Lotuses in Space
by Victoria Wu
Here’s what has happened: the resources on Earth-that-was had been completely consumed, so we left and terraformed a new galaxy of Earths. The central planets formed the Alliance, and thrived with new technologies, as well as some noble old traditions. The Companion’s Guild trains young girls and boys to become cultured and elegant, skilled and knowledgeable. Companions choose their own clients, and by doing so set the standard for who’s who in the ‘Verse. We are encouraged to enjoy our profession. But that’s not guaranteed.
Inara Serra is dying.
The last time I saw her, she was preparing to leave the Companion School of House Madrassa, where she was next in line to become the House Priestess. I thought her mad.
“What will you do?” I had nervously asked.
“I will travel,” she stated simply. She picked up a burning incense stick and looked thoughtfully at it. “I have lived here on Sihnon since I was born, and have not left Madrassa since I entered as a student. Now I want to see the beauty of other worlds, of the stars.” She extinguished the stick.
“But what about your future here? They are saying you will become the next House Priestess! How can you just turn and walk away from such a high honor?”
I remember the way she smiled at me, that familiar knowing look that a mother might give her child. But her eyes twinkled with something more. Was it sadness?
“You are still young, Lee-Ann. You are still easily moved by the scents, sounds, and colors of this house. This life. With time, you too will begin to wonder how much more is out there. Mei-mei,” she addressed me fondly, “you will have a fulfilling life as a Companion. But I can see in your heart you are like me. You have a free spirit, like the winds. Someday, you will follow me to the skies.” She hugged me for a long time, yet not nearly long enough, and then walked gracefully through the gateway, between two large stone lion statues, as I’d seen her leave so many times before. But this time I knew I wouldn’t see her walk back through.
Inara Serra is dying. She is dying in a small infirmary on a small ship, laid out on her most beautiful blankets and cushions. Her illness had made her frail now, and I could see the effort she mustered to focus her eyes on me, and speak.
“Lee-Ann…my dear sister. I’m so glad you could come.”
I took her hand in mine. “For you, Jie-jie, no power in the ‘verse could stop me from coming to see you again.” I gently ran my fingers through her wavy dark brown hair. “I wish you had told me you were ill back at Madrassa. Had I known I’d have so few moments left with you…” I looked away so she wouldn’t see my eyes becoming wet.
Inara shook her head. “I didn’t want to worry anybody. When I got the news, I knew I couldn’t tie myself to Sihnon any longer. Had I told you, you never would have let me leave.”
She was right, of course. The core planets have the finest doctors and hospitals, while the outlying planets have to fight for supplies. “I guess I’m glad you were able to fulfill your dreams of seeing the galaxy, rather than resigning yourself to a sterile clinic room. You never could stand undecorated white walls.”
She smiled a little at this. “Have you traveled to the outer planets before this?”
“Actually, as of very recently, yes. After you left, for several years I only took the highest level of Alliance officials to be my clients. They treated me with respect and always observed Companion protocol. I was content to play my part as dictated by our profession, our tradition, to go where I was needed at another’s bidding. But recently…” My voice trailed off as I tried to find the words to tell her about the client who changed my world view. “There was a young student, the daughter of an important Alliance economic adviser, named Jenly who invited me to her home. Normally I wouldn’t spend time with someone who is not on the Companion client registry, but I found her invitation intriguing. She had seen me at a diplomat’s party, and wanted to invite me to study history with her.”
“History? How very curious.”
“I was interested in her proposal, so I went to her home.” I remembered the humble student apartment, the small faded black and white photograph of a family that looked like mine, the smells of bao-zi and seafood soup lingering beckoningly from the kitchen. There were scrolls of Chinese calligraphy tastefully hung on one wall, and scenes of children playing in front of a temple on another. And everywhere there was a surface, towers of books on everything from the ancient Chinese dynastic eras to demographic studies of Asia in the last age of Earth-that-was.
