefly-class transport ship and its crew. In February it was announced that Titan Books would publish a new series of original Firefly novels that will debut this October, but Browncoats won’t have to wait that long to delve into a book that takes a fresh look at Serenity and her crew.
This week Insight Editions will release Marc Sumerak’s The Serenity Handbook: The Official Crew Member’s Guide to the Firefly-Class Series 3 Ship. I recently had the opportunity to preview this impressive book, which reads like a manual that is a clever mixture of technical blueprints and crew members’ first-hand descriptions of Serenity’s features.
The book itself is visually stunning. The cover is so striking that you’ll instantly feel guilty about putting it on a bookshelf. The ship’s silhouette appears backlit on a field of deep, rich brown (you were expecting any other color?) that simulates a weathered leather, and the accents and text are rendered in an electric blue that makes the whole cover image really pop and leaves no doubt that this is definitely the Browncoat’s version of a coffee table book. The illustrations inside the volume are an eclectic mix of simulated journal entries and sketches, documents (some of which are redacted) and engineering diagrams that serve to give the reader the impression that he or she is reading a manual for a Series 3 Firefly that was cobbled together by Serenity’s crew during one of those long stretches spent out in the black, flying far from civilized worlds where they’d be within the reach of Alliance radar. I found it particularly effective that many of the captions and illustrations are made to look like they were attached with transparent tape, giving the impression that this manual was created somewhere on the rim, far from any of the Alliance publishing houses one might find on the central planets. The finishing touch is a selection of strategically placed still photographs from the series, which lends an added air of authenticity to the overall gestalt.
What I liked most about this volume is that it’s written in the voices of the crew members themselves. Every aspect of Serenity, from her various compartments to her engines and electronics and extra features like the shuttles, the “Cry Baby” and the mule, is described in intimate detail in the colloquial language of Mal, Zoë, Wash, Kaylee and Jayne, the more eloquent prose of Simon, Inara and Book or the cryptic commentary of River.
Writer Marc Sumerak does an excellent job of capturing the individual voices of the characters we’ve come to know so well from the TV series and the motion picture, and when you read Kaylee’s tutorial on the engines, Simon’s description of the infirmary or Wash’s instructions for pulling a “Crazy Ivan,” you really do believe that they are speaking directly to you. What makes this especially fun is that whenever one crew member writes something, the rest of the crew adds comments in the margins, sometimes made to look like they were taped on after the fact. The comments are almost always amusing, and sometimes the various crew members do such a clever job of “trolling” one another that it’s difficult to keep from laughing out loud. The overall effect is that you almost feel as if you’re reading an entirely new episode of Firefly that takes place in those moments of the series when the crew has a little down time.
Speaking of the series, while reading the book I tried to use the various references in the text to pinpoint exactly when on the Firefly/Serenity timeline it was supposed to have been written. The fact that Wash and Book contribute to the content is an obvious indication that it was penned before the movie, and based on the many Easter eggs in the book, we know with certainty that the crew would have compiled it after the events of the Firefly episode “The Message.” The photographs in the book are from virtually every one of the series’ 14 episodes, however.
As is often the case with books that try to expand upon a story with a universe as complex as Firefly’s, this particular volume does have some inconsistencies. Two in particular stood out to me as a hardcore Browncoat. The first is that Malcolm Reynolds’ name is misspelled twice on the page that contains Serenity’s bill of sale, once in type when it lists Mal as the ship’s new owner, and once in the captain’s own signature!
As a fan, I “retconned” this fact rather easily, since Mal wouldn’t have wanted to do anything that might void or otherwise delay the purchase of his dream ship. It’s easy to believe that if he noticed the misspelling of his name on an official Alliance document, he might just sign his name the same way so as not to “rock the boat” and draw attention to himself. The second, however, is much more difficult to explain away.
There is some confusion in the book with regards to both Mal’s and Zoë’s rank in the Independent Army. On Mal’s criminal profile, it lists his rank in the Unification War as captain, even though Mal himself says on the previous page, “Back during the war, I was a sergeant, not a captain.” This has been a topic of some debate among Browncoats over the years: whether Mal was actually given a battlefield promotion to the rank of captain before the end of the war. I personally do not believe he was. After all, Badger teases him in the pilot episode of Firefly about being a sergeant in the war but assuming the title of captain once he got himself a ship, adding that in his eyes Mal is still a sergeant.
Now, this would be easy enough to explain away as a mistake on an Alliance criminal profile, if it were not for the fact that a similar contradiction occurs with Zoë. In a profile that is supposedly written in her own words, Zoë says, “I was a lieutenant and Mal was my sergeant in the 57th.” The problem with this, of course, is that would mean that Zoë would actually outrank Mal, which would hardly justify her calling him “sir” whenever she addresses him in the series and the movie. On the very next page, however, one sees an Independent Army Personnel Report that lists Zoë’s rank as corporal, which is the only rank that is ever attributed to her in the TV series.
Both Mal and Zoë surrendered at the end of the Battle of Serenity Valley, and would have spent the rest of the war as POWs. Since the Independent Army ceased to exist at the war’s end, they would not have received any kind of post-war promotion. In Firefly’s pilot episode we clearly hear Mal addressed as sergeant during the Battle of Serenity Valley, and Zoë is never referred to as lieutenant, so I can only conclude that any reference to either promotion in this book is in error.
There are some other typos and minor errors in the text, but since the book itself is meant to look like it was created by simple folk using the most rudimentary of methods, those mistakes only serve to add to the volume’s charm. This book could easily have been a banal collection of ship’s schematics that only an engineer could love, but with the addition of the crew’s own words, Sumerak and Insight Editions cleverly augment their comprehensive diagrams of a Series 3 Firefly with a compelling look at the daily life of those who live and work in one.
Of course, one might be inclined to ask why a crew that is harboring fugitives and engaging in all manner of illegal activities would ever have the time or the desire to compile a manual such as this in the first place. That is a very good question. Personally, I tend to think they wouldn’t, but I found that if you can get past that fact, and don’t judge the other aforementioned inconsistencies too harshly, what you have is a superb book that is meticulously researched, finely crafted and exceptionally well written. With a rather reasonable cover price of $29.99 for the hardcover edition, The Serenity Handbook is an enjoyable account of life in the Firefly ‘Verse that every Browncoat will want to add to his or her collection.
My final grade: A-
Peace, love and rockets…
(The Serenity Handbook: The Official Crew Member’s Guide to the Firefly-Class Series 3 Ship is available from most major booksellers, and is scheduled for release on July 3.)