The appearance of Firefly in 2002 was a breath of fresh air; ignoring the tradition of latex-layered aliens and sterile societies in a formless future, Firefly offers a grittier view of a human frontier that had to reach back into the simpler technologies of the Earth to deal with colonization.
In the future, there are more neat toys, but humanity is essentially the same. (Which, to me, is an encouraging thought.)
Sure, I like aliens, but you don't have to look far in todays television SF market to see that aliens can be both a crutch and a huge liability to a show. Bumpy rubber aliens who act like humans, dwelling in a vastly overpopulated galaxy land such a blow to believability and mystique that it was a relief to see a show that was going to have to get around without them. (It also reminded me of some of the great SF literature that's out there sans aliens...if print can do it, why not TV?)
Firefly inevitably relied on the notion of a created/extrapolated world that *has* to hang together. By ditching not only aliens but much of the stuff that Buffy, Farscape, Trek, or a number of other genre shows have leaned on (time travel, telepathy, alien dimensions, et cetera) I felt that Joss was promising a story where he wouldn't cheat -- where a certain degree of realism was guaranteed, where a deus ex machina couldn't be trotted out for a cheap thrill, and where the drama had to come from the story.
Composition of the 'Verse
From graphics in the movie, 'Serenity', as well as from the books, 'Serenity: The Official Visual Companion' and 'The Serenity Role Playing Game' we are presented with a map of the 'Verse which is a star system composed of several stars, of which at least five have orbiting planets. This is supported by Joss Whedon's shooting script presented in 'Serenity: The Official Visual Companion' (page 113) which describes the map in a scene from one of River's flashbacks, as follows: "Slowly she looks down at her desk. On it is the solar system, glowing lines connecting all the stars and planets."
Room to Grow
Yes, some of the setting details have been left vague:
- "Earth got used up..." can mean many things. The technology of terraforming worlds is clearly not perfect, so you have a spectrum of colonial worlds ranging from plague-infested rat holes to clearly-privileged worlds with all the latest advantages of technology.
- Officially, the exact nature of Faster Than Light (FTL) travel has never been explained Ė as with much of the technology of the setting the 'rules' are: "it just works that way: use it and move on." Unofficially, Joss has mentioned that he doesn't *think* Serenity has FTL capability, and the planets and moons across which the crew travels must be very close together.  Then again, Joss also said that science questions make him cry, so take that with a grain of salt.
- JW may have assumed that if humanity were to leave Earth, the effort involved would require we first locate a stellar system with an abundance of potential worlds and moons fit for terraforming, perhaps even having two or three suns (like Centauri Alpha, Beta & Proxima) close enough together to allow a fast interplanetary ship to cross between them. ** Also, many of the inhabited 'worlds' in Firefly seem to be the moons of gas giants, and the language of spaceflight used by Wash suggests orbital motion, despite Reynolds' comments about the 'edge of space' and 'the galaxy', which relate more to his manner of speech, to his character, and historical aspects within the show.
- If these gas giants were larger than (say) Jupiter, many of their moons would resemble Earth in size. Perhaps the central sun is also much larger than our own, meaning that the range of orbits in which habitable worlds might be terraformed would also be more distant and fill a much broader band of space.
- There are all kinds of comments consistent with the idea that FTL is not available, but that gravity and inertial control technologies or drives, together with suspended animation, are commonplace.
- Perhaps the abandoning of Earth was not a scattering among the stars, but a stream of slowboats threading their way to a single well researched and pre-prepared destination.
- This whole process would, of course, take centuries to accomplish... hence the five century leap into the future... just a thought
- There are, of course, other theories.
- Fashion is a comfortable blend of looking backwards for something well-established and scavenging the leftovers of the current mix of religions and cultures. I canít help but think the mess on the Firefly was one of the cheapest sets to dress in the history of science fiction (and I say that with some affection for the job they did). The stage is larger and more than one world may be involved in a plot, but you can basically step into the Firefly universe and find a comfortable place to spend some time.
The Unification War
There are two episodes in the Firefly series that show the Unification War. The intended series pilot, "Serenity", begins with a battle between the two factions at a place known as Serenity Valley. (It is from this battle that Mal's ship gets its name.) The Browncoats represent the Independence movement and the Alliance represent the core worlds fighting to unite humanity under a single government authority. Mal and Zoe are fighting for the Independence movement and through a colossal series of apparent bad luck, so many Browncoat officers are killed that Mal, a seargent, assumes command of the regiment. Although they put up a valiant fight, the Browncoats are ultimately defeated and the two sides negotiate peace — while leaving their armies in the field (think casualties).
The second episode that shows part of the Unification War is "The Message" where short scenes are shown of a battle with Mal, Zoe, a fellow enlisted soldier named Tracey, and a commanding officer who appears to have cracked under the strain of battle (he mutters about his arms being missing, even though they're still attached). The Alliance seems to have the upper hand...and a lot of cool toys that you need to run away from quickly.
Speculation: Strangely, most of the glimpses of the war we've seen so far (July '05) suggest that Browncoat officers have a short survival rate in battle. Combined with the strange clues from River, it might be possible that the Alliance's experiments on her may be part of a larger and more dastardly long-range program to control events. (Note: Larger because River was not old enough to have been part of the war, so if true, there must be more psychic soldiers somewhere.)
From the first episodes I saw Firefly as a rich world for roleplaying. 99% of any SF aliens are transparent analogs of familiar peoples (and usually racist versions of those familiar cultures). In the 'verse, humans are the good guys and humans are the bad guys; thatís easy to understand and follow. For the gaming aspects, there is enough conflict to fuel hundreds of stories. There are dozens of choices for lifestyles and options for character development. In working on a Firefly game, I tried to work out a simple gaming engine that focused on basic mechanics for knowledge, actions, and tools (including weapons). I enjoy games and settings that focus on individual initiative and freedom rather than a massive rules set, and Firefly is definitely that kind of setting.