“Jenly told me she studies the cultures of Earth-that-was to understand where we all came from, from the very beginning. She talked about the millennia of human history that has brought us here, far from Earth-that-was, and about how for so long, we humans fought with each other instead of looking around and seeing how much beauty there was in the world around us. And worst of all, she told me how all that fighting ended up destroying the beautiful Earth.
“But Jenly told me her studies had led her to a firm belief in the importance of preserving cultural history. My cultural history.” I looked down at Inara’s dark olive skin in my tan, golden hand. “We Companions were trained,” I continued, “to preserve the beautiful arts of Asia. They taught us how to perform the tea ceremony, to write calligraphy, to arrange flowers, to play the ancient instruments. They told us to sit in silence and calm our minds. But never did they teach us in school what any of it means. And far be it to hope for our clients to have more than an aesthetic appreciation for our arrangements and arts.” I thought I saw Inara give a small smirk.
Every Companion has had clients who are much more vulgar than anyone would have guessed based on their rank and social standing alone. Such clients tend to not remain on the Companion client registry for long.
“One day at a time, Jenly told me about the old philosophies of harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility that were embedded in nearly everything we learned in our studies, but never fully understood. I reached a new level of understanding of the culture of the ancient nations…of my culture.” I paused to take in a deep breath. “Since then, I’ve been more open to meeting new people. People who are far from being Alliance officials. I’ve been seeing fewer and fewer clients as a Companion, and instead been meeting other culture preservers, like Jenly. I’ve met people who survive on humble jobs, such as making knives or ceramics, or performing theater or dance as it was performed a millennium ago. The community is small, but it is strong.” I smiled, thinking back on those I had met on my travels to the outlying planets.
Inara pondered over what I had told her. “You know,” she said, ever so quietly, “I always knew you were a restless soul, and you would end up searching for your own identity, like me. But instead of looking out to the stars, as I did, you looked within yourself.” She gave my hand a little squeeze. “I’m proud of you. I love you, Mei-mei.”
The ship’s crew came in, with solemn looks on their faces. I took a step back so Mal, the ship’s captain, could take my place, while Simon, the doctor, read Inara’s vitals from the machines. He looked back toward us with immense emotion in his eyes.
She said goodbye to each of us in turn, and when she was done, she gave a sigh, and left us, holding Mal’s hand until the end. We all stood very quietly for a long time.
Inara was laid to rest far from her birthplace, yet perfectly at home, under the stars on a hill overlooking a beautiful, glimmering ocean. I lingered under the tree we had buried her under, as did Mal. After a few moments of silence, he murmured to me, “Y’know, as Inara’s close friend, you’re more’n welcome to stay in her shuttle. Travel with us a spell. That’s if you don’t wanna go back to being an Alliance Companion just yet.”
I looked up into his face. His expression was almost unreadable, if not for his eyes, which gave away his grief. “I’ll stay,” I said quietly. “Thank you very much. I won’t be a burden.”
As I entered Inara’s shuttle, I glanced around and took stock of what few personal belongings Inara had truly owned for herself. A pendant from her Madrassa days, stored alongside her many necklaces. A small doll, from her childhood, tucked away on a shadowed shelf. A single photograph of her parents, well-protected in a small box, along with some small knick-knacks, likely souvenirs of her travels with the Serenity crew. Besides those and a few of her outfits that were too casual for Companion duties, nearly everything she owned she had used for her duties as a Companion. It was a very familiar room to me, yet at the same time, a shrine to the misplaced values that I had been trained for so long to believe in, to only please others rather than focusing on how it could improve myself.
I saw a black journal tucked neatly among the controls of her shuttle’s navigation board.
Flipping through it, I saw Inara had taken detailed notes of the clients she had met since joining the Serenity crew. Their desires, attitudes, behavioral quirks, even things they didn’t even know they needed were all listed as plainly as their name, profession and planet.
I went to my bag to retrieve my own black journals: one for my Companion clients, but also one for the people I had met, the culture preservers, and the people I hope to meet yet.
Someday, I will return to Jenly – that is, Zhen-Li, and I will tell her what I have learned so she can incorporate them in her research. I set them next to Inara’s at the end of the shelf.
