Tough Traveling is an interesting and thought-provoking meme started by Nathan @ Fantasy Review Barn: each week Nathan chooses a topic from The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, by Diana Wynn Jones, and challenges everyone to come up with a list of books featuring that trope.
Come join the fun!
This week as we look at HEISTS/CONS
Smash and grabs are not always the best way to illicitly acquire objects in fantasy land. Sometimes these things take planning, a loyal crew, and a little bit of luck. But a good crew can always get the job done.
Just a couple of days before the topic for this week’s meme was revealed, I felt like rewatching a couple of episodes from one of my favorite shows, Firefly. For those of you who are not familiar with it, it’s an intriguing mix of science fiction and western themes, and as strange as it might sound, it works perfectly. The premise: in the far future, humanity has spread around the galaxy, colonizing many different planets. After a bloody civil war, these worlds have come under the rule of the Alliance – a bureaucratic, paternalistic form of government caring more for the wealthy central planets than for the outward-lying colonies that are often left to fend for themselves. On this background moves the crew of Serenity, a Firefly-class spaceship manned by a band of rogues who refuse to bow to authority and live on the fringes carrying cargoes (both legal and illegal, but especially the latter) and passengers, while trying to elude the Alliance’s patrols.
Serendipitously enough, the second episode of this short-lives series (thank you, oh myopic tv executives!) focuses on a heist – the title: The Train Job. Captain Malcom Reynolds and his crew are contacted by crime lord Niska to steal a box from a train, and they are so desperate for income that they are ready to overlook Niska’s reputation for ruthlessness – enhanced by a horrific scene in which he shows our heroes what happens to people who don’t deliver on promises – and to ask no questions about the contents of said box.
What follows is one of the most fun and thrilling sequences in the show: while Reynolds and his XO Zoe travel on the train to offer inside backing, mercenary Jayne – Serenity’s one-man brawn department – is lowered inside the train on a flying cable, hooks the target crate and is reeled back inside the ship with the prize, while on the train all hell breaks loose due to the unforeseen presence of a contingent of Alliance soldiers on the premises. Forced to remain onboard and stick to their assumed identities, the two find themselves at the train’s destination, the mining town of Paradiso (there’s some fine irony here…), where they discover the nature of the stolen cargo: the planet’s terraforming operations have created the breeding ground for a degenerative disease whose only cure was in the box targeted by Niska.
Captain Reynolds might be walking on the fine diving line between law and crime, but his conscience will not allow him to profit from the suffering of a whole town, so he gives back the goods to the Paradiso settlers and decides to risk Niska’s retribution – which will come in time, but this is another story…. What matters here is the characterization at the basis of the episode and the whole series: the Serenity gang is made of anti-heroes by definition, and yet they do possess enough moral standards that help shape their decisions in the face of difficult choices.
While the train heist is an adventurous caper, liberally dotted with amusing scenes (including the rescue of Reynolds and Zoe by another member of the crew, pretending to be the owner of their indenture contracts) and it fits the classic Western tradition of the train robbery, there are several serious narrative threads that help expand on the future represented by the show and on the psychological makeup of the characters peopling it.
First we have the Alliance, the entity requiring unthinking loyalty from its subjects – some of which give it willingly enough, without considering the deeper ramifications, as shown in the initial bar scene in which the crew ends up in a brawl over Unification Day, the celebration of the Alliance’s victory over the Independents. The contrast between the highly technological Alliance ships on patrol duty, and the dusty, miserable and hopeless landscape of colonies like Paradiso, shows how the unification of the settled worlds was imposed for purely selfish and political reasons, without a second thought for the well-being of the colonists themselves.
Then there are organizations like Niska’s, thriving on the power vacuum created by the Alliance’s lack of care, and even overlooked by the central authority as long as they don’t interfere with its goals. In the middle lie the fringe planets, too small and poor to really matter on an economic scale, but still too important for the Alliance’s public face to be allowed any scrap of independence. This is the background in which the Serenity’s crew moves, taking advantage of the central government’s indifference but at the same time following a sort of moral compass that makes it impossible for them to gain from the misfortunes of others.
They might be outlaws, swindlers and smugglers, but when push comes to shove the crew demonstrates time and again that their hearts are in the right place, and that’s enough for the audience to root for them – even when they rob a train….
Screencaps from CAN’T TAKE THE SKY