Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Language and Culture in Sci Fi: Firefly and Serenity

Over the weekend I went to see Disney's Big Hero 6. One interesting aspect of the film is that the story takes place in San Fransokyo (an obvious portmanteau of "San Francisco" and "Tokyo"), where East meets West both architecturally and culturally.

San Francisco skyline at night.
There are a number of nice intercultural details that feature in the film as well, such as the chōchin (提灯) paper lanterns that hang from the San Franciscan streetcars. San Francisco's famous hilly streets are also lined with sakura (桜 or サクラ) cherry blossom trees. In addition to these purely aesthetic features, the characters also seemingly alternate between Japanese and American cuisine.

As I noticed these interweaving cultural details, it reminded me that while it isn't often the crux of plotlines, fascinating (and fictional) cultures and languages are often a recurring theme in science fiction universes. Since I'm a massive fan of science fiction, this got me thinking about the cultures and languages in my favourite genre of both film and television.

Today, as part of what I hope will become a regular series of posts on this blog, I will be covering one of my favourite sci fi television series, Firefly, and the accompanying film, Serenity.

Firefly took a lot of inspiration from real cowboys.
Joss Whedon's wrongly-cancelled space western took place in another fusion universe. Much like Big Hero 6, the backdrop draws upon elements of both Western and Eastern culture. This is explained by an alliance between the United States and China that took place prior to the events of the show.

Thanks to this cultural fusion, Mandarin Chinese is the second language of the galaxy and is seen throughout the show in writing. Whenever characters need to swear they use Mandarin words, which worked as a kind of "minced oath" for the audience who are able to tell they're swearing without the need to be offended by it (unless you're Chinese, of course). That said, a lot of the Mandarin in the show is said to be unintelligible, probably due to the actors being principally Canadian and American.

In the Firefly universe, the two main languages are not perfectly and evenly distributed, with one language being favoured over the other depending on where you are. For example, on the planet of Londinium, one of the most-populated and central planets of the galaxy, English is more common. Mandarin is more widely spoken on the sister planet of Sihnon, which exhibits a more typically-Chinese culture and naming conventions.

As well as the shared dominance of English and Mandarin, there are obvious dialectal differences dependent on where these languages are spoken. In the case of English, the variety spoken on the central planets differs from the way the language is employed on the outer planets. These two varieties are known as "Core Speech" and "Frontier Slang" respectively. "Core Speech" is considered to be more prestigious and employed by the wealthy and educated, while "Frontier Slang" certainly does not carry the same reputation.

How accurate do you think Firefly or Serenity is? Which sci fi series or film should we cover next? Tell us below in the comments.