Shepherd Book knocked at the shuttle’s door frame. “Supper’s on, Lee-Ann, if you’d like to join us.”
I smiled warmly at the gentle old man. “It’s actually pronounced Lian.”
Book looked puzzled for a moment, then said with a slight shrug and a grin, “Supper’s on, Lian. Simon made noodles.”
As I entered the dining room, I deeply inhaled the smells of beef broth and some sort of marinated leafy vegetables. Traveling from one outer planet to another, I’d grown accustomed to exchanging my refined, delicate Alliance palette for simpler, heartier fare. I took a seat between Jayne and River and gratefully accepted a bowl of steaming beef noodles from Simon. We ate in solemn quiet for a while, accompanied only by the sounds of thirsty slurping and chopsticks clicking.
Finally, Jayne broke the silence.
“How long’s this one stayin’?” he growled, tilting his head in my direction.
“Jayne…” Zoe cautioned him with a stern look.
“It’s alright, Zoe, I don’t want anyone to be offended by my staying on,” I said in my most calming voice. “When Mal offered to let me rent Inara’s shuttle for a while, I promised to pull my weight when it comes to chores and such. I am just grateful for the opportunity to travel to worlds I haven’t yet had an opportunity to visit.”
“Travel?” Jayne arched an eyebrow. “Business too slow for you on the inner planets?”
The other crewmates, besides River, seemed to hold their breaths, watching for my
“My business,” I stared straight into his eyes, “is just fine. But I am spending some time to learn more about my heritage, the Asian cultures of Earth-that-was.”
Kaylee grinned widely, and made a small, excited bounce in her chair. “Ooh, that sounds all kinds of interestin’. What kinds of—”
“Culture?” Jayne interrupted, still in a sour mood. “What kinda culture do you
Companions need more’n knowing how to curtsy and bat your eyes and f—”
“Now Jayne, that’s enough!” Mal slammed his hand onto the wooden table. “Lian here is gonna be our new shipmate for a while and you will treat her with some amount of respect.”
Jayne slouched into the back of his chair. “I just don’t see why we need a Companion at all times,” he grumbled. “Unless you got some other deal going on with this one, too.”
At this suggestion, I felt the need to defend myself more forcefully. “Then understand me, Jayne. I am not here to play games with you, or the captain, nor do I have a lineup of clients waiting for me on the outer worlds. I am telling you I am here to travel and learn, and that is all.”
River chose this moment to speak up. “It’s dark where she is hiding. She needs to peel.”
Everyone turned to look puzzlingly at her for a moment, and then returned to the conversation. Simon tried to be helpful, while simultaneously attempting to get River to focus on her vegetables rather than the sweets that Kaylee had snuck in, saying, “I think your goal is very noble, Lian. Studying one’s own history is crucial to our collective understanding of what it means to be human.”
Jayne’s attitude had softened, but he still wouldn’t give up his ground. “History?
Traveling? The girl should just keep on being a Companion. Ev’ryone has their own job, and ev’ryone needs to just stick with ‘em. Unless…you don’t wanna keep on bein’ a Companion.” Jayne’s expression lit up at the thought of a bachelorette on board.
I sighed. I guess one can be friends with a Companion and still not understand what being a Companion truly means. “I did not become a Companion out of a love of sharing beds with strangers. When my parents signed me over to the priestesses at Madrassa, they did it because they thought I would be able to have a better life than I otherwise would have been able to achieve as the daughter of middle-ranking Alliance shippers. And I have. My profession as a Companion has enabled me to enjoy many luxuries, in exchange for creating beautiful memories for people who require my services. But now I feel those memories are shallow when they… when I do not understand the rich meaning and purpose behind my actions. And I cannot stand to be without full comprehension anymore, even though it means seeking out that knowledge on my own. And when I am done learning as much as I can, I will return to my Companion sisters and teach others what I have learned, and we will be responsible for more than just pleasing the Alliance elite with our song and dance. The Companion Guild will become a repository for cultural history, rather than a mere reenactment.” I sharply inhaled, quite surprised at the forcefulness of my own words. Everyone else seemed to be as well.
