The genre of post-apocalyptic science fiction is littered with doomsday visions and exhilarating scenarios of survival in the face of constant attack. Zombie hordes, robot armies, and alien invasions draw up our fears of other mysterious entities that approach we humans as an external threat but one need not look so far away to find catastrophic and alienating scenarios. The fictional worlds of Cowboy Bebop and Firefly offer alternatives to the overtly violent and bleak futural visions populating our culture while retaining the more subtle violence of living and working in a technologically advanced and highly controlled society. The emphasis on more common struggles that have recurred throughout history and still exist today lets the fantastic elements fade into the background, allowing the relationships between the characters to resonate with viewers despite the fictional setting.
These television shows, both of which lasted only one season and have enjoyed a kind of momentary cult-super-stardom, utilize this novel past-future blend of science fiction giving their respective worlds a greater degree of believability without diminishing the majestic sense of inhabiting a foreign place. The attachment to the characters is made stronger by seeming less contrived; the problems they overcome and the comradeship they forge along the way reach across these soft dystopias and into our present thanks to an appreciation of the past. Taking lessons and styles from the past and incorporating them into an imagined future prevents heavy abstraction and lets us look at our own times from a different angle. Cowboy Bebop fuses a cool jazzy noir with a highly technocratic and corrupt capitalist outer-space-sprawl. Firefly brings together western frontier adventure with a tightly controlled central space empire for a more sharp ’fascism vs. freedom’ contrast. Though the worlds of Cowboy Bebop and Firefly differ in key ways, both offer an imagined world that functions like an extended version of our present.
In Cowboy Bebop we get a not-too-distant future in which human colonies have extended out into the rest of the solar system. Hyper-space gates allow rapid travel between planets and moons which are then “terra-formed” to accommodate the ecological needs of earth based animals. Highly controlled dome environments are scattered far and wide resembling metropolises, shanty-towns, “wild” landscapes yet to be developed, and the vast outer space in between them. There is somewhat of a projection of the wild west myth into the future in Bebop (as with Firefly) as there is suddenly uncharted space for outlaws, rouges, and bounty hunters (here called ’cowboys’) to explore. But beyond the caricature of the good old days of adventure, this setting brings along with it another more realistic element pervading life today and throughout much of history: a colonizing capitalism. A single currency called “woolong” is the only unit referred to in the whole show suggesting a uniformity in the system. The main characters are constantly hustling to find work or go hungry and a great disparity exists in the wealth of towns and individuals they meet.
There is rampant corruption and high crime that will be exposed throughout the show, albeit in a case-by-case, decentralized manner. War is seldom spoken of (there was only one mentioned: on a distant moon of Jupiter that was more of test site for biological weapons anyways), but the systemic violence comes straight from the top in the form of large mafia-syndicates, bureaucrats, and the solar police. The illegal yet hushed-up schemes are contrasted with portraits of individuals trying to escape their desperate situations and feeling the pressure of the police, bounty-hunters, and organized crime. In the pilot, we meet a couple trying to escape the drug and gang ridden asteroid slum “Tijuana” for the richer cities of Mars where “there are parks, festivals” and she believes “people are happy there”. The main protagonist Spike reminds her “sure, if your rich”, before he decides to chase after them for the bounty on her boyfriend’s head. These cases along with the high crime schemes make up the bulk of the sessions (episodes) in Cowboy Bebop and test the greed and sympathy of the main crew.
Our characters come from wealthy backgrounds and are highly skilled but have somehow lost their ties to past homes and must drift about to stay fed. They travel the solar system looking for bounties to collect rewards on all the while teetering on the edge of destitution. The lost sense of belonging is a running theme in the show along with the haunting shadow of one’s past. Our characters are constantly trying to either confront or distance themselves from their pasts all the while bickering with each other. This sense of homelessness and longing mirrors the human race in Bebop: a major catastrophe with the first hyper-space gate turned earth into sparsely inhabited desert planet under constant bombardment by meteorites. In an understated reversal hiding in the dialogue throughout the show, Earth is routinely referred to as a place for crazies and cast-offs. Having lost the home planet through its own hubris (detailed in one session where design flaws were ignored for the sake of profit), the human race drifts about a constellation of nation-less colonies: some vibrant and some cold and forgotten. The extremes of sophisticated urban design and unkept decay are depicted in series of transitional shots to the tune of moody music to make the surrounding environment a crucial feature of the story without dominating it. The Bebop crew, like humanity in this world, is torn by a disappointing lack of belonging and becomes a kind of highly functional yet hostile family.