Tim Lebbon’s “Firefly: Generations” – the series’ fourth novel — finally came out in November long after its initial announcement, and while it’s not exactly worth the wait, at least it’s a new “Firefly” book. Lebbon, whose passion for the material also outstripped the quality on “Star Wars: Dawn of the Jedi,” delivers a story where the questions are more compelling than the eventual answers.
To be fair, this is partly the fault of the fact that “Generations” takes place within established events: after River shoots a bunch of bad guys using mathematics in the TV series but before she unleashes her full fighting repertoire in the “Serenity” film. Lebbon lets us into River’s mind as she initially is drawn to Silas – the first subject of the Alliance’s brain experiments – but gradually fears him.
At first, the author effectively writes River’s crazy inner thoughts, but later she speaks in cogent dialog. It also feels off-point that most of Zoe’s dialog is sweet-talk through the intercom to Wash. Still, Lebbon gets more characterizations right than wrong among the seven crew members (Inara and Book are off page on a different mission).
The highlight is Kaylee and Jayne teaming up to loot a massive derelict ship. That ship, the Sun Tzu, is the second big idea (after Silas) in “Generations.” Hiding beyond settled space near the rings of a small rocky planet, the Sun Tzu is one of the colonization ships that came from Earth-That-Was five centuries ago. Perfectly in character, Jayne is interested in the artifacts’ market value, Kaylee in the historical value.
“Generations” gets mileage out of neat little moments rather than big answers. Mal discovers ground vehicles that all have the same name: “Ford.” Jayne finds athletic shoes and Simon a medical textbook. The author tiptoes into territory explored by Asimov’s “Foundation” series, which – like “Firefly” – is also about humanity in a time when knowledge of Earth has faded.
Lebbon holds back (or is held back) on Silas and the early days of the ’Verse’s settlement, but he does give tantalizing insight into the Hands of Blue, amoral Alliance assassins who work in pairs. Here, they are represented by a pair of women written in first person with the “we” pronoun.
The Reavers mystery is over as of the “Serenity” film, but Lebbon kick-starts a juicy new one here. The Reavers turned out to be human, but we’re told these assassins might not be. At the very least, they might have been molded by Alliance scientists, like Silas and River.
The science-fiction pedigree of “Generations” can’t be quibbled with. Indeed, the SF surface appeal is greater than on James Lovegrove’s three books, which emphasize the Western aspect of space-Western (albeit effectively).
The story doesn’t totally pay off, though, after a compelling slow-build that follows a star map through the years until it ends up in Mal’s hands in a card game. The discovery and boarding of the Sun Tzu then have a hint of “Star Wars: The Black Fleet Crisis” and Clarke’s “Rendezvous with Rama,” in the sense that we don’t know what we’ll find but it will likely be awesome.
But the slow-build gives way to a slog. Members of the crew “almost” leave the ship to return to the safety of Serenity – because an Alliance ship is approaching – but hundreds of pages later they’re still on the Sun Tzu, Kaylee and Mal picking door locks to move through endless featureless corridors. Lebbon effectively shows that space maneuvers – matching spins, docking, etc. — are meticulous, but it makes for a jittery mix where the wider action stands still even though there might be a big shipboard shootout.
“Generations” has big ideas, and it slots in as a solid “Firefly” book, but it needed bigger payoffs to be a great one.