Only River was unimpressed. “Peeling!” She took a large bite out of one of a round,
sugary pastry while nodding approvingly at me. “She’s peeling.”
Critical Analysis of “Lotuses in Space”
This short story was written in the style of a work of fan fiction, or fanfic. Since fanfic assumes the reader is already familiar with the characters and settings of the original work being referenced – in this case, Joss Whedon’s cult TV series Firefly – the characters of the original show did not need to be given too much introduction, enabling me to jump right into the story I want to tell. On the other hand, since this fanfic aims to analyze and critique the themes of Orientalization and hit-or-miss feminism in Firefly, I found I had to give a more thorough introduction to the Companion Guild. By the 26th century, “the world’s oldest profession” has gone beyond the social stigmas that have been associated with it through the 21st century, and became a government-recognized, highly respected profession. Yet the Guild’s success relies on the problematic manipulation of Orientalist tropes and typically submissive seeming, exotic women, without any apparent recognition of the deeper symbolic meaning of many of the acts that they reproduce, such as Buddhism, tea ceremonies, and meditation.
In this fanfic, Lian describes her recent enlightenment on the topic of cultural preservation from Zhen-Li, a student scholar, and joins the Serenity crew on its interplanetary travels with the goal of learning more about Asian heritage on Earth-that-was. In order to accomplish this plot, Inara Serra had to die (which is not unreasonable: in the original episodes, there are a few allusions to her terminal illness, and the cast has confirmed that had the show continued, Inara’s illness would have been revealed as the story went on). On the show, Inara represents the traditional “lotus blossom” stereotype of a female who is beautiful, gentle, and occasionally needs rescuing by a heroic male. In my story, Lian has grown up in the same social environment and gone through the same training as Inara, but she has adopted a new perspective of her upbringing. While Inara perfectly enacts the role of a widely admired geisha, she doesn’t suggest that there is a symbolic significance to her recreation of the Japanese icon. Her character is reminiscent of the romanticized geisha ingénue Sayuri in Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha, though even less aware of her purpose beyond to please. In Firefly, it seems that the only reason the Companion Guild exists is to recreate the exoticization of geisha, but not understand what significance the class held for their culture. Lian has realized that the Companion training and tenets are intended to entice and please, but that she cannot appreciate her own actions because she was not taught how to feel about them. Her education with Zhen-Li, a student of history, is one of the few ways that Earth’s cultures could still be maintained in the future. Lian’s travels with the Serenity crew, meeting other cultural preservers such as knife makers and theater performers is another form of documenting culture that would still be essential in the future. If Firefly had continued, I hope that Whedon would have eventually shown the importance of academic anthropology of Earth-that-was, along with the frontier battles and technological trophies.
The advantage of writing this fanfic from the perspective of a Companion was the ability to give a voice to the self-reflection that goes on in a Companion’s head. Lian was not only increasingly culturally self-aware, but also showed she is capable of determining her own sexual identity despite her profession. Through her heated conversation with Jayne, it is shown that although Companion’s are among the social elite, they are still subject to the misconceptions that go along with a profession that involves sexual favors. Lian stands her ground, assuring him that Companions choose their work, but that their work does not dictate their individual personality. Furthermore, though both Inara and Lian could be categorized by their shared profession, neither of their life goals involved their career paths in any way, representing that both have grand dreams, as anyone else might. This differs from the way Nancy Chan so actively clung to her would-be lifelong career of sex work in Tracy Quan’s Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl, which seemed to magnify her work as the only important thing in her life. While it made an interesting story, I find it hard to believe that anyone, no matter how much they enjoy their work, wants to continue working without change for their whole lives.
