A few years ago Steven Brust, a noted fantasy author, wrote a Firefly novel he called “My Own Kind Of Freedom”.
The book, a bare 168 pages long, was apparently written “on spec”, that is, without any kind of deal being agreed with anyone in advance. Brust, a fan of the show and its characters, just sat down and started writing it one day, without initial expectations that it would ever get published. Plans did apparently get made with publishers and Universal Pictures to get the story in stores as an official tie-in novel, but were then shelved for whatever reason. Brust’s work was unused and not likely to ever be in a commercial sense, so in 2008 he decided to make it freely available online.
As such, My Own Kind Of Freedom is fan-fiction, more or less, just written by an author with more experience and respect than your average fan-fiction writer (and I will get to Firefly’s fan-fiction masses in time). Aside from the little noted and little read novelisation of Serenity, it is the closest thing you will get to a book set in Firefly’s universe that approaches any kind of legitimacy.
The story is nothing to get all that excited about, and indeed treads over ground that Whedon and company had already well-trod. Set just after “Those Left Behind”, the crew get a job transporting lumber to Hera, site of Serenity Valley, where Mal encounters some troubling issues from his past, getting drawn in to an Alliance investigation into the local leading light, accused of slavery and all manner of nasty dealings. In the middle of that, a dispute with Jayne leads to the big man leaving the ship in a huff.
And, I am very sorry to say, it has never really wowed me, not the first time I read it in 2008, and not when I re-read it just recently. One of the reasons that was possible was the book’s length, and My Own Kind Of Freedom is the sort of story you can well-imagine as a ratty, thin paperback housed in a dark corner of a bookstore’s second hand section, next to the legions of Star Wars and Star Trek novels. My Own Kind Of Freedom comes off, in the few scant hours it takes to complete it, more as a pitch for an episode of the TV show, maybe a two-parter, than anything else. Everything is done in a rush, a fact that might explain the frenetic way that Brust jumps between POV’s, like George R.R Martin on steroids, as if he thinks the reader’s attention span cannot last more than a few pages of one character.
That’s a shame because Brust actually could write these characters fairly well when he wanted to. Internal monologues of Wash, thinking about his love of flying, and River, thinking about, well, anything, are particular treats. The back and forth is decent when it comes, Brust taking advantages of the reduced character list (no Book or Inara here) to focus primarily on Mal/Zoe, Zoe/Wash and Simon/River in terms of dialogue pairings.
But no amount of decent wordplay between characters will save a dull story, and that’s what My Own Kind Of Freedom really is. The plot really seems to pivot on a twist that only the most brain-dead won’t see coming a mile away, especially after a very clumsily inserted and written flashback chapter early on, that all but spells it out for you. The resulting narrative has a bit of a weird feeling to it as a result, taking on the form of a chore, as the reader just sort of goes along with it until we get to said “twist”, so we can get onto the serious business afterwards.
Where Brust does try to make things a bit interesting is in the creation of a sympathetic, even heroic, Alliance character, sort of like an intelligence agency version of the Sheriff from “The Train Job”, a good man trying to do the very best that he can within the Alliance system, even as he acknowledges its myriad of faults. ”Kit” is pretty fascinating in that regard then, but even he can’t really save My Own Kind Of Freedom’s from its flaws, and more than once you’ll probably find yourself rolling your eyes at the omnipresence of him and other characters, who are always able to figure out what someone else is thinking at any particular moment, thus draining many scenes of a necessary tension (Burst writes Jayne especially as way too smart at moments). Maybe it could be best put by stating that sometimes, the kind of internal thought process, open dialogue and other interactions in My Own Kind Of Freedom read like stuff that the writer expects to see people say on-screen, and don’t work as well in the form of the written word.
The book skims along, with the action jumping from character to character and place to place so fast that you never really have a chance to revel in details. And so pressed is Burst to tie in his story to other elements of Firefly/Serenity – Mal’s loneliness after Inara’s departure, Simon and Kaylee’s still paused relationship, River’s flying skills, etc – that you start to feel at points that the writer would have been better served crafting something completely new – post-Serenity perhaps – than being hung up on all of these details. Connected to this is the feeling that often comes with such works, created to be placed in the middle of existing visual fiction, that we are simply watching things move slowly towards a resumption of the status quo.
Ultimately My Own Kind Of Freedom feels like a first draft. It needed refining, it needed enlarging, and then it probably needed editing. You can’t really criticise Brust too much for all of that of course, this was a project he could not justify spending too much time on: writers need to eat, so they need to write things that get them paid. There are the hints of a better story in here, but in the end it seems like a fan-fiction project that evolved to a slightly higher level, and little more. And there are better efforts at Firefly stories in the realm of fanfiction out there, believe me. One day soon, I’ll talk about them a bit.