I gave Lian a few extended monologues, inspired by Song Liling from David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly. Besides being the quickest way to explain back story, this enabled Lian, in the final scene, to have a moment of clarity of what she could ultimately accomplish with her documentation of Asian culture as she finds it, illustrating that her hobby is more important than she previously thought. Viewers of Firefly may be familiar with questioning the appropriateness of Whedon’s treatment of Orientalist themes. Lian’s last monologue was my way of working through one possible solution to how Whedon has come short of accomplishing racial hybridity in the show. In Firefly, Whedon blended many “Oriental” cultures together – Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Thai – without regard for their differences, as exemplified by his use of costumes and background props that are artifacts of different Asian cultures simultaneously. Instead, a character such as Lian could provide an opportunity to reattach cultural meaning to those items,as small artifacts such as knives, pottery, fans, and more broadly, traditions such as dance and theater, all have historical significance within their individual cultures. Furthermore, through her monologues, Lian establishes herself as capable of self-assessment, deconstructing the role Inara had set up as a Companion, which was widely adored, but very impersonal when it came to talking about herself.
Though several of Whedon’s TV shows have achieved at least some degree of popularity with his unique handling of widely varying themes and genres, he has not been as successful with diversifying his cast, and more often than not continues to perpetuate rather than defy stereotypes, such as the “lotus blossom” Inara in Firefly. In creating Lian, I presented a possible alternative for a character who is not only Asian, but aware of the problematic usage of Orientalist aesthetics in her environment. Such a character would never make it to the screen, but if the future occurs as Whedon has presented it in Firefly, I think there would be many like Lian who would not tolerate the misuse of cultural artifacts without purpose. Lian bridges that gap between being the “lotus blossom” Companion, while being self-aware of her identity beyond
her profession – she embodies the stereotype while breaking it. More importantly, she addressed the detachment of cultural signifiers from the cultural objects omnipresent in her surroundings. Had Firefly not been abruptly cancelled, I hope that Whedon would have found a way to introduce cultural signifiers back into his set, in the way that Lian has set out to do.
Notes for the reader’s benefit:
- The events in this story occur after Firefly and Serenity, the 2005 movie continuation of the TV series. Between the TV series and the movie, Inara left the ship. This story assumes that when her illness started to get worse, Inara called for her friends to take her away (they’re not very welcome on Alliance planets) to spend her final days with them.
- “Lotuses in Space” references the series finale episode title, “Objects in Space.”
- Due to outside events, River is mentally unstable and in the show she often bursts out with comments that seemingly do not make sense, but are in fact profoundly relevant since she’s also able to read minds. When she says Lian is hiding in the dark, she is referring to a flower bud that has not yet blossomed, and when she says Lian has peeled, she is indicating that Lian has bloomed.
- In the show, Inara and Mal share romantic feelings for each other but refuse to admit it. I didn’t expand too much on this detail because it wouldn’t be too relevant to Lian, who’d just arrived.
- In Mandarin, Zhen-Li translates to “truth” and Lian translates to “lotus.”
- In Arabic, Madrassa translates to school, and is another example of how Whedon broadly blended all the “Oriental” cultures together for the benefit of the show, along with the obvious allusions to Chinese and Japanese language and traditions, and the less apparent occasional usage of Thai and Indian fashion styles.
- If you found this topic interesting, Dollhouse is another TV show that exemplifies Whedon’s habit of creating characters that simultaneously have one aspect of feminism, but enact many more stereotypes than they break, as well as again utilizing Orientalist icons without any specific purpose.
Dollhouse. Prod. Joss Whedon. Fox. 13 Feb. 2009 to 22 Jan. 2010. Television.
Firefly. Prod. Joss Whedon. Fox. 20 Sept. to 20 Dec. 2002. Television.
Golden, Arthur. Memoirs of a Geisha. New York: Vintage Books, 1997. Print.
Hwang, David Henry. M. Butterfly. New York: New American Library, 1988. Print.
“Lotus Bud.” deviantART. 6 June 2012.
Quan, Tracy. Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl: A Nancy Chan Novel. New York: Three Rivers
Press, 2001. Print.
“Ueno Park Lotus Blossom.” deviantART. 6 June 2012.